Harlequins’ acquisition of Jerry Flannery as lineout coach ahead of the mooted Premiership restart in August represents an extremely interesting signing. The former Munster and Ireland hooker is an eloquent, insightful talker on many aspects of the game, which should benefit Paul Gustard’s set-up.
Regular appearances on the House of Rugby podcast have reinforced this. Back in October, following a Rugby World Cup quarter-final that saw the All Blacks demolish Ireland 46-14, Flannery elaborated on a cliché about Kiwi rugby union with three concise sentences:
“What underpins the New Zealand gameplan is that their catch-pass skills are so good. That means you see the game differently. You are less risk-averse.”
Flannery then recalled a trip he had made to the Crusaders camp the previous year in his role as Munster coach. Concerned that their team’s phase-pay had become predictable for opponents, he and Felix Jones spoke to Brad Mooar – who subsequently moved on to Scarlets before being scooped up by Ian Foster to help with the All Blacks’ rebuild.
The inquisitive Irishmen did not discover anything overly intricate or ground-breaking about the Crusaders’ attacking shape. In fact, the Super Rugby champions’ framework was similar to that of Munster. Instead, as Flannery explained, he and Jones witnessed a distinct focus in training sessions:
“What I noticed was that it was all about the technical development of every single player because, if your players have a higher skill-set, you can play in any way. Forwards were constantly working on three-metre passes – tip-on passes and pull-back passes – and backs were working on seven-metre passes, [all while] being able to run dead-straight.
“It’s when you go down there and you see it that you realise how much longer their players appear to have on the ball because they are running straight, catching the ball early and they’re comfortable to move the ball. That’s the difference.”
So far, Super Rugby Aotearoa is fortifying stereotypes. Over the opening weekend, the reaction of players and coaches to the new breakdown laws underlined how New Zealanders often relish problem-solving. The second round of fixtures was punctuated by slick interplay between backs and forwards.
After their bye last weekend, Crusaders burst into life with this first-minute try:
— Super Rugby (@SuperRugbyNZ) June 21, 2020
A beautiful attack starts at a six-man Hurricanes lineout. Aiming to exert pressure on a set-piece operation that had been shaky against the Blues a week previously, Crusaders have two lifting pods.
The front one is made up of tighthead prop Michael Alaalatoa (3), Cullen Grace (6) and Mitchell Dunshea (5). The back one comprises Joe Moody (1), Sam Whitelock(4) and Whetu Douglas (8). Codie Taylor (2) is at the tail in the scrum-half slot with Billy Harmon (7) back 10 metres:
Whitelock’s jump causes an overthrow from Dane Coles…
…and Harmon snaffles a turnover. Douglas, who had lifted Whitelock, is already around the corner of the breakdown by the time scrum-half Bryn Hall – a wonderful passer – had found first-receiver Jack Goodhue.
Notice that Alaalatoa, Whitelock and Moody are congregating to form a three-man, prop-lock pod:
Hurricanes’ problems intensify at the next breakdown. Tyrel Lomax, being pushed out by scrum-half TJ Pereanara, bunches tightly to the fringe. Five players, including outside centre Vince Aso, are covering two Crusaders towards the far touchline:
Hall spins, fizzing a pass to Whitelock (4),who is flanker by Alaalatoa (3) and Moody (1). Playmaker Richie Mo’unga is in behind, ready to release those outside him if Whitelock throws a pull-back. There is absolutely nothing remarkable about this set-up.
However, a single phase into the match, they clearly identify a weakness in Hurricanes’ defensive line. Because Lomax (obscured by referee Brendon Pickerill) and James Blackwell are close to the breakdown, Hurricanes’ defensive spacing is skewed. Loosehead prop Fraser Armstrong and lock Vaea Fifita are exposed in midfield with a gaping lane between them.
Mo’unga will be relaying this information to Whitelock, if it has not been noticed already. Watch full-back Will Jordan begin his arc from the far side as well:
The width of Hall’s pass takes Blackwell out of the game, leaving Armstrong to bite on to Whitelock. Whitelock tips a short pass on to Moody and, because Fifita is still too wide, Crusaders break.
Mo’unga bolts towards Moody’s right shoulder. This is where the virtuous circle begins. Because Crusaders’ attacking structure and catch-pass skills are so well-drilled, they have a better chance of picking holes and breaking into unstructured rugby, where the speed and synergy of their support lines really shines.
Northampton Saints and Bristol Bears benefit from a similar process. It is no coincidence that their respective directors of rugby, Chris Boyd and Pat Lam, have Super Rugby experience.
Fly-half Jackson Garden-Bachop is Hurricanes widest defender on the near side. Crusaders have two players, Dunshea and right wing Sevu Reece, out of shot:
Moody finds Mo’unga, who flicks a pass on to Taylor. The hooker pats the ball backwards. Both Mo’unga and Taylor are aware that they have space and bodies towards the near touchline. They are just attempting to get the ball there as quickly as possible and by any means necessary.
Harmon scoops the ball off his toes…
…and transfers to Grace. This next screenshot shows what is meant by an ‘early catch’. Grace reaches out across his body to gather the ball, giving him an extra split second to survey what is in front of him.
Reece will almost certainly be feeding him information from his right as well, while Jordan and Taylor bolt through in support.
Aso scrambles across…
…but Grace is quick enough to commit Ben Lam to the tackle before releasing Reece:
Nit-pickers may criticise Taylor, who receives an inside pass from Reece, for not feeding Jordan here.
But a covering Perenara has done well to turn back on to the Crusaders hooker. Hurricanes full-back Chase Tiatia is not committed, so the pass back to Reece is a good option:
As Reece stretches clear, watch Dunshea cut back against the grain – and towards space – just in case:
Crusaders’ second try, eventually finished by Braydon Ennor, comes from Hall’s clever grubber and brings evidence of their excellent kicking game:
Again, though, the bustling break fashioned by Taylor and brought on by Moody starts in the foundation of a three-man pod.
Alaalatoa (3), Whitelock (4) and Douglas (8) line up here:
In the event, Whitelock’s tip-on to Douglas goes to the floor, but Taylor and Moody react rapidly and play through a fractured defence. Again, simple structure leads to calm amid chaos.
Moody played a big role in Goodhue’s finish, the third of Crusaders’ first-half tries, as well. Loitering in midfield as the electric Jordan hoists a high-ball…
…he follows up to scoop the loose ball off his toes. Like Grace before him, Moody commits two would-be tacklers – Garden-Bachop and Du’Plessis Kirifi in this case – before feeding Jordan:
Watch the try here:
The previous evening, Blues back-rower Hoskins Sotutu had enhanced his growing reputation during his team’s 24-12 over Chiefs in Hamilton.
In wet conditions, the most fluid passage of the entire match began in the 71st minute:
Sotutu, who had already scored a close-range try before half-time, seals the match with a superb pass to Mark Telea.
Patrick Tuipulotu’s spinning offload to James Parsons, who cuts an intelligent support angle to switch play, features in the build-up:
Then Sotutu makes a slick, 12-metre pass that cuts out Akira Ioane look far easier than it is:
Quinn Tupaea rushes up, causing Beauden Barrett to turn in case of an interception, but is beaten.
Before the coronavirius pandemic halted the full Super Rugby campaign, Sotutu had set up Telea with a nonchalant grubber-kick in the Blues’ victory over the Waratahs:
Often, cut-out passes can stunt attacks because defenders can drift across and shepherd the receiver towards a touchline.
Here, Sotutu evidently feels as though it is best to feed the speed of Telea as quickly as possible. And, crucially, he has the skill and confidence to follow through with that decision.
If sides are limited by the catch-pass capacity of their forwards, Super Rugby Aotearoa is demonstrating how athletic distributors in the pack can elevate a team’s attacking prowess.
Match images courtesy of Sky Sports