The Long Arm: Super Rugby’s game within a game

NEW PLYMOUTH, NEW ZEALAND - MAY 12: Anton Lienert-Brown of the Chiefs charges forward during the round 12 Super Rugby Pacific match between Chiefs and Queensland Reds at Yarrow Stadium, on May 12, 2023, in New Plymouth, New Zealand. (Photo by Andy Jackson/Getty Images)

Anton Lienert-Brown of the Chiefs charges against the Queensland Reds at Yarrow Stadium, on 12 May.
Photo: Andy Jackson / Getty

Opinion: You have to hand it to Super Rugby Pacific, after a mid-season lull that brought out an almost pre-recorded barrage of criticism, the last couple of weeks’ worth of action has provided a pretty effective counter argument to the nay-sayers.

For a start, more Australian than New Zealand teams won last weekend. The Reds pulled off a massive upset over the table-topping Chiefs, while the Brumbies got over the Highlanders in a very entertaining game in Canberra. The latter result wasn’t even a surprise, nor was the home side’s ability to score some eye-catching tries.

Then there’s the fact that the much-maligned playoff picture produced an intriguing last few rounds for the Waratahs, Reds, Force, Drua, Rebels and Highlanders as they all rely on each other’s results to try and seal a place in the top eight.

It all feels like it will come down to some crucial calls and plays.

Refereeing decisions are going to be key, just ask the Blues about how the officiating crew in their loss to the Crusaders managed to somehow miss an obvious knock on in the lead up to a Crusaders try on the weekend.

But when the whistle-blowers do get it right, which is admittedly most of the time, it opens up the game-within-a-game situation that is progressively changing the way teams behave.

It’s no secret that the Long Arm, or penalty advantage, is like a free play on attack. But according to Blues assistant coach Daniel Halangahu, it’s almost like that on defence as well – as long as you’re smart about it.

“Under advantage you can get at least another 15 phases if you want,” he said at Blues training this week.

“You’ve got teams like the Crusaders that once they infringe, they’ll look to infringe again. Once the other team is under advantage and the arm is out, you’ll see them get offside and looking to kill the ball so the penalty gets blown. Because they don’t want to have to defend those 15 phases.

“It’s up to referees to keep them honest and not try to kill it.”

However, the Long Arm can also cause headaches on the other side of the ball, which Halangahu admits can cause a rush of blood on attack that means a lot of unnecessary work goes into contesting needless rucks.

“I think the psyche has changed a lot,” he said.

“You see a lot of teams – and we’ve been very guilty of it – all of a sudden try a kick play or throw it out the back and there’s a time and place for that. But we’ve often been too hasty to pull the trigger on that.

“You could see it in our last game, we threw it out the back to Beauden (Barrett) and Zarn (Sullivan) and we put our forwards under pressure instead of staying patient.”

The length of the Long Arm is also something that is affecting the way teams are playing, given that once you get a penalty advantage inside the opponent’s 22, the only thing that will override it is a try or another penalty advantage. Halangahu said that for minor infringements, the tide is going the other way.

“For knock ons, because refs are trying to avoid scrums, they will call advantage over a lot quicker. Even when a team goes backwards. We understand that, rugby is a product and we’re trying to get away from too many scrums.”

So, it feels like the proliferation of cross kicks and wild plays as soon as the Long Arm comes into play aren’t going anywhere just yet, although it certainly feels like something more coachable going forward. At the moment it feels more like a last tackle option in rugby league, but Halangahu’s point about putting more pressure on referees should make it a deliberate attempt to get not only seven points, but reduce the other team to 14 players as well.

His Blues side face a buoyant Reds side in the annual battle of the two most underwhelmingly named rugby teams in the world in Brisbane on Friday night.

If it’s as tight as the hosts’ last win was, whichever team that uses the Long Arm best may well be the ones smiling at full time.

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