Auckland is winning the crucial breakdown tussle and that has gone a long way towards a 9-1 record in the Mitre 10 Cup.
While the bare stats show the province has won 94 percent of its own ruck ball and has made 88 percent of its tackles – that is comparable to a number of other Premiership sides – you have to watch the tape closely to see how Auckland’s commitment to clean and fast ball at the collisions areas gives them that crucial extra space either out wide or close to the ruck.
Just two years ago New Zealand Rugby experimented with the breakdown laws for the Mitre 10 Cup. What transpired was a shemozzle, as players ended up kicking the ball through the ruck as they were not permitted to contest in time-honoured fashion. Akira Ioane wore the No 7 jersey through much of that season as there was no need for a fetcher. Thankfully common sense prevailed.
Now Auckland has found an effective loose forwards mix, even allowing for Blake Gibson’s absence. Ioane is strong as an ox in the mauls and wins turnovers, Dalton Papalii is a tackling machine who rarely misses but has added the softer touches to his name that have propelled him into the All Blacks. Evan Olmstead has filled the Steven Luatua-type role at lock and No 6, winning lineout ball, shifting bodies and galloping around the track offering full value both with and without the ball. He is thriving on forwards coach Filo Tiatia’s coaching and breakdown philosophy.
“The stuff that Filo is preaching is nothing new. There’s nothing new under the sun in rugby, but his emphasis and the way we practise is really good. I enjoy the breakdown and love trying to get a steal every now and then,” says the Canadian, who has surely played his way into a Super Rugby contract. He certainly has made more of an impact than the last Canadian to play for Auckland, flanker Adam Kleeberger in 2009.
Work rate and work ethic are key planks of the breakdown, as much as technique and physicality.
“We work a lot on the adjustor. That’s a big area that Ted (Sir Graham Henry) talked about as well, that helper in the tackle and making a positive impact afterwards, whether it’s to go for the ball or take the space. The first guy makes the initial tackle and the second guy makes sure it’s a dominant one,” Olmstead says.
“A lot of it is technique, but also the mindset to want to put your head in dark places. It might hurt a little bit, but if you hit someone hard enough, they are going to move anyway.”
That and, of course, playing to the limit of what the referee will allow you to get away with.
Tiatia has done sterling work with this Auckland pack in 2018 but, in fairness, much of the forwards effort in the annus horribilis of 2017 was not far off the pace. Certainly the Auckland scrum is now a force to be reckoned with, and invariably the side wins the breakdown battle.
But one cannot study the breakdown in isolation.
“The breakdown leads into attack, so it’s not just up to one coach. We’re all defensive and attack coaches,” says Tiatia, who can see the bigger picture along with Henry, who oversees the Auckland defence.
“The simplest thing is to look after the ball, go forward and get to the ball carrier quickly. If you do that, there’s no fight. If you get there slowly, it’ll be a scrap. Hopefully we don’t need to clear bodies because we’re going forward. The guys have down well to date and turned ball over.”
There was a lot of pre-season emphasis on the breakdown and it has paid off. It is no longer just the preserve of the forwards. Halfback Jonathan Ruru has proven adept at shifting bodies at the ruck, while midfielders TJ Faiane and Tumua Manu are also strong in the collisions.
“Akira has worked hard around some of the things the All Blacks want him to do. I thought he was unlucky not to make the All Blacks,” says Tiatia.
Communication is vital, just as one player calls the lineouts and the back moves. Tiatia says everything is linked to voice. His Super Rugby players can swiftly sum up what is happening in the rucks and mauls, while those coming up from club level have learned fast.
So to the Wellington Lions, who are the last obstacle for Auckland to host its first NPC final since 2007. Even without Vaea Fifita, the Lions present a physical challenge that was seen in the opening stanza of their October 4 clash. Tiatia expects nothing less than a ding-dong scrap.
His charges will be ready for the breakdown battle on Saturday evening. Win that, and it goes a long way towards winning the war.
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