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The Arrival of Super Rugby Aotearoa

By: Shane Miles, Lukas Zaher

Domestic rugby union action is set to return to New Zealand as the country begins easing lockdown restrictions following the coronavirus crisis.

New Zealand Rugby (NZR) have confirmed the go-ahead for a new men’s domestic mini-series named ‘Super Rugby Aotearoa‘. It will temporarily replace the 2020 edition of Super Rugby, the annual 15 team club competition that also includes teams from Australia, Argentina, South Africa, and Japan. The competition will kick off on 13th June as the Highlanders square off with the Chiefs at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin.

The 2020 edition of Super Rugby was suspended after just seven rounds in March, with restrictions on global travel making finishing the series impossible.

Starting this weekend, Super Rugby Aotearoa will see each of the five NZ franchises – Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes – play each other in home-and-away fixtures over ten weeks. Stats Perform have used our detailed rugby data to analyses how this new-look tournament might play out.

New Zealand’s Domestic Dominance in Super Rugby:

Three of the top four most successful teams in the history of Super Rugby are based in New Zealand and of the five teams to have clinched the championship title more than once, three are based in the land of the long white cloud.

New Zealand teams win rate in Super Rugby

Click to enlarge

The first five Super Rugby finals were all won by New Zealand outfits – the Blues clinching the first two before a Crusaders three-peat from 1998 to 2000. Overall, only seven times has a team from outside New Zealand been crowned Super Rugby champions.

Life started out slow for the New Zealand conference in Super Rugby, with only two of the five teams winning more games than they lost in the 1996 campaign. The Blues were the most successful in that campaign, going on to clinch the trophy in the game’s inaugural season.

It would not be until the 1998 season that more than two New Zealand teams would end the regular season with a winning record and it was a season which saw the balance of power in the conference shift dramatically. The Crusaders rose to a powerful position which they would occupy almost perpetually until the current day, while the early success of the Blues was starting to lose its shine.

New Zealand’s stranglehold on Super Rugby has only grown stronger over time. Only once since the beginning of the 2014 Super Rugby season have fewer than four of the five New Zealand teams finished with a regular season win-rate of 50% or higher – including a standout season in 2016 where all five teams finished with a winning record. Now, with all five teams rising to the top of the competition, intra-country derbies take on ever-increasing importance.

New Zealand teams win rate in super rugby derbies

The Chiefs have won half of the 138 New Zealand derbies they have contested over the course of Super Rugby, but it is only the Crusaders who can boast a winning record in such fixtures. The most decorated team in Super Rugby history has won 64% of all their local derbies.

In fact, no other team in the history of the competition has won more games against New Zealand opponents than they’ve lost, with the Crusaders (64%), Chiefs (50%), and Hurricanes (48%) occupying the top three positions in terms of win rates in such fixtures.

The Sharks are the best of visiting teams, boasting a 48% win rate against New Zealand opposition, with the Brumbies (46%) and NSW Waratahs (43%) occupying the positions directly below them.

The New Zealand conference has been the most difficult for nearly all teams to wrestle with in the context of the wider competition. The Cats are the only team in Super Rugby history with a higher win rate against New Zealand opponents than their overall win rate. They’ve won 26.7% of their games against New Zealand opponents but have an overall win rate of 26.2% in the competition.

In Which Areas Do the New Zealand Teams Dominate?

The detailed data shows that we could potentially be seeing the peak of New Zealand’s powers in Super Rugby – or that there are even more dangerous heights to ascend to in the coming years.

New Zealand Teams in Super Rugby

Season Points Tries Clean Breaks Defenders Beaten Offloads Tackles Tackle Success Penalties Conceded 
2011 23.1 2.3 6.7 15.4 10.2 106.1 89% 10.3 
2012 26.6 2.7 7.5 16.3 10.3 107.9 89% 10.5 
2013 25.2 2.7 8.1 20.5 11.5 122.5 87% 10.0 
2014 26.4 2.8 7.6 19.4 11.0 115.5 87% 10.9 
2015 25.3 2.9 10.0 20.3 13.9 112.6 86% 10.7 
2016 29.6 3.8 13.0 21.5 13.2 107.7 85% 9.5 
2017 31.9 4.3 12.7 22.6 13.1 109.0 85% 9.6 
2018 28.7 3.9 12.6 24.0 10.4 121.1 84% 10.1 
2019 27.8 3.8 12.3 24.3 9.7 121.7 85% 9.1 
2020 27.8 3.7 11.8 24.7 8.1 125.0 85% 10.6 

The five New Zealand teams combined have made an average of 10+ clean breaks and beaten 20+ defenders per game in each of the last six Super Rugby seasons – a feat that they had not managed as a conference in even one of the four seasons prior. In fact, they have beaten 24+ defenders per game over each of the last three seasons, with each of the last seven campaigns seeing an increase in this category.

An Evolving Style of Play:

The three seasons prior to the Crusaders current reign of dominance was highlighted by a New Zealand conference ready to throw the ball around. As a collective, they made more than 13 offloads per game throughout each of the 2015, 2016, and 2017 seasons. The data above shows a sharp decline in this area, though, with the 2019 and 2020 campaigns seeing average figures below 10 per game.

Their offensive mindedness has meant that they have been a little less reliant on needing to have a staunch, bolstered defence. The tackle success rate of the New Zealand conference has been 85% or lower in each of the last five Super Rugby seasons after having been above that mark in all five seasons prior. Indeed, their 2011 and 2012 seasons saw a combined tackle success rate of 89% – the highest in the last decade. Though, it is important to note that the volume of tackles has also increased steadily from 106 per game in 2011 to 125 per game in the current campaign.

The Aotearoa Experiment:

Among the incoming changes in Super Rugby Aotearoa are two key experiments which could eventually find a permanent home in Super Rugby. The competition will trial a red card system which allows another player to return as a substitute for a red-carded player after 20 mins as well as a Golden Point system to decide winners in extra-time if they are drawing after full-time in regulation play. Under the Golden Point system, the first team to score – by drop goal, penalty goal, or try – during a 10-minute period of extra time will win the game.

At first glance, the Blues and Highlanders look to be the two teams set to benefit from the reformatted red card system set to function in Super Rugby Aotearoa. Both clubs have been on the receiving end of a red card on five occasions since the beginning of the 2011 campaign – more than any other New Zealand side and tied for third-most overall.

The Highlanders still managed to earn two wins from their five games when they had conceded a red card on the day in the last decade, but the Blues managed to win only once from their five games. They would give themselves a good chance of turning that form around if they could have the opportunity to replace their sanctioned player after 20 minutes.

While there wasn’t a draw in the opening seven rounds of the 2020 Super Rugby competition, there were six played out during the 2019 campaign. That was twice as many as the two previous seasons combined and more than any other single season of the competition has seen.

The Crusaders (5) have been involved in more draws throughout Super Rugby history (not included cancelled games) more than any other New Zealand club; the Chiefs have drawn four games, while each of the Blues, Highlanders, and Hurricanes have accrued three draws.

In the last decade of Super Rugby only three New Zealand players have struck multiple successful drop goals and of those only one is active in the competition. Lima Sopoaga (8) tops the list, but currently plies his trade for Wasps in Premiership Rugby. As a result of a key recent signing in Dan Carter, the Blues could well be placed as the Golden Point specialists for the remainder of this year.

Carter has made four successful drop goal attempts in the last decade of Super Rugby – the most of any active New Zealand player. He’s struck 11 across the course of his Super Rugby career – a figure only Andrew Mehrtens (17) stands above among New Zealanders. Carter’s experience and skill could be the difference when we see our first Golden Point Super Rugby game.

New Zealand continues to rise as the dominant force in rugby in the southern hemisphere and with Super Rugby Aotearoa on the horizon, we won’t have to wait long for them to show us why.

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