Well, it’s here.
It’s been numerously, and even perhaps provocatively, referred to as the ‘day of reckoning’, the ‘beginning of the end’ for Australian teams, and even as the ‘start of the season proper’.
But however you want to describe this weekend’s Round 10, one point remains true.
Australia’s Super Rugby Pacific teams start facing New Zealand opposition from this Friday night.
A quirk of the draw means that all six Kiwi sides will be the home team in this weekend’s inaugural Super Round in Melbourne, and then with all of the Australian sides to play at home the following weekend in Round 11.
The Fijian Drua will play an historic first ever home game in Suva, too. I don’t really know why these quirks exist, but my hunch is that it might have been a contingency if the NZ sides had to remain in Australia for a period of time.
It’s not a huge deal, but it’s interesting, nonetheless.
Anyways… it was interesting to watch the NZ sides over the weekend with a view of what the Australian sides will be focusing on this week in the run up to the first crossover games of the year.
And there’s no doubt that there be a huge adjustment in order in some areas. But it’s been interesting to hear coaches from the eastern side of the ditch speaking of the different challenges the Australian sides will present to their sides, and even of the different style of rugby they see the Australian sides playing.
Clearly, the Kiwi coaches will be – and have been – doing just as much homework as their Australian counterparts.
So, here’s a few points I noted down over the weekend. It’s far from scientific, but it’s a starting point.
Keep the scoreboard ticking
Of the current top eight teams, only the Western Force in eighth have scored fewer than 200 points across eight games, and are also the only side with a negative points differential and with fewer than four wins.
Four NZ sides sit in those remaining seven teams, therefore, but the records of the Waratahs, Reds and Brumbies match up pretty well. The Brumbies and Blues have scored the most tries of the competition so far (33), while the Reds have the best defensive record, conceding just 140 points and 14 tries.
For the sake of finding a mark, the Crusaders’ 30 tries and 228 points sits in between the three Australian sides. They’re scoring 3.8 tries and about 28 points a game, and their 30 tries equate to one every 21 minutes or so.
So those three Australian sides are finding points at a similar clip, but interestingly, there have been more shots at penalty goal in Australia than in New Zealand. The Rebels’ 22 and the Waratahs’ 18 top the sheets, with the Blues and Highlanders both pointing to the posts 17 times. But the Force’s 16 and the Drua and Reds’ 15 aren’t that behind.
Keeping the scoreboard ticking over is going to be hugely important from here on, because the danger of not scoring against the Kiwi sides is that you can go backwards quick smart, especially if you’re not finding tries as quickly. Which brings me nicely into the next point.
But here’s one last interesting point about goal-kicking before we go there. The current top four teams – the Blues, Brumbies, Reds, and Crusaders in that order – are all in the bottom half of the competition for kicking accuracy.
Find more speed of service
The most noticeable thing watching the New Zealand sides this year has been that the speed of their recycled ruck ball has been way quicker, and it’s got quicker again in the last fortnight.
Now this is purely based on feel, and I’ve not sat there with a stopwatch timing every Kiwi scrumhalf. I know the teams speak in terms of speed of service, and ‘lightning fast ball’ is a term you’ve probably heard mentioned.
I’ve even seen stat sheets from the European competitions ranking ruck service into categories like 1-3 seconds, 3-6 seconds, and 6+ seconds, but sadly those measurements aren’t part of the public data sets in this part of the world.
So as wet-finger-in-the-air as this is, I’m confident it stands up: Australian scrumhalves, generally speaking, are standing over the ball at the back of the ruck a lot longer than their opposite numbers over the ditch. All the teams can play quickly when they want to, or when they need to. But overall, the speed of service here feels a lot slower.
And that’s not ideal.
The New Zealand sides are at their most dangerous when they’ve created chaos among the defensive lines, and that’s not done by standing there with a foot on the ball waiting for defenders to reset a metre away.
Australian nines (and 21s) just have to be quicker, and our teams need to be prepared to play faster in the faces of NZ defensive lines. There will be more scoring opportunities coming this way than pick-and-drives into a set line.
Kicking is not a bad thing
I don’t know whether this is a throwback to that mythical old beast, the Australian way of playing, but the fascination with holding onto the ball at all costs refuses to go away.
From the games on the weekend, the ‘kicks in play’ line on the stats sheets highlights this phenomenon.
The Crusaders kicked 28 times to the Blues’ 31 in Christchurch. The Chiefs and Moana Pasifika both kicked 24 times in Hamilton. The Highlanders kicked 34 times to the Hurricanes’ 28 in Dunedin. Against those numbers, the Rebels’ 27 kicks to the Reds’ 26 in Melbourne looks encouraging.
But it’s an outlier. The Force kicked just nine times at home to the Waratahs’ 15 times on Saturday night. The week before, the Force kicked 20 times to the Rebels’ 22. No-one would be surprised the Drua kicked only eight times in Brisbane, but the Brumbies only kicked it back to them 16 times themselves.
Back in Round 7, the Reds kicked 19 times and the Brumbies just 13 times.
There’s nothing wrong with playing down the other end of the field. Most of the rugby world at the professional level seems to understand this, but Australia holds on stubbornly believing possession is king.
Kicking a lot in games and playing in the opposition half does not stop the Blues, Crusaders, Chiefs and Hurricanes all averaging better than 3.8 tries a game. One day that penny will drop in Australia, too.
Pick your set piece battles
The five original NZ sides sit in the top seven for lineout success, with the Brumbies and Rebels in among them.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the way their maul has underpinned their attack the last few weeks, the Highlanders are nearly two per cent better than the second-ranked Chiefs in terms of lineouts won.
The Crusaders, Chiefs, Blues, and Hurricanes top the scrum success rates in that order, with the Reds and Drua in equal fourth.
It’s a matter of being smart of when you choose the scrum option and when you put the ball out. Pick your moments and especially the position on the field.
Though interestingly, going into last weekend, the best lineout thieves in the competition were Nick Frost, Izack Rodda, and Tim Anstee. It feels like defending teams are contesting more lineout this season, too.
There is no doubt the Australian teams are about to hit the hardest part of their season to date, but how hard it actually turns out to be is up to them.
The challenge is going to be unavoidable but not insurmountable, and the quickest way to prove the doomsayers and naysayers wrong will be with performances on the pitch.
It’s that simple.