Rugby: Chiefs lack cutting edge in absence of Cruden at 10

By Kris Shannon

Stats show champions miss the guiding hand of gifted playmaker all over park

Gareth Anscombe has a better goal kicking percentage than Aaron Cruden but lags in most other areas. Photo / Getty Images
Gareth Anscombe has a better goal kicking percentage than Aaron Cruden but lags in most other areas. Photo / Getty Images

The importance of Aaron Cruden for the Super Rugby champions is undeniable but what may surprise about his absence is the level of decline experienced by the Chiefs' attack.

The defending champs will play a fourth straight game without their best player, who is out with a broken thumb, when they encounter the Lions in Hamilton tonight and, judging by the numbers, Cruden's return cannot come soon enough.

With Cruden, the Chiefs are among the most dynamic teams in Super Rugby. Last season's leading scorers as he started every match, they were averaging 27.8 points and 3.5 tries in six games this campaign before the first five-eighth was injured. Without Cruden, the Chiefs have struggled for direction and penetration. Scoring is down seven points and tries have dropped to four across three games.

The champs have looked off colour in possession the past three weeks and the statistics support that assertion. As a team, they are averaging 290 metres fewer without Cruden, while passes (-22), offloads (minus seven) and clean breaks (minus five) are all significantly down on season averages.

Although one man hardly makes a backline, the Chiefs are plainly missing Cruden's guiding hand, his ability to take the ball to the line and slip a teammate into space.

Gareth Anscombe has shown his proficiency in the position but the pair's individual statistics reflect the concrete contributions the regular starter brings - not to mention the ineffable qualities, the je ne sais quoi, the two-time champ has in his locker.

Anscombe has kept the Chiefs competitive courtesy of an accurate boot, kicking at an 81.3 per cent success rate to Cruden's 71.9, but his numbers around the park elucidate the disparity between players. Cruden holds a clear advantage in carries, metres, offloads and passes (see panel). While much of this can be explained by an altered game plan with Anscombe at pivot, the fact the usually fluent Chiefs have changed their strategy hints at why the attack has struggled.

"[Anscombe] hasn't played any quality time at 10 in two years," said assistance coach Andrew Straw-bridge. "He missed the whole of the ITM Cup; when he was on the verge of playing 10 for us last year he broke his foot. So he's just remembering and building his confidence.

"We've gone back to the basics to help with the decision-making, not just for Gareth but for all our decision makers around eight, nine, 10 and 12.

"Those guys are getting more confident as well, so hopefully Gareth isn't out there making decisions on his own - hopefully it's a team and he's making the calls on the run that matter," said Strawbridge.

Despite their poor recent record, the Chiefs will be well-placed heading into their second bye if they can dispatch the Lions tonight and the Blues the following weekend. Cruden should be in line to return following the brief break but Strawbridge was careful about over-accentuating the No10 narrative.

"I don't think the issues are around a Gareth v Aaron dynamic. We got ourselves in all sorts of trouble in South Africa [with Cruden] and ground our way out of it. It was no different against the Crusaders when Gareth had to go to 10. We got into a hole and we nearly ground our way out of it. I see very little difference - it was about a team struggling a little bit with their game, not a 10."

- NZ Herald

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