Warren’s Problem

The Chiefs are suffering in Super Rugby Aotearoa. Let's have a look at why.

It’s not hard to understand why some in the New Zealand rugby media might be taking a little bit of joy out of the Chiefs recent losing run in Super Rugby Aotearoa. Losing eight games on the spin is enough to heap pressure on any coach at any level at any club and Gatland is no different after the Chiefs loss to the Crusaders at home this weekend. The knives are out. Am I surprised? No. Just three years ago, Gatland was a pantomime villain in New Zealand as he accused the local media of running a smear campaign against him during the Lions tour so the reaction to his struggles in Super Rugby Aotearoa.

There’s certainly an element of recency bias to the Chief’s troubles. Prior to the lockdown, the Chiefs were fifth overall in Super Rugby, third in the New Zealand conference and boasted a W over the Crusaders at home alongside a big away win over the Blues in Auckland.

It’s hard to know how the Chiefs would have fared over the rest of Super Rugby 2020 in a non-pandemic reality but I think it’s a fair assumption that Gatland probably wouldn’t be staring at the kind of record that he’s looking at today. Results-wise, there’s no argument that it’s been a poor run but context is everything.

Trading last-minute drop goals to lose the opening game against the Highlanders by a point was unfortunate and the manner of their implosion in the second half against the same opponent a few rounds later that saw them lose a 24-7 lead would be enough to damn any coach. Throw in a few contentious losses with a hint of refereeing injustice and a few narrow losses in what has an argument for being the most top-heavy, high-quality mini-league in club rugby and you can see how Gatland and the Chiefs ended up where they find themselves.

That said, it isn’t all bad luck and refereeing decisions that are costing the Chiefs.

I’ll get to some of their on-field issues but I don’t think it’s fair to assess the Chiefs’ poor run without mentioning their absentee list. Their second-row has been pretty badly hit. They lost Brodie Retallick to a Japanese sabbatical before the season and then lost Michael Allerdice and Laghlan McWhannell to season-ending injuries prior to Super Rugby Aotearoa. Tyler Ardron, a talented flanker who had been deputising for them in the second-row during Super Rugby, left to go Castres Olympique at the end of June.

That has left a gap that Gatland has been filling with the super talented but raw Tupou Vaa’i and Naitoa Ah Kuoi alongside half lock hybrids like Mitchell Brown and the 38-year-old Adam Thomson.

The Chiefs also suffered long term injuries to their front row with Nathan Harris, their capped All Black hooker, missing the entire season with a shoulder injury, their standout loosehead prop Atu Moli underwent serious double hip surgery that ruled him out and while Nepu Laulala has been impressive on the tighthead side, his usual partner in the position, Angus Taa’vo, has only returned from injury this past weekend.

That’s a lot of quality, size and power that’s evaporated from the Chiefs front five in 2020.

Any side in the world would miss Brodie Retallick, a second row who could comfortably claim to be one of the top five players in the game in the position but a side that’s missing two of their other specialist senior locks at the same time makes it a crisis point.

Vaa’i and Ah Kuoi look like they have serious potential but they are both 20 years of age and playing alongside smaller hybrid locks. That plays a part in everything from the lineout – where they are also missing key lifters and their primary hooker – to their ball carrying structures.

I think a Chiefs front row that had test quality talents like Moli, Harris, Laulala/Taa’vo rotating alongside some of their younger potentials like Norris, Taukei’aho and O’Neill could really work. When those young players are forced up the depth chart en-masse with only short term veteran cover players like the 37-year-old tighthead Ross Geldenhuys, you’re going to see a drop off in performance.

The injuries haven’t ended there. They’ve lost flanker Luke Jacobsen to a season-ending hand injury alongside talented utility back Sam McNicol and picked up a few niggles and drop-offs you’d expect over the tournament. Solomon Alaimalo was the latest player to have his season ended thanks to a shoulder injury suffered in the act of scoring a try. 

So it’s fair to say that Gatland has been working with a reduced hand in a number of crucial areas and that, naturally, will have a knock-on effect on results. The front five injuries and sabbaticals alone would be enough to substantially affect most sides but that context tends to get lost after your fourth loss in a row and is actively ignored by the time your eight loss on the spin rolls about. That’s just life at the top end of professional rugby.

No Front Five, No Win

If you look back through the Chiefs output in Super Rugby Aotearoa, you see a few key areas where they fall down. The lineout is an obvious problem for them – and not the only one – but it’s an area that syncs in with their personnel issues. Lachlan Boshier and Mitchell Brown are key men for the Chiefs lineout. Neither man is the biggest (Boshier is 6’3″ and Brown is 6’4″) but they are decent, experienced jumpers. Boshier, in particular, looks like an excellent operator there and reminds me a little of Peter O’Mahony in some ways; he’s a primary jumper on both sides of the throw, a good wider ball carrier and a breakdown threat.

The problem comes when teams work out – as most in Super Rugby Aotearoa have – that Brown and Boshier are the Chiefs primary throw targets in between the 22s and that you can step on them relatively easily when the Chiefs shorten their lineout. The two young locks, Vaa’i and Ah Kuoi, are secondary jumpers in the Chiefs scheme.

The usual Chiefs back five over Aotearoa has been one of Vaa’i/Ah Kuoi and Brown in the second row with Boshier, Cane and Sowakula in the back row.

Of those, Cane is fourth option jumper and Sowakula is 6’5″ but he’s also a recent enough convert to the back row – he was a winger when he moved to NZ from Fiji – and he hasn’t added regular jumping at an elite level to his arsenal yet. That leaves two primary options that the Chiefs have to “hide” in their scheme.

Here’s a quick example from the first game against the Crusaders this season;

Once this six-man scheme straightens out, the Crusaders can make a good bet as to where the possible jump targets are if Boshier is in the middle of a possible pod at the front of the lineout and Brown, the other primary jumper is tight to a possible pod at the back. If this scheme is to work, Ah Kuoi needs to sell himself as a possible target and as a supporting lifter for Boshier to sow doubt in the Crusaders tail defence.

Ah Kuoi isn’t a convincing jump target here and his action doesn’t throw off the Crusaders’ counter-launch pod guarding the actual target position. The Crusaders can afford to launch at the front on Boshier – even though it’s a decoy – and target Mitchell Brown at the tail.

Whitelock is waiting for the movement from the middle. If Ah Kuoi stays still, Whitelock shifts to his position to lift or counter maul. If Ah Kuoi turns back towards Brown, Whitelock turns to lift Blackadder. Have a look.

The Crusaders can launch on the trigger from the hooker and they even manage to get up in the air before Brown. At 6’4″, he’s going to struggle to claim any ball where he doesn’t win the race into the air and that’s the case here.

The lift from Ah Kuoi and Sowakula isn’t the best regardless but that’s a side effect of the real problem – a lack of variety in their primary jumping options.

A similar lineout in the first half of the same game – a five-man scheme with Brown at the tail, Ah Nuoi in the middle and Boshier at the front – was broken up by Whitelock reading Ah Nuoi and gambling on jumping pretty much in place.

Bradley Slater’s throw was a little off here – conditions were bad in the Christchurch game – but that’s been a consistent issue for the Chiefs regardless of whether it’s Slater, Taukei’aho or Maka. This is to be expected from young hookers who are throwing in a “small ball” scheme like the

That’s what happens when you lose Retallick, McWhannell and Allardice in the same season. Ah Kuoi and Vaa’i are capable jumpers but both look pretty hesitant this early in their careers.

When we jump to this weekend, we saw some of the same issues again.

Here’s an early seven-man lineout;

The same principles apply as our previous examples. Sowakula breaks to deco with Cane at the front with Boshier, Vaa’i and Brown as a unit at the four spot in the lineout.

Whitelock sees that all of the Chiefs primary jumping options are in one spot and just jumps in position.

Once again, the Crusaders jump at the front and are comfortable enough in Whitelock’s read to go into the air at the back too. They know that the Chiefs have an inexperienced hooker with a little float in his throw and they know that Brown and Boshier are their primary outlets with Vaa’i as a secondary. If all of those players are in one spot, you’d feel comfortable on a counter-launch there, right?

This plays into the Chiefs need to play “small ball” at the lineout. Small Ball is where you know you’re giving up a lot of size and power on any lineout the opponent is likely to counter-launch on so, to win the race into the air, you design a lot of flinch schemes and decoy jumps to create separation between your jumpers, the possible counter-jumpers and your jump target.

A “flinch” is a lineout where you try to use your speed to throw off the opposition. This could be a move that happens immediately after you walk up to the lineout and you “flinch” into the launch – go from a relatively static position straight into a jump – to catch the opposition cold. A decoy can be anything from a few cut-out jumps to a series of jump feints by the same jumper before going into the air.

Small ball stresses every forward in the line because the margin for error is so small. If you blow your route as a jumper, lifter or decoy player, the move breaks down. It stresses the hooker too because it puts huge pressure on the timing and accuracy of your throw relative to the scheme. If you’re running a flinch style move, the ball has to be in a certain window for half a second and if you’re too high or too low, you’re sunk.

Munster have been running a variant of “small ball” at the lineout for the last two seasons, especially when we start with Holland, Beirne and O’Mahony as our primary three jumpers but it works for Munster – mostly – because we have three primary jumpers and a secondary option in Stander.

The Chiefs only have two primary jumpers and one secondary and it puts them under immense pressure.

Let’s skip to the last quarter of #CHIvCRU.

The Chiefs were only down by one and they’d won a lineout just outside the Crusaders 10m line after an excellent kick to space from McKenzie bought a poor exit from Mo’unga.

The Chiefs called a “flinch” lineout to trigger off their walk-up with Boshier launching at the front lifted by Laulala and Sowakula. Their hooker, Samisoni Taukei’aho, had only taken the field a few minutes earlier and his first throw of the game was a tough throw to the Two position.

The ball gets turned over, the Crusaders surge down the field and 11 phases later, the Crusaders dotted the ball down under the posts for an eight-point lead.

You can see the throw itself was a little off where it needed to be. Boshier is quick into the air but he’s giving up 3 inches and wingspan to the replacement Crusaders lock Quentin Strange.

Even then, technically this is quite a poor lift from Laulala and, in particular, Sowakalu at the back. Boshier doesn’t explode straight into the air and you can see a slight hitch in the lift at 58:49 that steals some momentum from the jump.

It looks tired. You want your lifters popping their arms straight into a full extension on their jumper to make sure he gets into his window first. Lualala was replaced soon after. The Chiefs lineout isn’t terrible by any means but they do cough up more than their fair share of good positions.

The Crusaders, on the other hand, tend not to.

Look at this;

There are two bits that interest me. Ah Kuoi has a real go at counter-launching at the front of the lineout but it showed poor judgement, in my opinion. He’s either bought the one lifter decoy at the front or he was always planning to counter on the timing of the hooker’s release.

Whatever the reason, when he missed the throw he took himself and his two lifters out of the maul defence. That left a 6v2 mismatch as the Crusaders drilled infield.

That exposed a large blindside that the Crusaders were able to attack after Makalio broke from the maul, committed Parker and popped the ball back inside to Mo’unga. The finish from there was sublime, but it was created by good, simple lineout schemes with rock-solid basics.

The Chiefs will improve in this area in the next few seasons as Retallick returns from sabbatical, their young potentials mature and their injury list clears up. In the short term, however, I think they’ll continue to have issues. The Chiefs have the lowest number of tries scored in Super Rugby Aotearoa and I think a lot of that comes from their shaky lineout. It isn’t a solid platform for them even when they secure their own ball.

For me, their best scheme is a 5 man that puts Sawakula and Cane into the midfield. Those two doubles up on the impact of Anton Leinert Brown in midfield and their generally quite big core of wingers, specifically Stevenson and Wainui from this past weekend.

This is a poor fumble from Sowakula but he’s normally a player that the Chiefs really want to get onto the ball. He was a winger a few seasons ago but the conversion to the back row hasn’t really taken anything from his speed and explosivity on ball. He might not be the most complete lineout forward but he’s a really effective ball carrier, off-load threat and credible decoy runner.

The problem is that the Chiefs produce less quality ball from their shortened lineouts and, as a result, I don’t think we get to see the very best from Pita Gus Sowakula. Ideally, the Chiefs will get a solid lineout core of five in the next 12 months that will produce the kind of platform they need to get the very best from their athletic runners.

Frustration

I think the Chiefs current problems go a little deeper than just their front five and lineout. That isn’t to say that it’s all bad, either. The losses have been quite close and, besides the Highlanders comeback game, the Chiefs haven’t been stinking the place out despite their losses.

On the positive side of the ledger, they have the best goal kicker in Super Rugby in Damian McKenzie. He’s currently shooting 84% off the tee and looking like he’s pushing through as an elite goal kicker while also balancing out Aaron Cruden at fullback in a dual pivot system that runs off a fluid 1-3-3-1.

That’s worked relatively well for the Chiefs from what I’ve seen. They aren’t scoring a whole load of tries but I’m not sure that the dual pivots are responsible for that. Cruden hasn’t been great since his return – and he’s gone to Japan now anyway – but I think long term the Chiefs need a better young option at #10. I’m not sure if that’s McKenzie in the longterm, as I think that his path to an All Black jersey is easier at fullback than #10, in my opinion. I think Kaleb Trask has a lot of ability and Cruden’s departure gives him an opportunity.

I think midfield is also an issue outside of Lienert-Brown. Long term, I think Lienert-Brown makes the most amount of sense at #12 for the Chiefs if they continue with McKenzie at fullback. I think Sean Wainui could work out there in the long term, although he seems to be used as a wing as of late. He certainly has the size and explosivity to compliment the other wingers they have in Stevenson and Solomon Alaimalo.

Defensively, I think they need a lot of work. They’ve been conceding too many tries and while the lineout and maul defence is a factor, I think there are comms issues to be worked on. The second Crusaders try was a headscratcher for me.

Why did the inside defenders leave Weber, Sowakula and Stevenson to defend four Crusaders in 20m of space? Why was there no comms from Sowakula to his men inside?

This might be an element of their defensive structures that I’m unaware of but this seems like a massive overcommitment of six forwards to defend against three possible pick-and-go players when there are acres of space on the other side. Vaa’i and Brown are not blameless either on the blindside of this ruck but, whatever the reason, this was a soft way to concede a try.

Whatever else gets fixed, the Chiefs are scoring the least amount of tries while conceding the most amount of tries. Nothing will go right until that metric gets reversed.

In the medium term, Gatland is due to leave the Chiefs for the Lions year, to be replaced by Clayton McMillan as an interim coach.

McMillian will have a cleared injury list – you would hope – and a returned Brodie Retallick in the ranks. Retallick alone will make all the difference but a fresh Luke Jacobsen and Nathan Harris alongside the likes of Sam Cane, Lachlan Boshier and Nepu Laulala will make a world of difference. The Chiefs have decisions to make in certain contracts but the base is already there to seriously improve on what has been a disappointing Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign so far.

The ultimate moral of the story is, don’t count out Warren Gatland just yet.