The Sharks’ tactical triumph over the Hurricanes should serve as a lesson for every South African team with title aspirations, writes JON CARDINELLI.
New Zealand rugby continues to get it right. This may seem obvious when one reflects on the results in the 2016 Super Rugby tournament as well as the Australasian group log standings. Four New Zealand franchises are among the top five teams.
Going by log points alone, the Crusaders, Chiefs, Highlanders and Hurricanes have been the best teams from Australasia. The Brumbies hold second position, but only thanks to their status as Australian conference leaders. In terms of log points, the Brumbies are sixth behind the Hurricanes, New Zealand’s fourth-best team.
The subjective view is that the Kiwis play a beautiful and innovative brand of rugby. The objective view is that they do the basics brilliantly, and that much of their success is rooted in a superior appreciation of the modern laws and trends.
The Crusaders have been New Zealand’s most consistent team in 2016. They’ve won eight of their nine matches to date, and have shown no signs of slowing down.
The Crusaders have struck a good balance between attack and defence, as the numbers confirm. Only the Highlanders have claimed more try-scoring bonus points this season (five). The Crusaders and Chiefs are joint-second in this category with four.
According to SARugbymag.co.za’s Opta-powered stats, the Crusaders have been the second-most effective defensive unit with a tackle success rate of 88.1%. They boast a points difference of 130, which is 26 more than the next best side (the Chiefs).
The Chiefs, Highlanders and Hurricanes have been less consistent in their approach, and this has reflected in their results. These teams have been punished on the occasions where they’ve looked to run everything at the opposition. When they have stuck to a strategy that uses defence and the tactical boot as offensive weapons, they have prospered.
The Highlanders outplayed the Chiefs in Hamilton in round 11. The Chiefs went into that match as favourites, as many felt that their attack would be too strong for the Highlanders. And yet, thanks to the Highlanders’ proficiency at the breakdown, the accuracy of their kicking game, and their ability to win possession in the air, the visitors outscored the Chiefs by three tries to two. The Highlanders made 44 more tackles than the Chiefs and as many as 32 kicks in play. They went on to win the game by 13 points.
Earlier this season, the Crusaders and the Hurricanes beat South Africa’s best team, the Lions, via a superior breakdown performance. Most remarked on the thrilling running rugby on display, but that was the product of the forwards’ ability to force turnovers and then run at a compromised defence. The Kiwis understood that, under the current laws, defence is the best form of attack.
The Sharks were South Africa’s best side in 2014 when they embraced their kicking and defensive strengths. A year later, it was decided that a game plan based on these strengths was too boring. They endeavoured to play more attacking rugby while neglecting their defence, and finished the league stage in 11th place.
This season, the Sharks have been allowed to revisit those strengths, and it has brought them some success. The Sharks defence has been the best in the tournament in that it has conceded the fewest tries (17).
The Sharks have succeeded in forcing the most turnovers in 2016. If their counter-attack and finishing had been sharper in the earlier stages of the 2016 tournament, they may have won more matches. They may have been ranked higher than second in the Africa 2 conference and fourth in the South African group after 11 rounds.
Last Saturday's match at Kings Park witnessed the Sharks striking a better balance in their approach. They dominated the collisions and breakdowns, and used turnover ball to good effect. On that occasion, their finishing was good enough and they scored four tries. The Hurricanes, who had scored seven the previous week, were limited to two.
The Lions have prospered this season when they’ve employed such a strategy. The Bulls beat the Force two weeks ago when they endeavoured to win the breakdown contest and then counter-attack against a fractured defence. The Stormers were similarly impressive in their tactical demolition of the Brumbies earlier in the season.
The quality of the tactical kicking and contesting in the air, however, has left a lot to be desired. There needs to be an improvement in this department if the South Africans are to progress in the 2016 playoffs and challenge the All Blacks in the subsequent Rugby Championship.
The Crusaders have excelled in this area, as have the Highlanders. The accuracy of Aaron Smith’s kicking has put opposition teams under pressure, while Ben Smith’s chasing and competing for the high ball has often resulted in his side regaining possession and then making telling inroads into the defence. Both were influential in the Highlanders' recent win against the Chiefs.
While the Sharks have room for improvement, they are on the right track. Meanwhile, the Lions and Stormers need to learn from their recent tactical failings, and revisit a strategy that will boost their chances in the playoffs.
Ultimately, with all of South Africa’s best teams persisting with a pragmatic game plan, the Boks will pose a greater threat to the Wallabies and All Blacks later this year.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images