New Zealand's teams are struggling against Australian and South African opponents in Super Rugby 2013 because they are not as dominant at the breakdown and there is less broken play, writes Jeff Wilson.
Much talk has surrounded the poorer record of New Zealand's Super Rugby teams, against their Australian and South African rivals this year and there is no doubt there has been a difference in approach behind this phenomenon.
Traditionally an area of strength New Zealand teams have enjoyed is their ability at scrum time, especially against Australian teams. New Zealand could never claim to have dominated South African scrums but they have been able to apply pressure on the Australians, and, to a point, on their lineout to stop their game at its source. South African teams have always been very dominant in their lineouts and particularly in their use of the maul.
A strong area for New Zealand teams has been our effectiveness at the breakdown, where we have been able to create quick possession. But this year teams have become closer in this area than in any other season, and there is a lot more parity across the competition. We have always backed our New Zealand backs with their balance of power and skill. Combine this with quick possession and they are difficult to handle.
This year Australian and South African teams have been very competitive at the breakdown, and have negated the ability of New Zealand's backs to attack more and break down defences. New Zealand's teams have not been dominated physically, but there has been greater parity in areas of advantage they have enjoyed in other seasons.
Combined with that is the fact that the majority of Super Rugby teams have become more accurate with their own possession. Traditionally, the Crusaders, and the Hurricanes last year, have fed off other teams' mistakes whether through accuracy of tackling or pressure on defence which has made opponents kick the ball away.
This year South African defences have been very strong and Australian attack has been very accurate. In a nutshell, there has been less broken play and New Zealand teams are renowned as the best counter-attacking sides in the competition. All of which adds to the Australian and South African performances.
Another particular aspect of rugby that has intrigued me for a long time, but which became much more apparent last weekend is the purpose of substitutes. There has been a familiar trend in rugby where we see the typical clearing of the benches toward the end of the match and the assumption that the need for change can always add value. I certainly believe that is not always the case. The reasons for substitutions are generally: injury, fatigue, individual performances or the belief that a change will provide impact, or towards a tactical aspect of the game.
In the Blues v Reds game last Friday in Brisbane I couldn't make any sense, or see the logic, in the substitution of halfback Piri Weepu or five-eighth Chris Noakes with 10 minutes to go. Given the closeness of the game, and the performances of both players, my expectation would be for them to see that one through to the end.
There is no doubt Jamison Gibson-Park is a talented individual, and a player for the future, but when you are only leading by two points was there any necessity for making a change given Weepu's influence on the Blues this season? It was the same with Noakes, a player who had shown great composure throughout the game. Every decision was going to be critical, so why substitute new players on unless it was for injury?
Sir John Kirwan has always spoken about the rollercoaster ride for the team in his first season but surely it is time for that expression to change. His Blues have shown willingness, commitment and ability to be a major player in this year's competition. There is no better time than now for this team to be part of the play-off picture this year.
As we are seeing at the Highlanders, there is no time like the present. For years the Highlanders have questioned whether they were ready for the next level. Last year they probably did better than expected but they failed to take their chance.
The nature of this competition is such that you need to take your opportunities when they come. Whether it be through injury, form, the schedule or other results, you need things to go your way and if they do, you have to be able to capitalise.
This season the Blues have had a number of things go their way. In a way they are probably ahead of their own schedule. But in that circumstance you don't wait for next year, you do it now. I believe the Blues are good enough. They need to seize the day.
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Jeff "Goldie" Wilson is a "Double All Black", having represented New Zealand in both rugby and cricket.
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