The encounter between the Crusaders and the Blues has become one of the showcase derbies of the professional game, north or south of the equator. North Island versus South Island, Auckland versus Christchurch, Red slugging it out against Blue. It has become one of the El Clásicos of the sport, one of the wonders of the modern rugby world.
It is also an opportunity to measure the standard of performance of individuals with claims to the same shirt for the All Blacks: Richie Mo’unga against Beauden Barrett at number 10, Sevu Reece and Leicester Fainga’anuku versus Mark Telea and Caleb Clarke on the wings, Fergus Burke against Stephen Perofeta at fullback. And that is just in the back-line.
At the start of the season, the game also promised to give some clues how David Havili and Jack Goddhues would measure up against Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Rieko Ioane in midfield. In the event, both Havili and Goodhue were ruled out through injury, and it became a contest between six-foot-two-inch, 100-kilogram youngster Dallas McLeod and the mercurial ex-Leaguer at second five-eighth.
Much hope has been invested in the quicksilver hands, fast-twitch feet and intuitive rugby brain of RTS, but it is fair to say that it has yet to blossom fully within the structures of rugby union. The heat of expectation wants it to work, but the cold facts remain stubbornly resistant to his convergence on the All Blacks’ number 12 jersey.
As the England World Cup-winning coach Phil Larder always used to say, the spectator’s eye tends to follow the ball and take in the impressions around it. More weight is therefore naturally attached to the eye-catching work in attack. Defence, and work done off the ball only becomes more obvious when the analytical process is underway, after a few rewinds.
This conundrum has chased Roger Tuivasa-Sheck through the woods and across the plains throughout his time in union, but events at Eden Park in round three of the Super Rugby Pacific season allowed for an unusually clear evaluation to be made.
Before we get to the game itself, let’s take a breath and give a quick recap of the ‘state of the nation’ in the current battle for the All Blacks’ number 12 jersey. In 2022, the Hurricanes’ Jordie Barrett was the only player to make a solid claim on the shirt at national level.
After four rounds of SRP 2023, the raw stats for the provincial contenders looked like this:
The stats are pretty clear. Jordie Barrett and Thomas Umaga-Jensen are the two most physical, day-long workhorses. They will stay on the field and carry until the sun goes down, with Jordie having a better balance between the run, pass and kick.
Dallas McLeod is probably the best young number 12 prospect in the country, while both David Havili and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck have an unbalanced look to their game. Havili makes a good impression as the secondary kicker outside first five-eighth and the eye is drawn to Tuivasa-Sheck’s great break/offload-to-carry ratio. But the tackle completion rate of both players is a hard fact to shift, or rationalize away, and the Blues man lacks the auxiliary kicking game that both coaches and the top number 10s appreciate.
The concerns about Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s defence came into focus against the Crusaders because they were impossible to ignore. Two missed tackles made the highlight reel because they resulted directly in scores for the red-and-blacks, and RTS ended his day with an unpleasant stat: he missed five tackles out of nine attempted, which offset the three breaks or busts he made with the ball in hand.
One of the main frames of reference is ‘how much improvement has been made?’ Just over 12 months ago, I asked whether Roger Tuiavasa-Sheck had the makings of a Test midfielder. It contained some clear examples of the problems RTS experienced when he clamped high in contact:
The Auckland man goes for a high grab on Julian Savea but the ex-All Black breaks away for more yardage after first contact and it is left to others to put the big man away.
The updated version looked like this against the Crusaders:
RTS cannot take Leicester Fainga’anuku straight ahead, one-on-one and is simply bounced off in the collision.
One of the unfortunate highlight moments occurred when RTS jumped out to make a ‘spot’ tackle on Dallas McLeod and missed, leading directly to a try by the Crusaders in the left corner:
Tiuvasa-Sheck has plenty of time to get his angle right but McLeod spins out of the challenge and that enables the red-and-black attack to get to the edge of the field:
The rule of thumb in these situations is that the spot tackler comes from the blindside of the receiver and maintains outside-in leverage. On no account can they afford to give up the outside and allow the receiver to get the pass away:
Tuivasa-Sheck’s line into McLeod is far too narrow and gives enough room for the young Crusader to evade the challenge in the direction which will be most damaging for the defence.
Sir John Kirwan adopted a sympathetic tone in his comments on Sky Sports NZ’s The Breakdown afterwards:
“I think, in rugby league, it’s not very often you jump out of line and that’s something that Roger needs to learn.
“He jumped out of line defensively before and didn’t make the tackle, but that’s one of his learnings.”
The other highlight reel moment occurred when Tuivasa-Sheck looked to cover his nemesis on the day, Leicester Fainga’anuku, one-on-one after a crosskick from the boot of Richie Mo’unga:
Kirwan’s comments were again conciliatory:
“When he missed the tackle on Leicester, that was just a difficult situation. I think he’s getting better, he’ll continue to learn.
“Is he running out of time? He needs to continue to show the form and keep growing.
“I saw him on the bench last night, and I wanted to go out and give him a big hug, because he just looked really disappointed in himself, but he shouldn’t be.
Tuivasa-Sheck has three bites at the cherry – once when he is out-muscled in the initial contest to recover the kick, secondly when Fainga’anukua fends off his high grab, the third when he accelerates away as RTS goes for a last-ditch tap-tackle.
The tendency to grab high and make himself a target for the fend was an issue highlighted in the original article:
It is fair to say that concerns with both Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s tackling technique and defensive positioning are ongoing.
On the other side of the ball, there are also some mixed messages. There is no doubt about Tuivasa-Sheck’s instinctive ability to pick the right line ahead of time, and to step and offload with lethal intent:
With the Crusaders’ defence over-reading the attack further out, RTS reads the pattern instantly and cuts back against the grain to score a magnificent try. As Mils Muliaina commented on The Breakdown:
“He scored a wonderful try, but I just think he’s starting to get into a bit of rhythm. When he went off, I was quite surprised they subbed him, but Bryce Heem actually came on and had an outstanding game.
“It was a nice, technical move.”
RTS may have much the higher talent ceiling, but Bryce Heem fits the needs of the Blues’ attacking pattern better. His power through contact is an ideal foil for Beauden Barrett (inside) and Rieko Ioane (outside):
Two phases, two carries, with 90 per cent of the metres made after first contact with the tackler is made. That set up the platform for the Blues’ fourth try of the game:
The evidence of the big Super Rugby all-New Zealand El Clásico between the Blues and the Crusaders did not advance the claims of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to an All Blacks jersey at the World Cup. In fact, it did the opposite. Arguably he is not even the best choice at number 12 for the Blues as a complement to the game-breaking abilities of Beauden Barrett, Stephen Perofeta and Rieko Ioane.
The match against the Crusaders brought Tuivasa-Sheck’s defensive issues under the microscope. There is still a problem with straight-ahead power, while his high grab high technique as the ball carrier begins to move away into space makes him an easy target for the fend. Spot-tackles lack the tactical nous needed to make them effective.
In the wider frame of reference, the contest for the New Zealand number 12 jersey remains a hot topic. Jordie Barrett must still be the number-one choice after his exploits in the second half of 2022, but others like Anton Lienert-Brown, Dallas McLeod and David Havili may still have something to say in the great debate. One thing is for certain: they will all have to prove their worth on defence in order to claim the shirt. Of that there is no doubt.
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