Scotty Stevenson: Defence no longer wins championships

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James Lowe of the Chiefs has been part of the free-flowing counter-attack rugby revolution. Photo / Getty
James Lowe of the Chiefs has been part of the free-flowing counter-attack rugby revolution. Photo / Getty

There is an adage in rugby that defence wins championships. As far as Super Rugby is concerned that adage needs to be consigned to the scrap heap or, at the very least, amended to something more like, transition attack wins championships. In Super Rugby defence is not an end - it's a means.

There were moments on Friday night in Dunedin when Force coach Michael Foley must have been pulling his remaining hair out while his team forced turnover after turnover - 23 in total - against the Highlanders and then failed to do anything with the bonus ball. To have 23 extra opportunities against the defending champions is like a gift from above. To squander them is a sin.

In fact, a yawning chasm has opened between the counterattacking ability of New Zealand sides and Australian sides in particular - a point that could not have been better illustrated than by the Highlanders' 76th minute try which denied the Force a losing bonus point. This was not a vintage Highlanders' performance by their own standards, and yet still they were able to have the composure to pounce when they needed to.

It has become the New Zealand way. In the Chiefs' maiden championship season of 2012, they called them 'click plays' and they were practiced over and over again. On kick returns, forward players were taught where to stand to give their returning runner the best chance of beating the defence, and entire defensive systems were coiled so tightly that on the first sign of a turnover they could spring into an attacking structure and capitalise on the opportunity.

The philosophy was simple: if a team scored half its tries from counter-attack, why not practice counter-attack by design rather than by chance. I once spoke to a consultant coach a few seasons ago who had asked a then-head coach how much time he spent on counter-attack. The coach informed him that his side probably did twenty minutes a week on those drills. Needless to say, that team had the lowest turnover-try ratio in the competition.

Look at the numbers as they stand in Super Rugby. Of the Chiefs' competition high 34 tries, 14 of them (or 41%) have been from turnovers, steals or kick returns. Of the Highlanders' 20 tries this season, 10 of them (50%) have been from turnovers or kick returns. The Hurricanes have scored 9 of their 16 tries (56%) from transition attack, and the Crusaders can claim an extraordinary 15 of 22 tries (68%) via the same means.

If you want an indication as to why the Blues may be battling to post the results so far in the New Zealand conference, consider this: of the 11 tries they have scored so far this season, just 2 (or 18%) of them - one from a kick return and one from a line out steal - have come from counterattack play. Worse, they have forced more turnovers per game than any other New Zealand team.

It's not what you have, it seems, it's what you do with it.

As a point of comparison, across the ditch the percentages of counter attack tries drop considerably. Overall the Australian sides average just 28.6% of their tries from counterattack plays, with the Waratahs boasting a conference best 42%. The Waratahs may not be playing to their full potential at this stage of the season, but it was this style of play that saw them claim a first-ever championship just two seasons ago.

Compare that with the Brumbies. No team in Australia comes close to winning the number of turnovers per game that they do, and yet, they have the worst counter-attack try scoring percentage in the entire competition. Just 2 of their 21 season tries have been scored from steals or kick returns, and even when the Chiefs conceded 11 turnovers against them on Saturday night, they were unable to make the visitors pay.

Defence wins championships? Don't think the Stormers would agree with you there. But you can mark my words, the team that wins the title this year will be the one that makes the most of every opportunity to turn defence into attack. At the moment, there are four clear frontrunners, and they're all from one country.

- NZ Herald

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