The stats of the Crusaders and Highlanders make for ominous reading ahead of the Super Rugby playoffs, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Super Rugby conference stage has finally come to an end. The two best attacking sides on show, namely the Hurricanes and Lions, have finished first and second on the overall log.
This should not come as a surprise. Teams are rewarded for scoring three or more tries than their opponents in regular season matches. The Hurricanes and Lions obtained the most try-scoring bonus points (seven) over the course of the conference stage. This is what boosted them to the top of their respective groups and ensured that they finished high in the overall standings.
The Hurricanes and Lions have earned the right to host quarter-finals, semi-finals, and (in the case of the Hurricanes) a final. While home advantage will count for something over the next three weeks, it will not necessarily guarantee the team in question a victory.
Indeed, much can be read into the conference-stage stats of the respective qualifiers. If one is to look at the numbers and strategies employed by each of the eight teams, one is inclined to believe that the Crusaders and Highlanders have a recipe for playoff and title success.
Attack is important in the knockout stage, but ultimately secondary to defence and tactical kicking. The teams that have excelled in all three departments, of course, have good reason to feel the title is within their grasp. One also needs to remember that there is no reward (read bonus points) in the playoffs for try-scoring feats.
CRUSADERS THE ALL-ROUND THREAT
Of the eight qualifiers, the Crusaders fit the description of the all-round threat. It’s easy to talk them up as contenders based on their history as seven-time champions as well as the fact that their squad is stacked with All Blacks. And yet their 2016 stats deserve to be acknowledged as special and even a little intimidating.
The Crusaders rank in the top five teams across the major attacking categories (points, tries, try assists, metres, clean breaks, offloads and passes), according to SARugbymag.co.za’s Opta-powered stats. What is particularly impressive to note is that they do not rank among the top-five teams for carries.
This highlights their efficiency as an attacking unit. The Crusaders rack up more clean breaks, metres, and most importantly, tries than teams like the Hurricanes even though they carry the ball less (the Hurricanes are first for carries, while the Crusaders are 12th).
Much of the Crusaders’ success – more specifically, their attacking success – stems from their performance at the set pieces, on defence, and with the tactical boot. Both their attacking scrum and lineout are ranked fourth in the tournament.
The Crusaders are also one of the more efficient defensive units (only one team in the tournament has missed fewer tackles). Todd Blackadder’s side ranks among the top five teams for kicks from hand and kicks caught. This shows how much they prize territory, and how good they are at winning the ball in the air.
This bodes well for the playoff matches where defensive solidity and territorial dominance are paramount. While not as impressive as the Crusaders on attack, the Highlanders have also shown a desire to back their kicking and defence in 2016.
MASTERS OF THE KICK AND CHASE
In fact, the Highlanders rank first in the competition for kicks caught and kicks from hand. They back their halfbacks to kick accurately, if not for field position then for their outside backs to chase and regather in the air.
The Highlanders have made more tackles than any other team in 2016 (1,909). This strategy has not hampered their attack. Indeed, the Highlanders have been incredibly efficient. They rank fifth for clean breaks as well as sixth for tries and points despite ranking 14th for carries.
Both the Hurricanes and Lions can be a tactical force in the playoffs, provided they address the gaps in their game. Their attacking stats are impressive. Both favour a different strategy to that of the Crusaders, which is reflected in the high number of carries they have made to date (the Hurricanes rank first for carries while the Lions are fifth).
The Lions and Chiefs have something in common in that their respective defences are efficient rather than imposing (both teams rank at the lower end of the scale for tackles made and tackles missed). The Chiefs have been more efficient than the Hurricanes and Lions in the sense that they rank in the top five across attacking categories such as points, tries, breaks and metres despite ranking 13th for carries.
Two of these teams, however, appear to be missing the tactical-kicking component that often makes the difference in playoff matches. The Hurricanes rank sixth for kicks from hand, but the Chiefs (12th) and Lions (15th) clearly dislike putting boot to ball.
COASTAL TEAMS HAVE ATTACKING PROBLEM
Teams like the Sharks and Stormers have the opposite problem. The South African coastal teams have defended well over the course of the conference stage. The Sharks made the most turnovers and the second-most tackles, while the Stormers made the third-most tackles and boasted the third-best tackle success rate.
The Sharks and Stormers rank right behind the Highlanders for kicks from hand, although anybody who has watched the Highlanders this season will admit that the Kiwis are streets ahead in terms of their ability to win territory and the ball in the air.
Where the Sharks and Stormers have been wanting is in the attacking department. The Sharks rank 14th for points scored and 12th for clean breaks. The Stormers have been equally mediocre. They rank 11th for clean breaks and 12th for metres run.
However, both appear to be in a better tactical space than the Brumbies at present. Australia’s only representative in the playoffs boasts a crack lineout (third for lineout wins) and defence (fifth for turnovers won), but not much else.
The Brumbies have battled to penetrate defensive lines this season (10th for clean breaks) while their kicking and aerial game (ninth for kicks from hand and 13th for kicks caught) will not intimidate any of the other playoff qualifiers.
If the Crusaders and Highlanders stick to the game plans they’ve employed over the course of the conference stage, they will increase their chances of winning the title.
On the other hand, if teams such as the Hurricanes, Lions or Chiefs decide to alter their existing strategies to incorporate a strong kicking game that will complement and enhance their attack, they will be in with a shout.
Photo: Dianne Manson/Getty Images