Gatland’s wet-weather worries

First-five Aaron Cruden has been encouraged to put boot to ball a bit more. GETTY-IMAGES

Chiefs coach Warren Gatland doesn’t know what he’s done to agitate the weather gods, but yet another Super Rugby Aotearoa match for his side is shaping as a wet-weather contest.

Rain is forecast to develop in Hamilton on Sunday afternoon, just in time for the Chiefs’ hosting of the Hurricanes at FMG Stadium Waikato (kickoff 3.35pm).

And that’s not exactly music to the ears of a home team who’s backs-to-the-wall at 0-3, thrives on a high octane, give-the-ball-some-air strategy, and are grappling with their boot-to-ball game.

“It’d be great to be playing on Sunday in weather conditions like we’ve got today, and training in this week, but we’ll just have to adjust to whatever we get,” Gatland said at his team naming media session on Friday, as the sun beamed for another day in the city.

“[Assistant coach] Roger Randle reckons he’s got the farmers’ app, that’s 100 per cent accurate, so he keeps us up to date on the weather conditions. There’s a little bit of a debate at the moment whether it’s going to have blown through by then, or it’s going to come a bit earlier, or a bit later.”

But with the precipitation a distinct possibility, and with his side already at must-win territory with five rounds remaining in this shortened all-Kiwi round robin competition, Gatland is imploring his players to be smarter with their kicking, in a facet which is proving ultra-significant in the modern game.

Far from the perfect conditions they had under the roof at Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr Stadium in the 28-27 opening-round loss to the Highlanders, the Chiefs then encountered driving rain in a 24-12 loss to the Blues in Hamilton, before battling similarly miserable climes in an 18-13 defeat to the Crusaders in Christchurch last weekend.

On both occasions they finished extra-frustrated losers, having dominated many facets of the stats line, except the all-important one on the scoreboard.

Going into this round, the Chiefs had averaged the most time in possession per game (17min 52sec) of any team and had also averaged the fewest missed tackles per game (15.7).

In fact, across all six games played, on five occasions the teams who had lost the possession battle had gone on to win the game. On top of that, each side who had won the penalty count had lost that match. And only once has a team who has kicked less than their opposition, triumphed.

None of that is a surprise to Gatland, though.

“No. It’s a sad indictment on the game, isn’t it,” he professed.

“Often the team kicking the ball the most – not just in this competition, but it’s been a pretty consistent stat – tends to come out with a majority of wins.

“It’s not about territory and not about possession, it’s about the ball, and speed of ball, and all those sorts of things.”

With that in mind, it’s about trying to find a nice balance in the kicking game to mix into the ball-in-hand flair, and Gatland has been in the ear of his playmakers – some experienced operators – to play smarter in getting on the front foot to create quick ball.

“From an attacking kicking perspective, when you think Aaron Cruden’s kicked the ball five times last week, and only four times the week before, that’s pretty low numbers for a No 10 in wet conditions,” Gatland said.

“I don’t want to take away from the players the ability to go out there and play, and play what’s in front of them, be positive. But we’ve just talked about us being smart, and we’ve talked about how we create a little bit more space.

“Sometimes that’s by having an attacking kicking strategy where you’re not kicking the ball to the opposition – you might be kicking a little chip over the top, or kicking the ball to your wingers, a little wee grubber through on the ground where you can retain possession.”

The other key stat Gatland noted was key was ‘turnovers conceded’, and indeed no side going into this round had won if they lost this count to their opponent.

“We’re still conceding more turnovers than the opposition, and it’s probably because we are playing a lot more rugby,” Gatland said.

“So we’re just kind of adapting between making sure we’re smart, because there’s a lot of players on their feet, there’s not a lot of space. So we just need to be a little bit sharper in terms of turning teams around a little bit and then taking the opportunities that are presented to us.”

AT A GLANCE

Super Rugby Aotearoa, Rd 4

Chiefs v Hurricanes

FMG Stadium Waikato, Hamilton

Sunday, 3.35pm

Chiefs: Damian McKenzie, Sean Wainui, Tumua Manu, Quinn Tupaea, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Aaron Cruden, Brad Weber, Pita Gus Sowakula, Sam Cane (c), Lachlan Boshier, Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Mitchell Brown, Nepo Laulala, Bradley Slater, Aidan Ross. Reserves: Samisoni Taukei’aho, Reuben O’Neill, Ross Geldenhuys, Tupou Vaa’i, Dylan Nel, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Kaleb Trask, Solomon Alaimalo.

Hurricanes: Jordie Barrett, Kobus van Wyk, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Ngani Laumape, Ben Lam, Jackson Garden-Bachop, TJ Perenara (co-c), Ardie Savea, Du’Plessis Kirifi, Reed Prinsep, Scott Scrafton, James Blackwell, Tyrel Lomax, Dane Coles (co-c), Fraser Armstrong. Reserves: Ricky Riccitelli, Ben May, Alex Fidow, Vaea Fifita, Devan Flanders/Liam Mitchell, Jamie Booth, Billy Proctor, Wes Goosen.

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