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There aren't really dominant defences in New Zealand's Super Rugby teams

By Ben Smith
(Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

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There aren’t really any dominant defences in New Zealand’s Super Rugby Pacific teams.

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They are not dominant in the traditional sense that they pound the opposition backward from a set piece and force the opposition back 20 metres before they have to raise the white flag and kick.

Many of the Kiwi Super Rugby Pacific teams can repel an attack and hold their ground, but rarely do they regularly force a team to concede via kick after driving them back.

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The Crusaders and Chiefs, two of the form teams in the competition, put out a high-quality, fast-paced contest in Hamilton, but both teams were able to roll over one another in attack.

The defences in New Zealand, for whatever reason, are built to bend with the aim of not breaking. They make a ton of tackles with a high completion rate, trying to absorb pressure and then try to the turn ball over after giving up a lot of ground. As such, it is generally always a pretty game to watch.

There are players in both packs who can be physical, but as an overall unit, no side in New Zealand has shown they can blunt an attack dead consistently and put them in reverse.

The opening try to Cullen Grace less than 10 minutes into the contest illustrates just how passive New Zealand’s defences can be at times, and why a skilled 12 like David Havili can do things in Super Rugby he cannot get away with at test level.

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From the above lineout, Codie Taylor linked with Havili for a midfield crash, and the Crusaders second-five’s first move was to veer sideways away from Chiefs openside Sam Cane and into the path of Bryn Gatland and Quinn Tupaea.

Havili can get away with this kind of unconventional line running against Bryn Gatland and Quinn Tupaea, a 10-12 combination on the smaller size, in order to get front-foot ball for the Crusaders.

You can not do this against an elite test side, however. Havili would be blindsided by a more physical 12 and rag-dolled against a top test side for this, like he was against the Springboks last year.

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Chiefs second-five Quinn Tupaea was nowhere near his first-five Gatland in the line, standing back on his heels, allowing Havili to manufacture some momentum by getting to the outside shoulder of Gatland and landing on his stomach in the low tackle.

Tupaea was then stuck in no man’s land and, as a result, was cleared out of the way by George Bridge, which left the Chiefs down a defender for the next phase. It wasn’t effective execution from the young Chiefs midfielder.

Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall then got fast ball and found Scott Barrett steaming around the corner for another positive gain line run on the next phase, taking play inside the five-metre line.

The Chiefs forwards are trying to round the corner and fan out, leaving them standing still and bracing for the contact.

Barrett was able to get a one-on-one matchup against Chiefs No 8 Samipeni Finau, who on this occasion was discarded fairly easily, while Chiefs prop Sione Mafileo lazily overran the Crusaders lock.

The Chiefs’ defence was reeling after two phases, and all it took was one more carry by Cullen Grace to score.

The Crusaders bent the Chiefs’ line back until they ran out of space to defend. This is largely the story of Super Rugby Pacific defence by New Zealand sides – they aren’t able to hold their ground and force an opposition back regularly.

The Chiefs were able to do the same thing against the Crusaders throughout the match, and that was generally only undone by turnovers or errors of their own once downfield.

The Highlanders, who have had issues getting their attack going in 2021, were able to get going against the Blues and built good tries through well-worked set-piece launches.

Their second try to Daniel Lienert-Brown came on the third phase from a midfield scrum. A strong carry off the back by No 8 Gareth Evans at Stephen Perofeta chewed plenty of metres, followed by another snipe by Aaron Smith around the base.

By the time of the third phase, the Highlanders had already netted 15 metres of positive gain line. A quick release and a nice pass from Mitch Hunt put Lienert-Brown into a gap and he galloped over almost untouched.

It must be stressed that these passive defences are likely by design, coaches asking for a target number for completion rate and dominant hits. To get a 90-95 percent completion rate, dominant hits must be lower as a result, around the 5 percent range or lower.

The question must be asked if this is making life too easy, though. New Zealand’s best attacking stars, the top All Blacks, have it easier in Super Rugby Pacific compared to the elite clubs in Europe, who dish out punishment and pursue aggressive defensive schemes.

There aren’t any punishing defences to really disrupt in New Zealand, with all of them skewed towards soaking up pressure and conceding ground.

Generationally, the sea change has brought forward young players who are still developing.

The Crusaders’ back row of Ethan Blackadder, Tom Christie and Cullen Grace all complete tackles very well and get through high work rates, but they aren’t going to leave anyone stinging they way Kieran Read or Jordan Taufua did.

Does anyone fear running at the Crusaders’ back row?

Looking across the five Kiwi franchises, excluding Moana Pasifika for the moment, the 10-12 pairings are Richie Mo’unga and David Havili at the Crusaders, Bryn Gatland and Quinn Tupaea at the Chiefs, Mitch Hunt and Scott Gregory at the Highlanders, and the Hurricanes played Aidan Morgan and Tei Walden against Moana Pasifika.

All are lacking size at 10 (despite having fantastic attacking abilities), and even in some cases at 12, with the Blues have the biggest 10 in Beauden Barrett, who offers the most test-calibre defence to shore up that channel.

The rest of these inside halves pairings are easy targets for an attacking launch, looking to find some early-phase momentum. These players can tackle, but it will always be passive and the first-up runner will never get put on their backside.

The one team that could change that is Moana Pasifika, who in the second half against the Blues on Tuesday turned up with fire and intent and really put them under pressure. Both teams fielded young sides, but Moana Pasifika had 14 debutants.

Given they had only put a team together months before the competition, what we have seen from them over the last two games has to be praised.

There were aspects of their defence that looked to impose themselves on the Blues and actually take the game to the side with the ball.

Second-five Solomone Kata made a great defensive read on Perofeta, putting him on his backside. After flooding the ruck with numbers, Moana Pasifika generated a great turnover through aggressive defence.

The aforementioned 12s around the Kiwi Super Rugby teams last weekend all lack the power, physicality and size of Kata, the Tongan international.

There is a real point of difference that players like Kata can bring to Moana Pasifika’s on-field identity, and that is to build the most aggressive defence in New Zealand over time.

Doing so would improve the quality of Super Rugby Pacific and better prepare New Zealand’s players for test rugby against the best defences. Moana Pasifika’s defence is by no means there yet, but could get there as they develop if they pursued a different defensive strategy to the rest of the teams in the country.

The Covid outbreaks through the teams aren’t helping preparations, but the passive defence that has been on show is a continuation of a trend that was seen throughout Super Rugby Aotearoa over the last couple of years.

It is highly likely to launch a set piece attack and make 20-30 metres upfield in Super Rugby Pacific in New Zealand with little resistance.

When the All Blacks were faced with an imposing physical defence from South Africa, Ireland and France last year, they were like deer in the headlights. They weren’t used to getting clobbered, held up, driven sideways and manhandled after two years of sugar-coated defence at home.

Even against Argentina the year beforehand, when the first two phases actually netted a loss of metres, they were flummoxed.

It put everything under the spotlight, something that Super Rugby – in its various forms – hasn’t done for a while.

Some tougher defences that aren’t willing to bend, and actually want to win back ground while not in possession, could change that and it would be great to see Moana Pasifika develop one.

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