It seems like last year an endless supply of cross-field kicks fuelled the Hurricanes attack, led by Beauden Barrett.
Rainbow after rainbow sailed through the air to the likes of Laumape, Savea, Jane and younger brother Jordie on the flanks, much to the embarrassment of the opposition.
This year the kick-pass has been shelved for the most part by Barrett, tucked away back in the bag of tricks.
It seems strange that something so successful would almost disappear so quickly. Was it just a short-term gimic? Have edge defences patched up their shortcomings? Will we ever see it again in such frequency as 2017?
To find the answer, we explored what made the kick-pass so successful in the first place looking back at the scenarios it was deployed in.
In phase play, the most effective kicks came from ‘hot ball’ – either a quick turnover in attacking position or a decent break down the field. In both of these situations, a back-peddling defensive line offered an invitation to attack wide. With a scrambling defence, Barrett could use his precise boot to drop a dime over the top if space on the edge offered.
In transition plays, the opposition back three can find themselves operating a man down, making it hard to operate the pendulum between the wingers and fullback.
There is no better example of this than against the Stormers, where he pulls the strings expertly on Dillyn Leyds. Entrenched in a kicking battle, Barrett identifies space in behind and opts to chip on the counter.
The dink finds the open space and draws Leyds (11) off his wing to clean up the loose ball.
Leyds tries to return serve downfield but is charged down by Brad Shields. The Hurricanes re-gather the loose ball and create a high-pressure transition phase for the Stormers.
We can see the space developing in behind as the Stormers struggle to retreat after the error. The quick turnover sets the platform for the kick-pass, and Leyds is caught out of position.
Leyds frantically sprints back to cover the space but the Hurricanes recycle is too fast. The call has been made and Barrett puts the ball on the money in the exposed edge channel, hitting Cory Jane on the chest for five points.
Turning the ball over to the Hurricanes in your own half was an invitation for disaster, and one of the ways Barrett utilised his cross-field kicks to great effect.
Another phase play scenario was from opposition exit kicks. Having the opposition deep in their own territory is a good starting point. If the clearance failed to find touch, the Hurricanes had possession in striking range.
This situation is one the Hurricanes carefully plan to deliberately get ex-NRL winger Ngani Laumape onto the edge. We can see Laumape turn his back on the exit kick and make a beeline for the opposite touchline when retreating, setting himself up for a few phases later.
If space is available or he sights the winger up in the line, Laumape can make the call for the cross kick.
The Hurricanes also used the wipers option from set-piece for a one-on-one aerial contest, positioning the winger right on the touchline to get an isolated matchup. This was more of a calculated gamble, using a big man like Savea in the air against another winger.
This year they have focused more on using scrums with TJ Perenara as a playmaker, keeping ball in hand and utilising the strength of Laumape as a runner and the finishing touch of Ben Lam on the edge, rarely bringing out a cross-kick from set-piece.
So why have we seen reduced usage in phase play?
A lot has to do with the emergence of Ben Lam as a force on the wing, who has been given a lot of ball through the hands even though the kick-pass could be on. The Hurricanes haven’t used Lam in the air as much as they did with Savea on the left wing.
The absence of Cory Jane also has taken away a good jumping option on the right side, and perhaps it’s a communication problem – the calls may not be coming in without the experience of Jane.
The space has still been there, but the Hurricanes have just done other things.
Jordie Barrett (15) calls for the cross-field kick at the bottom of the screen but Beauden shapes to pass.
A lot of it has to do with Barrett looking to play more with a wide passing game. He has tried to use the long pass more but it hasn’t been as effective, often hitting the winger stagnant with the delivery behind the player.
When the Hurricanes enter the opposite half through their own possession, they have stayed true to using the 1-3-3-1 pattern to attack from, using Laumape as a backdoor release option in a receiver role.
The movement usually entails running multiple forwards around the corner to the opposite touchline from the lineout and then playing back through the pattern using the backdoor release options to keep one phase moving. This has expanded Laumape’s role a bit more and sees him tied up in the middle.
The quick ball scenarios off turnovers and long breaks haven’t been there this year – the opposition hasn’t been coughing up possession under pressure in their own half and the Hurricanes haven’t made massive inroads from their own half. Holding possession for long phases has been an issue. A chance to use the kick-pass might be developing but the ball is turned over too soon.
Heading into a do-or-die clash against the Chiefs, Beauden Barrett shouldn’t be afraid to pull out the kick-pass that was so effective in 2017. His wide passing hasn’t been clinical this year and he can exploit the space by using an old trick.
There is no better player in the game at doing it, and now could be just be the right time to bring it back.
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