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The aggressive Hurricanes defence needs a stronger foundation

By Ben Smith
(Photos by John Cowpland / www.photosport.nz and Joe Allison/Getty Images)

The Hurricanes came up with mixed results on defence against the Chiefs as they came out looking to take the intensity up a notch with fierce line speed. Although their aggressive intent was admirable, issues around the tight five of the interior defence became apparent.

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Their aggressive defensive scheme looked good in patches, but, at other times, it fell apart all too easily as Hurricanes players made bad reads, lacked urgency or just failed to dominate the collision.

This style of defence, an aggressive line speed that takes away time for the ball carrier, has to be disciplined. When one player doesn’t do his job, holes open up.

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That happens all too frequently with the Hurricanes, who try to engage in two-man tackles against the primary ball carrier.

In the defensive set moments before Perenara’s opening intercept try, prop Pouri Rakete-Stones and flanker Reed Prinsep pressed well off the line to take down Chiefs lock Laghlan McWhannell in a two-man tackle, illustrating what the Hurricanes like to do to opposition pods off 9.

This was good execution from the Hurricanes’ pack to force the Chiefs into a gain line loss.

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Rakete-Stones and lock James Blackwell executed the two-man hit again in another good example below.

However, when the attacking side adds some variation, such as utilising a tip pass inside or out, this two-man tackle can become unreliable, allowing the attacking side to punch through and make good gain line either side of the two tacklers.

The Chiefs were able to exploit this on multiple occasions, such as below when lock Scott Scrafton and prop Tyrel Lomax tried to pressure the middle forward, with both players going for Chiefs captain Sam Cane.

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In doing so, they left space available in the inside lane for Chiefs flanker Kaylum Boshier to punch through on the inside pass.

Rakete-Stones, acting as the inside cover defender, wasn’t up to it and was brushed off as the Chiefs got to the second line of defence and fractured the defensive line to create good momentum and front-foot ball.

Following on from that, the Chiefs used the tip pass to the outside, exposing Lomax coming outside-in for the two-man hit.

The pressure was on the next man, Scrafton, to cover the tip runner, and he did so with a low chop tackle, but the Hurricanes were lucky to escape from here as the offload was available with a huge running lane open.

The Chiefs turned the ball over, but, again, the attempted two-man tackle gave the Chiefs a decent chance to turn the tables on the interior rush defence.

When going after the two-man dominant hit, the onus has to be on the players inside and out to cover the tip passes more effectively. That means being switched on and pushing up in anticipation, which was lacking at times with this tight five.

There were also other miscommunications around the ruck when facing different formations.

After Josh Ioane had already cut open the Hurricanes in a wider channel earlier in the same sequence of play, the Chiefs first-five was at first receiver with the three-man pod to the outside, as can be seen in the example below.

Lomax drifted towards the forwards, leaving Ioane for the inside cover defender, Blackwell, who wasn’t able to stop the opposition playmaker despite slowing him down.

The lack of focus and communication around these channels from the Hurricanes’ tight five let the defence down at times.

When they do their job, they can produce dominant defence. Below, Scrafton provided pressure with quick line speed, but the rest of the defence stayed connected and pushed up and out, including the inside cover defenders, Lomax and Blackwell.

Ioane had nowhere to go and Lomax ate him up, forcing a hefty loss of metres. However, the Hurricanes do not produce this level of execution enough on a consistent basis. This is the level they must aim to achieve more frequently.

Their defence fell apart from the beginning of the second half, letting the Chiefs get back on top almost immediately after half-time.

In the first phase after a kick return from the Chiefs, sweeper TJ Perenara can be seen in the example below plugging a missing gap in the front line on the left side.

Perenara had to defend as he was in the defensive line, but instead he bailed as the ball was delivered and then shied away from contact, allowing Chiefs midfielder Quinn Tupaea to cut across the grain into the Hurricanes’ tight five.

Lomax slipped off his tackle, Blackwell went low with another weak attempt and the ball was able to be kept alive.

It was incredibly soft defence just four minutes into the second half that enabled the Chiefs to spark a 30-metre passage up the middle of the park from a situation that they should have been forced to kick their way out of.

Further down the park in the same sequence of play, Perenara came into the defensive line again but was hesitant to produce the line speed that paved the way for his intercept try earlier in the match. He was brushed aside by Emoni Narawa.

The next 20 minutes for the Hurricanes were awful as their discipline fell away, conceding six straight penalties. What was a 15-13 half-time lead quickly became a 30-15 deficit under the weight of pressure.

There were times where they won the gain line back, only to tire out and eventually break or give away a penalty. It was a Jekyll & Hyde act where they would go from a position of dominance, blunting the Chiefs’ phase backward, to conceding a try the phase after.

One area of improvement needed for the Hurricanes’ highly-aggressive defence is to run better angles while defending screen plays. As seen below, they are too slow to get past block runners during screen passes.

To build a defence that forces a big loss of metres, they have to be quicker at abandoning the short runner to pursue the guy out the back once the ball is gone.

In the example below, Ioane made light work of Hurricanes hooker Asafo Aumua, who was covering the short option for too long after the pass had been made.

Similarly, captain Ardie Savea and midfielder Billy Proctor were guilty of defensive misreads during screens plays out on the edge in the lead-up to tries scored by Chiefs duo Boshier and Chase Tiatia.

In either case, the ball was telegraphed to hit the back door option long before either Hurricane made contact with the first runner. Both were disconnected from the next defender, Julian Savea.

There were other positive aspects from the Hurricanes aggressive defensive which pointed to signs that this could be an effective point of difference for them.

The edge defence was asked to play high and force the ball over the top, which they did numerous times. At other times, the wings and centres timed their hits well and closed the Chiefs play before it made it wider.

But in order to cement themselves as a top Super Rugby team, the Hurricanes have to get stronger in the interior channels to start with. Getting sliced up the middle is a non-negotiable that cannot happen. If they are soft up the middle, there is no need to go wide.

When teams do go wide, they cannot waltz through by running a simple screen that draws poor reads so easily. All of these defensive improvements come down to better discipline and application within the defensive plan for the Hurricanes who are now 2-3 on the season.

The season is not lost yet, there is just a lot of work to do to build the foundation on defence to be a real contender.

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