Hurricanes Director of Rugby Chris Boyd has been appointed to replace interim boss Alan Gaffney at Northampton Saints for the 2018/19 season.
After the sacking of Jim Mallinder, I wrote two articles outlining the turmoil at the Saints, and how I believe it can be fixed. They can be found here and here. Northampton appear to have plotted a bolder course than I predicted though.
Chris Boyd has been appointed on the strength of his work with the Hurricanes. He will want to set Northampton up to play in a somewhat similar fashion. The Saints board clearly want Saints to play a Hurricanes style brand of rugby. They have also made a couple of interesting points in interviews. Firstly they want Boyd to look at the whole organisation, top to bottom, and make recommendations about how they should run things. Secondly, they and Boyd appear to want a new set of coaches, who are both English and experienced in the Premiership.
So, how do Boyd’s Hurricanes play?
The Hurricanes scored a scarcely believable 97 tries in 2017. This phenomenal haul was a result of the Hurricanes playing a very attacking brand of rugby.
There are several striking features of their attacking game plan:
- The Hurricanes like having at least one extremely quick forward on either touchline. This is often Vaea Fifita and Dane Coles.
- When they are around the 15 channel, the Hurricanes like using the wide forward on that side to attack blind. TJ Perenara will support on his inside and the winger on the outside.
- Beauden Barrett looks to use his excellent cross-field kick from deep. When they played the Stormers, Barrett put on an absolute masterclass of cross-field kicking to get around a narrow defence. This is also a good way to pull the opposition wingers out of position for more traditional kicks.
- Many teams these days have fast outside backs. However, the ‘Canes have an unbelievably quick team across the board. Forwards such as Ardie Savea, Vaea Fifita and Dane Coles are as rapid as most backs. The ‘Canes also have probably the fastest halfback combination in the world in TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett. This pace is crucial to their scramble defence, kick chase and in finishing off line breaks.
- The Hurricanes are not a huge team, but they are littered with explosive ball carriers like Ngani Laumape, the Savea brothers, Fifita and Coles. I am looking forward to seeing Asafo Aumua join in the fun in 2018. This carrying allows them to generate a lot of front foot ball for their superstar halfbacks. These carriers often operate wider than other teams, through the 12/13 channel. Such a preference may explain why Boyd used Jordie Barrett at 15 last year, playing Laumape at 12 instead.
- The Hurricanes are among the very best at executing strike moves from lineouts and scrums. They love to use the threat of a Beauden Barrett outside break to tempt a defender to step in too early.
- TJ Perenara is one of the worlds best support runners, and he is far from the only exceptional support player at the ‘Canes.
- The Hurricanes are, typically for a Kiwi team, fantastic on kick returns and when they get turnover ball.
- This team are willing to attack from anywhere; they clearly have a license to play what they see in front of them no matter where they are on the field.
- They like to spread the ball to the wings and then cut inside against the grain of the drift defence. This results in occasional line breaks and extra meters. Northern teams don’t do this as much as New Zealand sides. Instead, the second to last man will normally take contact and recycle.
- The Hurricanes use offloads a lot as a way of keeping the pace of the game high. They are a very fit team and back their pace to get them into position to go wide again before the defence is ready. They also use offloads in the more normal way to try and break the line.
In the Quarter-Final victory last year we can see many of these attacking traits on display. We also see a vulnerability in maul defence and in getting too narrow.
The highlights of the Semi-Final loss also shows some of these attacking traits. The Hurricanes did, however, concede several tries from close range, simultaneously showing an excellent scramble defence and a vulnerability to the Lions’ close carrying game.
Do Northampton have the players to emulate Boyd’s Hurricanes?
The obvious answer is no they don’t. Northampton’s outside backs are a lot older and slower than their Hurricanes counterparts. Although the Saints 9s are quick, Dan Biggar will be at flyhalf next year and he does not have anything like Beauden Barrett’s pace. Dylan Hartley and Mike Haywood are nowhere near as mobile as Dane Coles, Ricky Riccitelli or Asafo Aumua. The main carriers, such as Teimana Harrison and Courtney Lawes, tend to operate closer to the breakdown and in heavier traffic than the likes of Vaea Fifita and Ardie Savea. They are also considerably slower.
One area of similarity is the styles of Harry Mallinder and Jordie Barrett. Both were star U21 Internationals, and have been involved with their full International teams. They are very large, tall men. Both can kick goals, and operate at 10, 12 and 15. Neither player is slow, but they don’t have jet heels either. Both are outstanding playmakers with a penchant for scoring lots of tries. Both have a growing highlight reel of magic passes, offloads and tricks. Will Boyd use Mallinder the same way he used Jordie Barrett?
Who plays like this in Europe, and are they successful?
The Scarlets and Glasgow both have a lot of the same attacking traits as the Hurricanes. They also have coaches with Super Rugby experience, although in fairness Steven Jones and Gregor Townsend have had as much influence on the style of these teams as Wayne Pivac and Dave Rennie. The Scarlets are in the knockout stages of Europe and are reigning champions domestically. Glasgow are also recent winners and are flying in the Pro 14 this year.
In the Premiership, Dai Young’s Wasps are an exceptional attacking side with explosive ball carriers. They are probably the closest English team in style to a Super Rugby side. They are playoff contenders this year and made the final last season. These teams show that a Hurricanes style of play can definitely work in England and Europe.
Northampton are still in a mess, as we can see in their last European game against Saracens. There is a huge amount of work to do. They appear to require significant personnel changes if they are going to replicate large parts of the Hurricanes style. This is a process the Saints are committed to simply by making their choice of head coach. Why hire Chris Boyd if you don’t want to play like the Hurricanes? If Boyd can successfully introduce this more attacking game plan, there are other teams in Europe who show it can be successful. Interesting times lie in wait at Franklins Gardens, and as a neutral, I really want to see Boyd succeed in making Northampton another great team to watch.
Author: Daniel Pugsley
I am a 31 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I recently moved back to England and have had to take a break from playing, but I hope to pull on the boots again soon.