Hurricanes strike the right note

The two dominant teams in Super Rugby 2015 meet in Wellington this weekend. The Hurricanes have been the pacesetters all season, losing just once to the Waratahs last month. Their points total of 48 is 10 better than their opponents, the Chiefs, and a stratospheric 14 better than the next group of teams, which happens to include the Stormers and the Bulls. They even have a game in hand on the Stormers, who have a bye this week.

The time is coming, then, when the play-offs have been determined and the Hurricanes have secured their home semi, when fans of the Chiefs will start wondering how it is that their side doesn’t also have a week off to rest their weary bones in Hamilton.

The fact is that the last year before the competition’s expansion to 18 teams is the first to really show the shortcomings of the conference system. Written into the rules of the tournament four years ago was a guarantee that the three local conference leaders would occupy the top three spots on the overall log. This rule means that second-placed sides in the conference cannot be in the top three overall, irrespective of how many points they might have.

So we have the anomaly of the Chiefs, on 38 points, lying fourth in the combined log behind the Stormers (34) and the Brumbies (33). It is something that Sanzar (South Africa New Zealand Australia Rugby) must have acknowledged before the last expansion but hoped would not arise. Next year’s added convolutions will make it irrelevant, but right now it is worth asking quite why the Hurricanes and Chiefs have raised themselves above the mainstream in 2015.

Profusion of statistics
Fortunately we have the boffins at Opta Sports to help us. Amid the profusion of statistics generated a few stand out. The first is a simple one: the ‘Canes score more tries than anyone else, averaging 3.5 a game. Following on from that, they average 28.4 points a match, second overall. The Chiefs are fourth and fifth respectively in the same comparisons.

Next we can see why they score with such consistency. The ‘Canes have the best scrum in the competition, with a success rate of 95% and, when they win the ball, they run with it, beating more defenders (23.2 a match) and gaining more metres (543.2) than anyone else.

The Chiefs’ scrum with 91% efficiency and are third and fourth on the same tables.

Continuing the attacking theme, there are reasons the ‘Canes carry the ball so far and so often (120.6 times a game). They make 11.5 clean breaks and they pass the ball on average 160 times in a match, second in both cases only to the Crusaders. The Chiefs are fifth in pass completion and, to put things into perspective, the hapless Sharks pass the ball just 89 times in a match.

The Stormers are easily the best South African side in this respect, passing on average 130.8 times in a game.

It’s equally revealing to discover the things that the ‘Canes don’t do very well. First of all, they aren’t very good kicking at goal, succeeding with just two out of three, which places them 12th overall (the Chiefs are ninth with a 70% average). They are ranked 10th in kicks from hand (Chiefs ninth) and they are forced to make more tackles in a game (136.1) than anyone else (Chiefs 12th).

So we begin to build a composite of why the Hurricanes are so far ahead of the field and it is a profile that should bring a smile to the lips of the traditionalists. They win their scrums, they run the ball instead of kicking it, they beat defenders and they pass the ball. As a result, they achieve the object of the game – to carry the ball over their opponents’ try line – more often than anyone else.

Absent from the above is any talk of the driving maul, aerial ping-pong, the importance of a reliable goal kicker and many of the other trends that frustrate South African rugby supporters these days. It is no coincidence that the best performance anyone has put together against the ‘Canes came from the Stormers, whose mighty pack carried all before it in the second half at the Cake Tin.

Significantly, however, it was too late, for the ‘Canes scored enough points in the first half to secure the win. If you wanted to be simplistic, you could say that the ‘Canes’ backs won the match and the Stormers’ forwards made the score line look respectable – the rapier beat the broadsword.

When the dust has settled on the season, few will remember the scrumming of Vincent Koch, but the dancing feet of the remarkable Nehe Milner-Skudder and the surges of Julian Savea will be etched in the memory. There are those who will want to remind us of the lies and damned lies of statistics, but it is surely germane to point out that the dominant side in Super Rugby is playing the game the way the lawmakers would like it to be played.

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