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Opinion

To catch SRP's ‘haves’, the Waratahs and Reds need to find their spine

17th April, 2023
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Expert
17th April, 2023
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After eight rounds of Super Rugby Pacific, there are clear parallels between the table and what we see out on the field. They’re observations that have been building over the last few weeks, but became truly apparent this weekend just gone.

Five teams – the Chiefs, ACT Brumbies, Hurricanes, Crusaders and Blues – have at least four wins.

Then there is a clear, six-point gap to the next group of four teams – the Queensland Reds, Highlanders, Fijian Drua, and NSW Waratahs – who are separated by just two points.

The Waratahs have one win fewer than the other three, but like the Blues find themselves attached to the group of teams immediately above them courtesy of a competition-leading five bonus-points.

The first group, the clear top five, all have strong for-and-against records, ranging from the Crusaders’ +69 to the Hurricanes +177. All have scored at least nine more tries than they’ve conceded. Or 17 more, in the Canes case.

The Tahs are the outlier among the bottom seven teams: their 20-point win over the Western Force on Saturday night pushed their differential back into the black for the first time in since Round 3. And that’s noteworthy because if they if they can find a couple of wins in the next three games – all of them against teams immediately above them – they can climb the ladder quickly.

Of those with negative differentials, they’re not insignificant margins. The Reds’ -21 is the best of this bad bunch. And with a bye, a couple of Australian derbies, and the Chiefs coming, making that red number black won’t be easy.

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On the field over the weekend was where the other part of this week’s theme came to light, however. Those top five teams – and I’m calling them the ‘haves’ for reasons that are about to become obvious – are the best-performed teams because they have the best-performing shape in attack.

Central to that shape is the prominence of the secondary playmaker from fullback pushing their attack on subsequent phases after their flyhalf makes the first inroads.

Shaun Stevenson and Damien McKenzie from the Chiefs are probably the form players in the competition, but the way the Brumbies, Crusaders and Blues attack all fit this same method. Stephen Perofeta and Beauden Barrett even trade places in games for the Blues.

Damian McKenzie of the Chiefs passes the ball

Damian McKenzie. (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

The Hurricanes are the asterisk in this group for the number of different players at 10 the horribly underrated Josh Moorby has supported from the back, though they make up for that with Jordie Barrett doing his fair share of creating stuff from inside centre.

The Rebels and Drua are worth mentioning too, because you can see what is building.

Melbourne have played primarily off Carter Gordon at 10 and he’s looked impressive doing it. Lachie Anderson has been growing into the fullback role in recent weeks, and Andrew Kellaway’s spark from the back has been noticeable since his return from injury, too.

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The Drua have used at least three different players at 10 this season as well, but the injection of international fullback Kitione Taliga on Friday night was a major reason they gave the Brumbies as big a headache as they did. If he and Teti Tela start connecting, they’ll be a completely different team in attack.

Central among the ‘have nots’, therefore, are NSW and Queensland.

I’m not quite in full agreement with my television colleagues who raved about the Waratahs’ “connection across the backline” on Saturday night, but it was certainly the best and maybe even the most connected they’ve looked in attack in more than a few weeks.

But that connection is not between 10 and 15. It’s not really even between 10 and 12. Instead, and almost despite all attack trends this year going back to playing from first receiver, the Tahs continue to play mostly off Jake Gordon at 9, and then from whatever young Max Jorgensen can spark with his free licence to run from the back.

Their support game is good and did work well on Saturday night, but it doesn’t exactly scream ‘repeatable pattern’.

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Similarly, the Reds aren’t quite sure whether they want to attack from Tate McDermott at 9 or Jordan Petaia roving infield off the right wing. Lawson Creighton is playing the same distribution game at flyhalf that Tom Lynagh played in the opening rounds, and James O’Connor wasn’t quite able to find the same spark at 12 as he has done in recent weeks coming on to finish games at 10.

Further to this, Jock Campbell has been unusually quiet this season, and plays more of a running fullback game anyway (Tom Banks immediately comes to mind) as opposed to the aforementioned secondary playmaker.

Petaia is starting to play that secondary role though, which only strengthens the argument of those suggesting fullback is the position from where he can be a more naturally dangerous player.

Jordan Petaia of the Reds scores a try

Jordan Petaia (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

And maybe he can. But like Jorgensen, unless he can find that currently missing connection with the frontline attack, then both the Reds and Waratahs are going to continue their existence further down the ladder than expectation and their own goal-setting would have them.

This attacking spine has been the difference between the top teams and those following this season, and you see the success in this for the top teams in their tallies and in their attacking shape.

And the better these teams go in attack, the more confident their defence seems to look as well. ‘We’re happy to attack you because we’re also not letting you in’ seems to be their mantra.

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It will be fascinating not just to see how this evolution plays out for the top teams, but to see which of the ‘have nots’ can find the connection in attack they’ve not shown much of over the first eight rounds.

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