ANALYSIS: Stormers face 'aerial raids' from Hurricanes
SUPER RUGBY SPOTLIGHT: Ben Smith explains why Beauden Barrett may unwrap his cross-field kicks in Wellington on Saturday.
Fresh off the back of a maiden Super Rugby title and back-to-back final appearances, the Hurricanes came into the 2017 season full of confidence.
They immediately took the Super Rugby competition by storm with a dynamic attack led by Beauden Barrett and his younger brother Jordie, with tries raining down through cross-field kicks as part of the most prolific scoring team in Super Rugby history.
Their 596 points is the most ever in a season, and perhaps the 2017 Hurricanes are the best side to not win the Super Rugby title.
Just as quickly as the cross-field kicks became the hottest trend of 2017, they subsided, and in 2018 were used less and less. The times they were used weren’t finding their mark as much as the year before.
The ‘hot ball’ scenarios off turnovers and long breaks were key to this. The opposition back three often becomes compromised in these situations making it ideal to kick over the top, and this wasn’t happening as much last year, reducing the number of chances to deploy the kick-pass.
Against the Chiefs last Friday, we can see this is still in the back of Barrett’s mind and part of the Hurricanes identity.
From a midfield scrum, Barrett comes in motion from the open side to attack the blind channel and creates a two-on-one to free Wes Goosen (11) down the left edge.
After the line break, they have the Chiefs back three under pressure and down to two men.
At the very least, they have a one-on-one aerial contest out wide with Jordie Barrett (14) on an isolated Ataata Moeakiola (11), so Barrett (10) decides to chance his arm with the kick-pass, but duffs it with the three iron.
It falls well short of being contestable and the Hurricanes come away with zero points from the entry into Chiefs’ 22. It is likely that teams are more conscious of this scenario in 2019 and won’t have the wingers high in the line all the way up, even after an initial breach.
Another profitable cross-kick scenario the Hurricanes rely on is when the opposition is coming out of an exit situation. This is where Ngani Laumape deliberately makes a beeline for the wing as part of a deliberate plan to get involved from the edge.
If the opposition has a poor exit and the ball is kept in play, often the opposite wing is coming up in kick-chase leaving the space in behind.
Against the Highlanders on the stroke of halftime, the exit kick fails to make touch and Barrett brings it back on the counter.
He immediately spots Richard Buckman (14) pushing up as part of the kick-chase line and drops the ball over the top into the path of Laumape who beats the cover defence to score.
These situation-dependent kicks, either off a quick turnover in attacking position, a poor exit kick or after a decent line break downfield, are still reactionary kick plays.
If the Hurricanes don’t get those scenarios then the chances never materialise to use Barrett’s attacking kicking game.
When the Hurricanes had Julian Savea and Cory Jane on the wings, the ‘wipers’ kick from set-piece became a calculated risk with good odds. Both were adequate jumping options that had a good chance to win the ‘all-or-nothing’ one-on-one contest.
With Jordie Barrett now playing on the right wing the Hurricanes now have both a kicking and jumping option to work with and can start using the set-piece to cross-kick again.
The next area of growth in the Hurricanes attacking kicking game can come from this area by implementing switch-kick plays using more guise to create more room for the catch.
Beauden Barrett often aligns directly behind a midfield scrum before the play to hedge his bets and keep the defence guessing. Using the threat of TJ Perenara’s running game on the short side we can run a bluff, before bringing it back to Barrett on the open side using this same formation.
Using an 8-9 to break to the blind, the Hurricanes can pull the attention of the opposition halfback, the number 8 and possibly more open side players in this direction.
The winger, Wes Goosen (11) in this instance, can drop underneath Perenara while fullback Chase Tiatia (15) offers an outside option to attract further interest in the blind side raid.
Perenara plays Goosen underneath who passes back across the scrum to Barrett, now drifting to open side who can then pull the trigger on the cross-kick to Jordie Barrett out wide.
If the switch succeeds in getting the defence to start the ‘rolling coverage’ most back threes employ, the window for Barrett’s kick will be even larger as the defending winger on that side will have moved to the middle of the field.
With Jordie Barrett offering a kicking option as well, we can use Beauden Barrett as a decoy and work Jordie into the play as the kicker.
From the same situation but on the opposite side, Beauden Barrett (10) could run an early switch line across to the blind side in anticipation of the 8-9 break that way, drawing the interest of the defence.
After the 8-9 break down the blind, TJ Perenara has Beauden Barrett and Chase Tiatia as options outside him, but again plays the wing underneath.
This time it would be Jordie Barrett (14), our kicker, who can either try a mid-range kick to the open side for the midfielders or attempt a booming long-range kick-pass to the left wing.
These ‘switch kicks’ can be built into the playbook out of existing formations, offering another option for the play callers. If they identify teams where wingers often react early to the break at scrum time, these could be perfect plays to prey on that vulnerability and incorporate the kicking skills of the Barrett boys.
The visiting Stormers wore torn to pieces by the Hurricanes kick-game on their last visit by the high-flying Hurricanes in 2017. The first four tries were scored from the boot, with three from cross-field kicks and another long-range try was sparked by another Barrett cross-kick.
With the Bulls picking apart the Stormers 40-3 in round one this year with tactical kicking, don’t be surprised to see the Hurricanes look for the same formula, and for the ‘Air Raid’ attack to surface again.