The Super Rugby season kicks off for the New Zealand Conference tomorrow, as the Blues travel to Dunedin to take on the Highlanders. What are some of the questions that each franchise – and the All Blacks selectors – will be considering heading into their 2018 campaigns?
Luck, legacy and the development of Super Rugby
When Robbie Deans crossed the Tasman at the end of the 2008 Super Rugby season, he left his successor a legacy which was impossible to supersede: five competition titles, two second-place finishes and the creation of one of rugby’s great dynasties. After eight seasons attempting to emulate his former coach, Todd Blackadder has now left his own mark on the franchise he first represented as a player in 1996 – but his trophyless tenure has been judged in a markedly different fashion.
Blackadder is a great example of the fine margins which disproportionately affect the reputations of head coaches: in the four seasons between 2011 and 2014, his Crusaders teams lost two semi-finals and two grand finals by an average of 2.5 points. (For comparison, across twenty-one seasons of Super Rugby, the grand final has been decided by an average of 12.3 points per game.) In order to fill out a profile which tallies with the assumption that something inherent to Blackadder underlies these outcomes, ambiguous qualities such as a lack of ‘tactical nous‘ are retroactively attributed – in much the same way that Arsène Wenger’s time at Arsenal cannot outrun the fallacy of the manager with the longest unbeaten streak in English football history lacking a winning mindset and ‘hard edge’, when tactical analysts have been pointing out on-field evidence for his team’s relative struggles for a number of seasons. This is not to exonerate Blackadder completely for these defeats, but simply to point out that perspective is necessary, chance is unavoidable and that criticism of a coach needs to be evidence-based and specific for it to be robust. The Crusaders in this period have been consistently among the strongest teams in Super Rugby, and fortune is intertwined with the nature of a hybrid league-playoff competition.
Blackadder’s tenure also tells us something about how Super Rugby has developed as a competition as the professional game has developed. In the eleven seasons between 1996 and 2006, the tournament saw twelve different franchises reach the semi-final stages but only three (Blues, Crusaders and Brumbies) win the title; in the ten seasons since 2007, by contrast, seven different winners have emerged from an equal-sized field of twelve semi-finalists. This evidence suggests that, in the early life of a competition, organisations that are able to implement strong performance cultures are able to gain a huge relative advantage over other their competitors who lag behind. However, as time passes more and more teams are able to replicate these successful habits, and in Super Rugby the relative advantage for a franchise like the Crusaders over its opponents diminished as rugby moved into its second decade of professionalism – even as their own methods of maximising performance were likely improving. This is similar to the manner in which the distance between the All Blacks and their international competitors has been growing less significant over time – not due to any lowering of their standards, but because the development of professionalism has pushed more and more teams into the successful development of high performance environments – and is more important context to bear in mind when we judge the legacies of coaches like Blackadder.
The New Zealand franchises dominate the overall standings as the Super Rugby season approaches its June break, holding three of the four Australasian wildcard spots. There have been some outstanding intra-conference clashes in the competition so far, with the South Island Derby between the Highlanders and Crusaders in Round 12 a particular highlight for its intensity and quality on both sides of the ball. As we will see by examining some basic statistics, it is not only their success but their distinctive styles of play which make these two teams among the most interesting to watch in the competition.