Comebacks commonplace in current Super Rugby season
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Hurricanes' 22-point rally to beat the Sunwolves in the weekend's ninth round of Super Rugby draws attention to increasingly common come-from-behind wins in the tournament this season.
The Wellington-based team, who moved to fourth on the overall table, trailed 23-7 before mounting a concerted comeback which saw them win 29-23.
The Hurricanes' feat wasn't unique — the New South Wales Waratahs trailed the Melbourne Rebels 17-7 at halftime before rallying to win 23-20.
The Chiefs also raised a stern but unsuccessful rally against the Lions, closing to 20-17 after trailing 20-0 at halftime.
Even the nine-time champion Crusaders have had to don rally caps several times this season. Against the Highlanders in round eight they trailed 10-7 at halftime before winning 43-17. A week earlier they were down 7-0 at halftime against the Brumbies but went on to win 36-14.
There's no question rallies excite fans, especially fans of the winning team, though there is something fascinating for everyone in an inexorable comeback.
But the larger matter is why they have become more commonplace, how teams which dominate a match early on progressively lose control.
Bench strength clearly plays a part. Some Super Rugby team gain more impact from their bench than others; the Crusaders are a case in point and they often finish strongly against tiring opponents. Fitness adds to that advantage.
Substitutions, on the other had, can break combinations and sometimes unsettle defensive structures.
It's also less easy to shut down a game than it once was, when the rules of thumb for teams defending a lead was to hold the ball or plug it into the corners.
Modern rules make that more difficult. Because defensive teams have privileges over the tackled ball, holding possession for extraordinary lengths of time is harder. Turnover ball is dangerous and one error can concede points.
In the past, teams defending a lead would kick for field position, pegging opponents in their own half. But that is also fraught with peril in the contemporary game which makes the prevalence of kicking in Super Rugby more baffling.
In rugby there are usually three main reasons for kicking; to improve field position, to relieve pressure or to apply pressure. Almost none of those rules apply to kicking tactics used in Super Rugby.
The main criticism of the tournament's endemic kicking game is its aimlessness. Kicking seems a default mechanism: when all else fails, kick.
The kick pass was used in most of the matches in the weekend round, sometimes frequently. Elton Jantjes employed it several times for the Lions against the Chiefs to no real purpose.
The ball moves more swiftly through the air than through the hands and the kick pass is an excellent means of getting the ball quickly to a player out wide. But it is a tactic now widely anticipated.
There is a delicacy in the kicking games of some players, who have a range of chip kicks, grubbers, short-range up-and-unders and other variations whose objective is to allow the kicking team to regain the ball.
But the great Australian rugby league coach Jack Gibson was known to tell his players you can never kick a ball too high or too far and that sentiment applies in both rugby codes.
Fans can at least take heart that no match is over until it's over. And it may never be wise in Super Rugby to abandon hope too soon.