Who would have thought it? The semi-finals of Super Rugby Pacific are going to be dominated by sides from the shaky isles, with three of the last four in the competition coming from New Zealand. That outcome illustrates both the best and the worst that the tournament – and, by implication, the Southern Hemisphere – has to offer.
Without the teak-tough presence of South African sides to keep the tournament honest, questions abound. Will Australia’s five-team format ever be competitive? Is the support level offered to fledgling franchises like Moana Pasifika adequate? Will it stop Levi Aumua and Miracle Fai’ilagi jumping away from Samoa, and into the All Blacks?
Kiwi rugby is just too dominant in the southern rugby-sphere to know its own boundaries, but the pattern of results is teaching Australian rugby only too painfully what the word ‘limitation’ really means. As it stands, Super Rugby Pacific is not an equal debate at all.
Australia doesn’t have the depth of talent to fund five full professional squads. On the field, five Australian teams cannot match the speed or intensity of their counterparts from across the Tasman consistently. Aussie players with Test-match potential don’t develop as quickly at home because they are under no pressure for their places.
Ex-Reds second row Lukhan Salakaia-Loto was simply the latest in a long line of Aussies abroad to offer a revealing insight into that knot of issues after spending his last season at the Northampton Saints in England:
“The last couple years at the Reds before I departed [for the UK in 2022], I was probably complacent, probably just going through the motions a bit.
“To be completely honest, I just knew I was going to get picked every week. That was the thing.
“When you get to that point, you don’t work as hard and you just take everything for granted.”
“I learned so much about myself, so much about my game, and where I was as a player, and how I’d spent probably the first part of my career [compared] to now.
“The move over to the UK was an eye-opener for me.
“I was in a new environment and I had to prove myself.
“It [challenged] that complacency that I had probably the last couple years [in Australia] – just knowing things were sort of going to go my way, whether I was a 50 or 60 per cent.”
There was one long sequence from the quarter-final between the Blues and the New South Wales Waratahs which neatly encapsulated the salient issues. From the 49th to the 53rd minutes of the game, the Aucklanders kept the ball for three minutes and 20 seconds and 17 phases while travelling the entire length of the field to score their fourth try:
The Blues had the ball and the Waratahs could not get it off them. The home side spent over 21 minutes of the total of 36 minutes of ball-in-play time in possession of the pill, making three times as many clean breaks as their opponents (nine busts to three) and winning twice as many penalties (12 awarded versus five conceded).
The only punctuation mark in the sequence was a penalty awarded against New South Wales No 6 Lachie Swinton at a lineout close to the Blues’ goal-line which started it all:
At the start of Dave Rennie’s tenure as Wallaby coach in 2020, Swinton was hailed as the saviour of the Australian forward pack, able to bring back a bit of ‘nasty’, and the enforcer values which had been missing since the days of Owen Finegan and more latterly, Scott Fardy:
That was the gloss on the portrait, but scratch the surface and a more prosaic undercoat was revealed: a lack of discipline which led to repeated cards, red and yellow.
In the Eden Park example, Swinton cannot resist temptation and delivers a gratuitous off-the-ball blow to his opposite number Akira Ioane. That means a penalty and a soft exit for the home team. The unvarnished truth is that Swinton’s disciplinary issues remain, and one of the primary reasons they linger is that the Waratahs cannot afford to be without him. His spot in the side, when fit, is all but guaranteed. He is in the comfort zone that Lukhan Salakaia-Loto described, and that cannot be good for Australian rugby.
The following lineout illustrated more stumbling blocks for Aussie development:
Last week’s article focused on the Waratahs’ tendency to give the opposition easy access to the width of the field. They were giving it to Moana Pasifika and they are still granting it to the Blues one week later, and they are doing it on the final try-scoring phase as well. The learnings are not happening quickly enough between matches.
At the end of the play, Michael Hooper is the first man to the tackle, but he is unable to hang on to Rieko Ioane in cover. Symbolically that raises another concern about whether Australia’s main man will make the World Cup as a starter. Hooper is no longer Superman, no longer covering a myriad of deficiencies around him; no longer making the impossible seem as easy now as it was a couple of seasons ago.
The longer stints of possession play for the Kiwi sides probably reflect the impact Joe Schmidt has enjoyed on his return to rugby in New Zealand, first with the Blues and as attack coach for the All Blacks. With Schmidt back in the coaching traps again, there is a new emphasis on knuckling down to tight, hard carrying close to the ruck, by forwards and backs alike:
Before Schmidt’s arrival on the national coaching scene, Akira Ioane might have stayed wide and waited for the ball to come to him. Now he chases it inside for the pick-and-go. The need to multiply the number of power carriers in traffic and the need for people who can make ground after contact may yet carry both Dalton Papalii and Mark Telea into the All Blacks starting XV at the World Cup ahead of their rivals.
Schmidt’s reliance on the accuracy of one-out carries has already begun to balance out the natural tendency among Kiwi Super Rugby teams to look for an automatic second pass on attack. The two recent matches between the Chiefs and the Reds showed how playing to the illusion of width can be the ultimate Super Rugby honey-trap:
This phase from the first regular season encounter features 20 metres of depth between the scrumhalf at the base and a second receiver starting behind the halfway line. The Chiefs make four passes across the width of the field only to finish in the same position as they were on the opposite side. The risk-reward balance is not quite right.
Phil Blake’s Queensland defence won the tactical battle against the Chiefs’ attack, conceding only four tries over two matches away from home:
Damian McKenzie made the second pass to a player outside him on all six phases that the attack lasted. By the second repetition moving right, Queensland centre Filipo Daugunu clearly scents what is going to happen ahead of time. He jams in to take Anton Lienert-Brown man-and-ball and the outcome is, inevitably, a Reds’ turnover.
The obsession with making the second pass and playing to width has created a generation of Kiwi first five-eighths who tend to turn their shoulders in the direction of the pass and offer the defence an early ‘tell’ where the ball is going.
Richie Mo’unga is the exception to that rule, and that is why he will be the All Blacks’ pivot at the World Cup in France, ahead of both Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie. Mo’unga always stays square to the defence and very rarely gives them that cue to make an early jump on the ball.
The inconvenient truth to emerge from SRP 2023 is that there is only one team in Australia who can compete consistently with the franchises from across the Tasman, and that is the Brumbies.
Nonetheless, the belief of the newly-installed CEO at Rugby Australia, Phil Waugh, “that we can be the best in the world across all formats, and that’s certainly what we’ll be aiming for” looks an awfully long way off. Like so many of RA’s bullish recent pronouncements – in an alternate universe, maybe.
New Zealand sits much closer to global rugby reality than Australia, but with their feet still clinging desperately to terra firma, the Kiwis must be worried at the lopsided nature of the premier provincial tournament south of the equator. Were it not for the intervention of Joe Schmidt on attack and Jason Ryan in the forwards, the Kiwis might be no closer than they were last July to knowing whether the formula they apply in Super Rugby work at international level.
The wise words of Lukhan Salakaia-Loto later in his interview deserve a much wider audience than just a minority of rugby supporters in Australia. Lukhan did not know just how good Courtney Lawes was until he got to know him at Northampton:
“He [Lawes] would be right up there in terms of top five players that I’ve been lucky enough to play alongside, and that’s such a crazy list.
“There’s a lot of stuff around my game that I sort of learned from him just being over there the last 12 months, and stuff that I want to add into my game.
“You come across once-in-a-lifetime, generational players and I think he’s another one. He’s sort of changed the way a 6 plays the modern game.”
Joe Public in the south might not see it that way, but a fit Courtney Lawes is good enough to walk into the starting line-up of either the Wallabies or the All Blacks right now. He is that good.
That leaves just one question for the World Cup to answer in October: can the reality of improved Northern Hemisphere club/provincial competitions loosen the south’s historical grip on the William Webb Ellis trophy? That is the teaser that makes 2023 the most intriguing World Cup year of all.