Super Rugby 2019 Performance Preview
The good news about the 2019 Super Rugby season is that it is looking to become more competitive. There are a number of factors that are driving this; rationalising the amount of teams is one but most importantly the overall Cohesion of the competition has gone up. With higher Cohesion comes a more competitive and a better quality competition. This should be a positive for the Super Rugby model as a whole because there is a good relationship with competition Cohesion, competition quality and fan engagement. I have seen this in other competitions such as the AFL and Bundesliga.
While this is good for the overall competition this is not necessarily translated across all the 3 regions with each developing at their own specific rate. Some getting stronger, some staying the same.
In 2018 the relationship between the Key Cohesion Markers (the work I have developed with my colleagues at GAIN LINE Analytics) and performance was strong. The chart below shows how TWI® (measure of squad Cohesion as a result of recruitment philosophy) impacted overall performance.
The general trend (which we see across the history of Super Rugby and in other sports) is that the higher the Key Cohesion Markers, the higher performance. TWI® drives the ability to create in-season Cohesion. While high TWI® teams can create high in-season Cohesion it is not always the case. In some instances, in-season Cohesion can be created outside of the team such as the Jaguares (having a lot of Cohesion flowing back from their players time with Argentina) and the Rebels (with existing Cohesion from the Western Force players).
It should be noted that the overall Cohesion of Super Rugby has dropped around 25% since its inception with team moving from very internally based development and recruitment to looking further afield for players. The teams who have retained their unique pathway systems have generally been the most successful.
Which brings us to the New Zealand Conference. The strongest of the 3 conferences and only getting stronger. To me the New Zealand system is one of the best set up in the world, along with Ireland. Because of the way in which Cohesion is created means they have the ability to not only perform strongly but it is also assisting is creating a talent engine allowing skill to be developed quicker and for players to reach their playing capacity. The New Zealand conference is not surprisingly led by the Crusaders who have maintained their strong TWI® levels. The strength of teams like the Crusaders is that during a good year they are exceptional but when they have a poor year they are still very good. The same goes but with a slightly decreasing extent the Hurricanes, Highlanders and Chiefs. I was lucky to be involved with the Brumbies and Wallabies at a time when the system in place created much of the success. What I was involved with then probably closest resembled the systems the New Zealand teams have. It was what allowed a player like me who just scraped into last spot on the Brumbies roster to become a Wallaby.
While the Chiefs are looking in a good long-term position from a short-term perspective they are behind a little due to the relative inexperience of their group. This inexperience will manifest itself in them not being able to put as much in-game Cohesion on the field during the season. This leaves the Blues, who as counter intuitive as it sounds have struggled because they have access to too much talent. With access to talent comes the desire to get the best players which does allow the stable environment required to develop Cohesion. For all the arguable skills that a player like Ma’a Nonu brings to Auckland, it is countered by the fact he has only had minimal previous experience with 4 guys in the Blues squad (and that includes a guy who was once a first year players at the Hurricanes). Centre is often the hardest for a player to fit into because of all the different interrelationships that are required. Don’t think of how Nonu will fit in with the team but how the other 14 will work with Nonu.
Paradoxically the success of the New Zealand system in producing players for the All Blacks is also a hindrance to their performance especially in the early rounds of Super Rugby. The Crusaders especially suffer from the “All Black Hangover” where their respective All Blacks return late to preseason training and do not always start the season. The Crusaders have a surprisingly poor early season winning record. It seems to be an even draw for all the teams, but the Highlanders may have a slight advantage on that front.
The standout team in the South African Conference are the Stormers followed by the Jaguares. Both these teams have had big jumps in TWI® with the Stormers getting close to the Lions. There has been some speculation that the Lions are dropping back but it is also the case that others are catching up. A season of stability has helped the Jaguares who will also benefit from their time spend together with Argentina. The key for the Jaguares 2019 season will be their ability to reduce the amount of changes that they make throughout the season. This has reduced each season so far so if that trend continues it will enable a greater amount of in-season Cohesion to be created.
While the Lions remain in a strong position relative to the rest of the competition they may struggle to get enough in-season Cohesion compared to the last 2 seasons but at least they have the potential to be in a strong position from their good draw prior to their New Zealand trip. The Sharks are on the improve and will be competitive, but this may not be enough for finals time. The draw will give them a leg up early in the competition though. The Bulls are recovering from Coach churn which is reflected in them being the lowest TWI® of the South African group. On a positive note they are looking to bring in a number of new players from their feeder system which will have a positive impact in the future. For 2019 they will need to grin and bear it for the season and look to build.
The Australian Conference has the lowest overall TWI® of the 3 conferences even when the Sunwolves are not included. The biggest improver is the Queensland Reds who are setting themselves up for the long-term but still won’t have the in-season experience needed to be truly competitive. Both the Waratahs and Brumbies can be competitive if everything goes right during the season. Injuries or other factors that influence selection churn can have a detrimental impact on their ability to get enough in-season Cohesion (this is something the New Zealand teams do not have to worry as much about because more of their performance is driven from their respective TWI®s instead of in-season Cohesion. In 2018 New Zealand teams made an average of 3.41 changes to their starting XV each round, South African teams 3.17 and Australian teams 2.52. To the other extreme when the Brumbies won their last title in 2004 they made an average of 1.1 changes per game and last season the Crusaders made an average of 4.5 changes per game).
The Rebels have a skilled squad with plenty of Wallabies but being effectively made up of players from 3 different teams means it will take them time to work together. Even though there are chunks of existing Cohesion there are still some significant Cohesion gaps. In 2018 the Rebels finished 9th overall but were 7th for attack and 13th for defence. Skill will get you attack but Cohesion gets you defence. Having the combination of Genia/Cooper will have its benefits but this could be negated by the challenges it brings the other 13 players and how they work together to plug the gaps (see chart below). As seen in the past with the Rebels once a team identifies those gaps the score can blow out. Even though Luke Jones is a previous Rebel alum he has only had proper game-day experience with 2 other members of the Rebels squad so while it seems a logical fit to sign him it comes with its own unique challenges (putting that in perspective, the newly re-signed Chief Stephen Donald gets to play with 14 guys from 2016 when he steps back onto the park in 2019).
The chart below shows the relationship between the amount of what we deem as “High” Defensive Gaps (a High Defensive Gap being a significantly poor level of Cohesion between players on the field as measured player-by-player).
As common-sense dictates, the more Defensive Gaps the worse a team is defensively so an inexperienced team will be poor defensively. But what is sometimes not considered is that Defensive Gaps are created when existing players are moved to different positions and new yet “talented and skilful” players are incorporated into the team. Even the best defensive coach or defensive system will break down if players don’t have the required level of understanding to work effectively together.
The Sunwolves have their own unique challenges. Having the oldest average squad and 4th most experience Super Rugby Squad creates a significant negative as they attempt to get understanding between players who have lots of ingrained habits from lots of other programs. They also need to work with the transition of their Japanese Test players into the squad as Japan prepare for the Rugby World Cup. Like in previous seasons the Sunwolves will struggle because of the lack of underlying stability.
Overall the Crusaders remain strong, the Hurricanes look to regain their 2017 form, the Lions and Stormers will be good to follow in the South African Conference and it will be a tight battle between the Waratahs, Brumbies and Rebels depending on who blinks the least during the season. Behind all of this I will be watching to see if Brad Thorn can turn the Reds into his incarnation of the Crusaders as the signals are starting to show.