In the modern game forwards are expected to shore up the midfield defence. Half the reasoning behind it is about transitioning quickly as the phase count climbs, and the other half is based on the increasing importance of dominating collisions. It’s much easier to offload when a man of equal mass has you around the thighs than when a big guy is smashing you.
Thinking his fancy footwork has fooled all tacklers, many an ambitious back has suddenly felt a harder than expected shoulder denting his ribcage. Sunwolf Hayden Parker made just such a mistake on Saturday, getting folded over backwards with great relish by Vaea Fifita.
It’s a two-sided coin, of course. Smaller faster men leave forwards clutching thin air often enough for defence coaches to average twice as many torn out chunks of hair than the average staff member.
This weekend provided quite a few examples. Take the Chiefs game against the Lions in Hamilton, the second Chiefs try being started by wing Sean Wainui who sliced effortlessly between a prop and two second rowers in his charge upfield... or the Sunwolves’ first try in Tokyo when midfielder Rahboni Vosayaco left Reed Princep and Du Plessis Kirifi for dead. The Hurricanes loosies couldn’t close the gap between them quickly enough to lay a hand on him.
Reds first five Bryce Hegarty found space between prop Coenie Oosthuizen and flanker Jacques Vermuelen to score the first try against the Sharks in Durban, fullback Reece Hodge made number eight Michael Wells and blindside Jack Dempsey look foolish as the Reds opened up a big lead in Sydney, and Blues midfielder Ma’a Nonu didn’t even need a sidestep to embarrass Highlanders prop Dan Lienert-Brown and lock Jackson Hemopo.
Even in test matches where the world’s marquee game-breakers threaten constantly, defence coaches place a lot of trust in the tackling skill of their forwards. But they can only make tackles when they’re in position to do so. The foot speed and handling skills of top level attackers mean holes in the defensive line exist just long enough to be exploited.
In this World Cup year we should be paying close attention to the ratio of line breaks to forwards beaten. As defensive systems require more and more marking up at short notice, test forwards with regular midfield duties need to spend a lot of lead-up time studying multiple threats, and if as a consequence their other core tasks are neglected (or vice versa) the tournament-defining play is pending at any given phase.
The Chiefs were in too deep a hole when Wainui began the comeback in Hamilton of Friday. Lions prop Carlu Sadie had been awarded a try, the TMO unable to see around his belly and overrule the referee when the ball squeezed out from underneath him short of the line, and wing Aphiwe Dyantyi had regathered a masterfully executed grubber from number Warren Whiteley for the Lions’ second.
It was over an hour before Wainui got the first Chiefs try. Although he made Nepo Laulala’s next five-pointer possible by slipping between startled tight forwards directly after the restart, the Lions were able to corral the late-blooming backline often enough for Tumua Manu’s third, a few minutes from time, not to matter. An Elton Jantjies droppie sealed the deal.
Without Damian McKenzie the Chiefs attack was far too static in the first hour. Even McKenzie’s most vocal critics don’t deny his uncanny ability to hit the ball in motion almost every time, whether it’s taking a winger’s quick throw and mounting a long range outflanking manoeuvre from fullback or bisecting a flat pass from his fellow halves at opening phase.
His older brother Marty is a talented playmaker but with a significantly different style. He was either flat-footed or surrounded by a group of motionless ball-carriers too frequently when the pass came. The Chiefs’ late tries came from the only defensive errors the Lions committed, the visitors having licked their chops until that stage with a normally very slippery prey giving away their natural advantage and turning themselves into sitting ducks.
The Hurricanes’ comeback in Tokyo, on the other hand, came just in the nick of time. Sunwolves wing Semisi Masirewa finished clinically once Vosayaco had beaten Prinsep and Kirifi, then equally well when a wide kick from Parker gave him room to show off in an empty Hurricanes backfield.
Captain TJ Perenara shouldered responsibility for the fightback. Vosayaco may have humiliated the Hurricanes’ midfield defence earlier but he cancelled out those seven points when he bought an outrageous dummy from Perenara and watched the halfback stroll in under the goalposts. Perenara then kept the Hurricanes on the front foot, not only with a smoothly timed series of clearances for his attackers to charge onto, but identifying weaknesses and constantly keeping the Sunwolves guessing.
Great patience and continuity led to chances as the home side tired. Wing Ben Lam ran onto a kick from second five Ngani Laumape, stabbed behind the flagging Sunwolves on a lethal angle. Fullback Chase Tiatia grounded well when lock Isaia Walker-Leawere charged down a very laboured clearance by wing Gerhard van den Heever. Few cover defenders in the world would have beaten wing Wes Goosen in chasing down his own centering kick.
As most of the Hurricanes’ All Blacks were in cotton wool with their next trip to Japan in mind, Perenara’s example was timely. His team was in big trouble and the competition is at a crucial stage.
As a sidenote Perenara now has 51 Super Rugby tries. Remarkable not just as the only halfback in the try-scoring top 20, he’s only been playing a year longer than Israel Folau who holds the record at 60.
The only other current player on the list is Nonu with 56, and with Folau’s number looking unlikely to climb the veteran centre might end up with the record if his current form continues.
Want the Assist Top 10 for context?
43 Mils Muliaina
38 Dan Carter
36 Christian Cullen / Tana Umaga
35 Andrew Mehrtens
33 George Gregan
32 TJ Perenara / Ma’a Nonu / Carlos Spencer / Aaron Cruden
Nine New Zealanders and George Gregan, go figure. But Perenara and Nonu as the only current players on both lists gives us multiple insights into the modern fifteen man game. While there are no other active players above Ben Smith on 29 assists, there are dozens of active forwards in double figures, Scott Higginbotham on top with 19.
Nonu is still quite a sight with ball in hand as he approaches his 37th birthday. Deceptively quick but never having been known for outright pace, his bulk is still genuinely imposing and he hasn’t softened over the years. Defenders often find their left or right arms weak because they’re mentally bracing for direct square-on impact and they can never assume otherwise. This makes his draw and pass so effective, something he has learned to capitalize on. No back other than arguably Tana Umaga has ever been more comfortable in restricted space on the brink of colliding.
(That’s “comfortable” as opposed to “risk-oblivious” in which case the likes of Bernie Larkham and Colin Slade would have strong claims. Or “harbouring malicious intent” where Butch James springs to mind.)
Nonu set up the opening try in Dunedin, breezing past big forwards into space and straightening to hold the cover far enough away from the sideline for his pass to flanker Tom Robinson to become a formality. Ben Smith would have had more say in the matter than the defenders in question but he was on the other side of the field, alert to an Akira Ioane / Tevita Li mismatch on the blind side there.
That was in the 23rd minute and finally broke a ferocious nil-all deadlock, one maintained by several in-goal saves at both ends of the park, but once the Blues breached the dam water came pouring in the wrong way. First flanker Shannon Frizell dived over, the local forwards showing superior cohesion at a crucial moment, then the Highlanders scrum caught the Blues eight off balance five yards out and were awarded a penalty try, after which midfielder Matt Faddes put the issue beyond doubt with an intercept.
A 24-5 scoreline would have been a travesty in this contest, so evenly fought otherwise. When the scoreline is etched on the Gordon Hunter Trophy for posterity, fairly-reflected margins are important and for that reason alone Melani Nanai’s last minute seven-pointer hardly seemed like a consolation try.
Ack-chually, from the trophy engraver’s viewpoint there is no such thing as a dead rubber and I wish this mindset was still customary.
Highlanders 24 Blues 12
The Sharks seem to have caught the missed tackle bug and were almost as bad this week in Durban as they’d been against the Jaguares. For some reason they didn’t even bother double-teaming Samu Kerevi, presently the world’s best number twelve, without whose strike power the Reds wouldn’t have posted a single win this year.
You could clearly hear the Sharks numbering off, earnestly letting their coach know a week’s remedial therapy hadn’t been in vain, but marking up means nothing to the great game breakers of this world. Kerevi cut them to ribbons.
The Wallabies selection battle between Bernard Foley and Quade Cooper, and that of their teams the Waratahs and Rebels, was halfway settled at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
Cooper began well with the Rebels opening up a good lead but fell away as the Waratahs staged their winning comeback. By comparison Foley, whose two missed punts for touch from attacking penalties in the opening ten minutes were the sort of thing that’s just as likely to cost a test match as any Cooper recklessness, recovered well. He also looked to be taking the personal battle very seriously.
First fives don’t often charge down their opposite number, which Foley did to set off one classic Cooper fumble sequence. It’s even more seldom that tens engage in a mid-air contest for overthrown lineout ball, another win for Foley which led to an unopposed 60 yard dash and the second half’s only try.
Foley completed his 18-point haul with the deciding penalty and appears to have batted away Cooper’s challenge for the moment. The rematch is on May 31 in Melbourne.
Later that night the Brumbies made Australia’s weekend in South Africa one to remember. No one expected them to make life difficult for the Stormers but they did at both ends of Newlands. First number eight Pete Samu grounded brilliantly with one hand in the corner, then lock Rory Arnold charged down a clearing kick and regathered to score. A Stormers penalty try before half time and another to prop Wilco Louw after the break took back the lead, but it was lost again when a double skip pass from Christian Leali’ifano to fullback Tom Banks made it 17-19 with quarter of an hour to play.
The Brumbies defended that score until the final whistle, finishing the eighty minutes with an astounding 224 completed tackles.
This loss, alongside the Sharks’ and the win by the Lions, congested the South African conference to where four points cover the five teams from top to bottom. A serious dogfight is shaping up for the one guaranteed playoff spot. Let’s just hope it’s the only civil war fought in the Republic this year.
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