The Highlanders had the unwelcome honour of being the first New Zealand casualty of the Blues since 2016. The Highlanders tactics were solid for the most part, but there was one area where they handed the Blues the ascendency time and time again.
You will discover what this area was at the end of this article, but we will start with what the Highlanders were doing well for some context.
The Battle of the Exit Strategies | Highlanders Tactics
This game was all about two exit strategies facing off. An exit strategy is simply how a team gets out of their own 22 or their own half, and the Highlanders anticipated what the Blues would try to do.
Here they kick off deep to the Blues, stage one of the plan.
The Highlanders knew the Blues would kick eventually. The Blues back their defence to form a strong line and defend the ground that was gained with any kicks. They don’t like kicking it out for this reason.
The Blues go through a couple of phases first to suck the Highlanders defence to the 15m line.
The kick lands on the 15m line as intended. This means the Highlanders defenders have to turn around from their defensive positions and make the long trudge back. The Blues can now bring their defensive line up.
This can now go one of two ways. If the Blues successfully keep the Highlanders behind the 10m line and work to regain possession, they win. If the Blues make a mistake, the Highlanders win. Both sides are expecting this to go their way.
Fortunately for the Highlanders, the Blues make a mistake in the contact area and concede a penalty.
The Highlanders did well to keep the pressure on here and keep the Blues within kickable penalty range. It soon became clear that this was a pre-planned tactic.
The Highlanders Strategy In Action | Highlanders Tactics
The strategy becomes more visible below, as the kick off lands just outside the Blues 22 this time.
It would now be unwise for the Blues to kick this out on the full. This further reinforces the Blues choice to keep the ball in play.
This time the kick doesn’t go as planned and the Highlanders gain possession in a good position.
As the ball comes wide the Blues once again make an error in the contact, and the Highlanders will take another 3 points.
It’s important to note that kicking the ball isn’t the only exit strategy going around in Super Rugby at the moment. The Crusaders have developed an unorthodox tactic of simply running the ball out on occasion, which you can read about below.
The Highlanders were doing well to convert these exit opportunities to 3 points, but the Blues were converting them to 7 points at the other end of the field.
Here’s how the Highlanders played right into their hands.
Where The Highlanders Could Have Beaten The Blues | Highlanders Tactics
Much like the Highlanders were hoping the Blues would keep the ball in play, the Blues were hoping the Highlanders would kick the ball out. This is because the Highlanders trust their phase play, while the Blues wanted a lineout to strike from.
Below the Highlanders make the fatal mistake of kicking the ball out. This exit strategy is the worst possible choice against the Blues.
The Blues take the lineout and set up a killer strike move. Rieko Ioane’s pace will be used to exploit a gap behind the lineout before the Highlanders can plug it.
He will need to move fast to get between the two highlighted defenders.
The strike move works perfectly due to sheer pace, and Ioane scores a brilliant try off the back of it. That step is special.
The Blues would score tries twice in this game from this strategy, and converted more points from the exit-play battle that the Highlanders did. If the Highlanders adopted a new strategy that didn’t involve kicking the ball out, their odds of victory would have improved immeasurably.
Are there any other ways the Highlanders could have won this game? leave your thoughts down below.
Author: The 1014 Rugby and Henry Stokes