Early Offload Predictions

In our midweek post this week, The Offload thought we would try our hand and predict some final placings in each division of Super Rugby. Four rounds in, fourteen to go, we’ve seen some teams make bright starts to the season with some pre-season favourites languishing behind already. It’s an interesting dynamic, and hard to predict. But we’ll give it a shot.

Australian Conference 

First: Waratahs. A resurgent team this season, with a strong pack (including an all-Wallaby trio of loose forwards) and the biggest strike weapon presently in Australian rugby lurking in the backline. Israel Folau has scored five tries in a mere two matches, and is looking in menacing touch.  While early in the season, the Waratahs defence has been outstanding. If they can maintain their current form outside New South Wales they will be a side hard to beat.

Second: Brumbies. While they don’t have the same star power or international calibre of some other clubs, similar to the Chiefs the Brumbies punch above their weight and have enough key players to inspire the team to hard-fought wins. Ben Mowen is absolutely key to the Brumbies chances, it must be said. Pat McCabe showing signs of spark would be encouraging for coach Larkham also. I’m backing the coach’s tactical nous to have the Brumbies finishing above the Reds at the end of the season.

New Zealand Conference

First: Chiefs. The Chiefs are a very impressive unit, and the resources that allowed them to win the last two Super Rugby seasons are largely still intact. In their matches so far, they’ve shown an All Black-esque aura of inevitability, where even if they aren’t playing well they will still end up on the winner’s ledger. Liam Messam will be as influential as ever, but the real reason the Chiefs will likely finish atop the conference is Aaron Cruden. The co-captaincy just affirms how important the playmaker is to their offence and tactics.

Second: Blues. John Kirwan’s side has arguably the most explosive side in the competition, and as long as they can keep their composure and make sure their defence keeps up with their intensive offence, they can go far in 2014. It has not been a good year for New Zealand sides so far, but the Blues have shown signs of true quality. Luke Braid has responded well to the captaincy, and if they can sort out their first-five dilemmas then Frank Halai, Ma’a Nonu and Charles Piatau stand by to be unleashed.

South African Conference

First: Sharks. Spearheaded by Springbok forwards and the all-round skills of Pat Lambie, the Sharks loom as the best side in the competition to date. They’ve scored the most points, and have conceded the least per game. Put together with their general record of relative strength away from home, and they look like serious contenders already for the finals. They’ll need to continue to innovate, and hope injury doesn’t bring a stop to the Du Plessis brother’s domination in the front row.

Second: Bulls. Not looking convincing for most of the season to date, the Bulls appeared to turn a page in their recent home demolition of the Blues. They looked to have an evolved game plan with strong emphasis on lateral running from their outside backs which breathed fresh air into a team that was looking a little too predictable in the competition. If they continue along this path, with new first-five Potgieter leading the way, we expect them to pip the other South African sides for second.

The Drop Goal Paradox

There was an interesting comparison to be made in the last couple nights of Super Rugby, that highlights not only the different game styles of South African and New Zealand sides, but also what is expected of them by their respective home crowds. This is in regard to the drop goal option – where the team with possession in the opposition half opts to set up field position where the first five/designated kicker can kick for a 3-point drop goal, rather than attempt to score a try.

Leading 7 points to 3 in their home match against the Blues at Pretoria, the Bulls elected to do just that 11 minutes into the game. While they had a reasonable attacking position and could have opted to maintain the offensive and go for their second try, first five Jacques-Louis Potgieter was content to instead slot the drop goal and improve their lead to 10-3. The South African crowd erupted, cheering as loudly as they did for the earlier try.

By contrast, the night before, the Crusaders were in a very different position in their home match. With their attack looking stilted against a tight Stormers defence, the score was locked at 3-3. Having regained the ball just before halftime, but showing no more sign of breaking the Stormers defensive line than during the rest of the half, the Crusaders looked set to shoot for goal. Tom Taylor dropped back into the pocket. The Christchurch home crowd, already upset with the lack of spark being shown by the Crusader backs, did not like this one bit. With the drop goal attempt looking imminent, the crowd actually booed their own team, still in possession of the ball and in dire need of points.

Ultimately, Taylor did not shoot for goal in that moment – but the dichotomy between the Crusaders crowd reaction to the drop goal and the Bulls crowd reaction is curious, and worthy of further investigation. Of course, most rugby fans are aware that South Africa are famed for having strong goalkickers who usually aren’t afraid to shoot for goal – while New Zealanders like to think their teams have try-scoring as their first, second and third priority.

Regardless of the stereotypes, it’s clear that South African crowds have an appreciation for the drop goal that New Zealand crowds simply don’t – perhaps buying into the All Black image of heroic try-scorers, that Christchurch crowd from earlier wanted to see the Crusaders go for the try no matter what at that point in the match. How they would have reacted to Tom Taylor comfortably opting for the drop goal 11 minutes into a game, with the lead already in hand, makes for scary thinking.

We’re not going to discuss the tactical worth of drop goals in this story – because that misses the point. It’s not as if Tom Taylor is uncomfortable kicking for goal. Capped for the All Blacks last year and the Crusaders first choice marksman, he’s easily one of the best goalkickers in the country.The point of this story, to be frank, is that there is no conceivable situation where Taylor would have opted for a drop goal 11 minutes into a game. It’s not in his makeup, it’s not in the Crusaders makeup, it’s not in the New Zealand makeup.

What kind of long term effects does that mindset have? It probably suits Super Rugby, with the bonus-point incentivised emphasis on try scoring. But consider international test rugby, which is all about the win. Undoubtedly, the All Blacks being perceived as try-scorers, they’ll go for the try much more often than not, and this would obviously help explain why they score more tries than anyone else.

But on the other side of the coin, picture a World Cup final. The scores level, the respective defences iron. Who do you think is more likely to opt for the drop goal – Jacques-Louis Potgieter, or Tom Taylor?

The Benji Factor

In tonight’s home derby for the Blues against the Crusaders, Simon Hickey got off to the best debut match he could possibly have hoped for. Calm and diligent on offence, he set up his fiery outside backs to break the Crusaders line with ease and kicked 6 from 7 shots on goal in a 15 point haul. Even on defence, he showed heart and some tenacity, at the very least not making any try-conceding errors as Noakes did the week before against the Highlanders. Yet even when the Blues were ahead by 15, the Blues fans in the stands continued to sent a consistent message from the terraces. 

“We want Benji, come on, hurry up”. 

Home fans chanting for his replacement probably didn’t factor into Hickey’s dream debut.

In August last year, league convert Benji Marshall signed for the Blues in a deal thought to be worth around $500,000 a season. It’s not hard to see his impact on a club just seven months after the signing. Benji leads the social media charge, appears on a range of different billboards around Auckland City, and even features in the prime position on the Blues season ticket image. John Kirwan, head coach of the Blues, describes Benji as a “special x-factor player who could grow into a leader for the side.” A bag of tricks with ball in hand, he’s a devastating runner in broken play with a lethal trademark sidestep. All of these factors combine to make Benji Marshall a cult figure for the Blues, still yet to start a competitive match for them.

There lies the issue at present. Benji simply isn’t a starting option in Super Rugby as of yet. Considered a weak defender in league, he must surely represent the most tempting of targets to any kind of ball carrier looking for a break through the first five’s corridor. Moreover, at 28, he’s built his career learning and running systems in another rugby code. It may be quite some time before he can steer the ship with the same audacity that he led his club and country with in league. It’s been over a decade since he last played union, or any substantial rugby in New Zealand.

By contrast, Simon Hickey is 20 years of age, born in Auckland and playmaker for the Auckland ITM Cup side. Benji is 28, a loyal New Zealander but one who has been based in Australia playing for an Australian league side since he was 18. Both represent skilled playmakers of untapped potential, and the point of this article is not to comment on which of them is likely to be better for the Blues. Sadly, that particular question may not end up deciding who plays for the team going forward, and that is the real injustice.

Simply put, in John Kirwan’s situation, you have an incredibly well known, exciting x-factor league convert who the fans are desperate to watch (indeed the club is selling many tickets to people intent on seeing Benji play). You are also shelling out 500k a year to this one player, and already have him in pole position on all marketing tools available to you. If he is playing roughly as well, or even slightly worse, than Simon Hickey or Baden Kerr in training, who is JK more likely to pick?

While good for the coffers of the Blues, it must surely undermine the confidences of young players like Hickey and Kerr to have the relatively elderly league convert leapfrog them for positions in the team. It’s not even great for Benji’s union pedigree – if at the halfway point in the season he is indeed the Blues starting number 10, who will really know for sure if he is the best first five at the club? We at The Offload would be skeptical, Benji himself might have doubts.

But the fans in the terraces of Eden Park would undoubtedly be content, so perhaps that is what lends an air of inevitability to Benji’s rise.

Why The Offload

Sports are about stories.

While reading the average newspaper could easily lead one to believe that the point of sport is to offer up off-pitch antics, administrative drama and bureaucratic posturing, that’s not why rugby captures the imagination of a huge core of sports fans.

We strongly believe that the answer lies in the empty canvas of sport that fans fill with their own feelings, thoughts and personal interests. When people invest themselves into a particular player, team or moment, that builds a connection that means something. These personal connections are different for every fan, but serve to explain why people care about their rugby.

At The Offload, we feel like that there isn’t enough focus out there in the mainstream media on stories that people actually care about. Most sports fans don’t watch sport in anticipation of the generic post-match interview, and most care much more about their club’s recent transfers than the new advertising campaign featuring the team captain. This website is about rethinking the way that rugby lovers engage with their sport.

We want to take on the status quo and innovate by getting back to what makes people talk and what makes people think. The Offload is unashamedly about getting back to what makes rugby fans love the sport, and nothing else. The players that fans are talking about, the teams that inspire interest, the moments that demand attention.

In the future, news outlets will be fighting over control of these stories, as opposed to the the current generic and constrained idea of what rugby coverage ‘should’ be. We want to lead that evolution. You can lead that evolution.

The Offload is about the stories that matter. If that sounds appealing, join the movement and come along for the ride.