Quick transitions key to Chiefs' three-peat bid
February 27, 2014
The Whiteboard ... Brett McKay dissects key plays that may shape the Super Rugby tournament © Scrum.com
Something a bit different for 2014, as we're going to get a bit technical each week and pull apart some key plays to try to work out why things happened the way they did - and what it might mean for coming games.
First up for the year, I'm going to highlight a passage of play just after half-time in the opening game of the New Zealand conference, in which the Crusaders hosted the reigning back-to-back Super Rugby champions, the Chiefs.
Come the first Saturday of August this year, if we're again watching the Chiefs performing their victory haka behind the Super Rugby trophy, it may well be on the back of their innate ability to transition so quickly from defence into attack.
Just after half-time in Christchurch, with the Crusaders' first opportunity with the ball, it quickly became evident the visitors had lifted their attacking intensity; they piled into attacking breakdown after attacking breakdown, rapidly finding themselves approaching the Chiefs' 22. Set left of the uprights, the Crusaders looked to be setting themselves up for a proper tilt at posting their first points for the game.
They hadn't had much luck putting the ball through the posts to that point, so they were having a crack at a five-pointer instead. But with the Chiefs line firmly in sight, the Crusaders spilled the ball. Liam Messam picked it up for the Chiefs and headed back down the short side, where an offload and another couple of phases had them well outside their own 22.
Scrum-half Augustine Pulu picked up the ball and an obvious opportunity arose. With Aaron Cruden slightly back in the pocket for the likely clearing kick, Pulu went wide to Tim Nanai-Williams up in the line; the fullback had the same sense something was on. Nanai-Williams went wide again, and found Charlie Ngatai in centre-field with a forward on his inside.
And here's where we freeze the play.
Ngatai, sensing the overlap he was about to create, and seeing the options and pace he had outside him, veered back towards where the initial ruck was, which in turn caught out the Crusaders' scrambling defence.
Augustine Pulu spotted the opportunity early © Scrum.com
With Reynold Lee-Lo and Tom Taylor both charging out, Ngatai's change of angle forced both Crusaders defenders to stop in their tracks and engage. Lee-Lo actually went too wide, and when Taylor finally brought Ngatai down, George Whitelock was forced to come back infield and engage in the ruck. Lee-lo ended up with no-one, and was out of the play.
As Whitelock arrived to form the ruck, Ngatai got an offload to a charging Jamie Mackintosh, who unleashed his inner first-five and found Asaeli Tikoirotuma on his outside, just inside the Chiefs' half.
Lee-Lo had recovered from his earlier over-read, and was now tracking toward Tikoirotuma, who himself stepped back inside to draw the centre while simultaneously selling Corey Flynn the dummy on the outside. As Lee-Lo made contact, Tikoirotuma offloaded on his outside to Robbie Fruean, who was now clear of Flynn and back in the field of play.
Fruean thundered down the left-hand sideline, just as he had to post his first-half try, accounted for the first covering Crusaders defender and found on his inside Cruden, who had trailed the entire play down the centre corridor as it unfolded.
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Cruden was tackled just short of the line superbly by Crusaders winger Johnny McNicholl, who forced the knock-on in doing so. In the context of an incredibly tight game, this would be a crucial moment and the Crusaders did indeed post their first points soon after. But this particular passage said so much about the Chiefs' attitude, about the belief within their team, and of their invaluable ability to turn defence into attack.
From being under the pump nearing their own line, they forced the turnover, rumbled upfield out for the danger zone, and capitalised on the short defensive numbers on the open side by spreading the ball quickly to the speed men on the outside.
The role of Mackintosh can't be understated, either, for his ability to draw defenders and provide the perfect linking pass to Tikoirotuma allowed the opportunity to materialise.
It was a beautiful passage of play from the Chiefs, something we should expect more of in 2014. It's something that opposition sides will need to be aware of, too, both in terms of closing down the space, and of the way they line up when transitioning from attack to defence.
The over-read from Lee-Lo, plus Flynn being caught out on the wing, meant the pacey Chiefs backs could quickly take advantage of the space suddenly afforded to them.
Cruden's support run was excellent, too; he didn't get the try on this raid - and yes, he probably shouldn't have switched the ball from his left arm to right before diving for the line when McNicholl had him - but the Chiefs might have found themselves isolated in attack and turning the ball over without his presence.
It was just one play in a match that went right down to the wire; but this one play says so much about the Chiefs' approach to this season.
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