Rugby’s boot-iful truth

The Highlanders delivered a timely tactical reminder on the eve of the all-important 2015 Test season, writes JON CARDINELLI.

So, have we learned anything new after what transpired in the Vodacom Super Rugby final? Perhaps. Perhaps the Hurricanes are not the all-round package they appeared to be for much of the Vodacom Super Rugby competition.

This past Saturday, the Hurricanes came second at the breakdown, second in the kick-from-hand stats, second on defence, and ultimately second on the scoreboard. Their game plan was a departure from what has become the accepted norm in finals.

By contrast, the Highlanders embraced this playing style for most of the season. They used their No 9, 10 and 15 to kick for territory. They endeavoured to win the battle in the air, and at the breakdown. They used turnover ball to great effect. They made their opportunities in front of goal count. And so, the narrative of pragmatism slaying romanticism was perpetuated.

Of course, this is the third chapter of the 2015 rugby story that's climaxed in such a manner. And with the World Cup looming, it’s unlikely to be the last.

We were told that Toulon were too old and stuck in their ways to keep pace with a brave Clermont team in the European Cup final. And yet, it was the physicality and experience of the Toulon pack, the game management of the halfbacks, and finally the goal-kicking of Leigh Halfpenny that powered the galacticos to their third successful title.

Then the romantics told us that Bath would run rings around a rigid Saracens outfit in the English Premiership decider. Again, superior power and tactical kicking proved more influential than all-out attack.

In the buildup to the Super Rugby final, some expected the Hurricanes to win by as many as 20 points. But when the Hurricanes proceeded to run from all areas of the field, they only played into the Highlanders’ hands. A 50% goal-kicking performance also contributed to the Hurricanes’ defeat, with Beauden Barrett leaving as many as eight points on the park.

The top Test coaches will know what’s required in the big World Cup matches that lay ahead. The major contenders will head into those play-offs with the necessary forward pack, kicking game, defence and goal-kicker.

That's not to say that attack won't matter at all. The Highlanders possess some exciting backs. Many of them are already Test stars, and Waisake Naholo finished the 2015 tournament with more tries than any other player (13).

What separated the Highlanders from most teams this season, and certainly the Hurricanes in the final, was the way in which they attacked. The Highlanders used their pack and kicking game to exert pressure on the opposition. Their aggressive defence proved a great source of turnover ball, and thus counter-attacking opportunities.

Nowadays, close to a third of all tries are scored from turnover ball. The smarter teams look to create these situations, either via a contestable kick or a breakdown turnover.

It’s a game plan many South African rugby fans will recognise. It's been implemented, often to perfection, by the All Blacks over the past four years. It's also been used by Heyneke Meyer’s Springboks, albeit not to such a successful degree.

The Boks have the blueprint to win the World Cup later this year. What is less certain, at least at this stage, is whether they have the personnel to outplay the All Blacks at a similar game.

Aaron Smith has been the world’s form scrumhalf for the past two years. In Ben Smith, the All Blacks will have a fullback who can hurt opposition teams with both his kicking and running game. There are others across the five New Zealand franchises that will enhance and complement an All Blacks game plan that places an emphasis of contestable kicks and breakdown turnovers.

Between now and the World Cup play-offs, the Boks will attempt to close the gap between themselves and the All Blacks. It's a tough ask considering South Africa’s best scrumhalf, Fourie du Preez, is injured and will play little to no part in the upcoming Rugby Championship.

The Boks have some good flyhalf options in Handré Pollard, Pat Lambie, and Morné Steyn, and yet Meyer will be hoping all three kick on in terms of their game management over the next two months. Willie le Roux, who like Ben Smith has the potential to kick as well as he runs, will also have plenty to prove.

Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli