Breaking Down the NZ Fly-half Options

Published on: August 17, 2015

Filled Under: Analysis, International, World Cup 2015

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31 Days. Not long till the World Cup starts, and Steven Hansen has some tough decisions to make at fly-half.

Dan Carter’s superb performance in the Bledisloe Decider – his last on New Zealand soil before he heads off to Racing Metro – was the Carter of old. Barring an injury, you would expect him to be the first choice 10 for New Zealand in the World Cup.

We all know not to rely on one New Zealand 10 however. Last World Cup they lost 3 fly-halves to injury, and had to call up Steven Donald to fill the gap. So, the question remains, who should be Carter’s deputy? Who is NZ’s backup if Carter gets injured again?

The 3 other fly-halves in the New Zealand Squad right now are:

Lima Sopoaga
Age
: 24
Height: 1.77m
Weight: 91kg
Test Caps: 1
Test Debut: vs South Africa, July 2015
Super Rugby Team: Highlanders (Winners)

(stats from allblacks.com)

Beauden Barrett
Age: 24
Height: 1.87m
Weight: 91kg
Test Caps: 30
Test Debut: vs. Ireland, June 2012
Super Rugby Team: Hurricanes (Runners Up)

(stats from allblacks.com)

Colin Slade:
Age: 27
Height
: 1.83m
Weight: 93kg
Test Caps: 20
Test Debut: vs. Australia, September 2010
Super Rugby Team: Crusaders (7th)

(stats from allblacks.com)


Which of these fly-halves does Hansen take to England for the RWC? Who can he trust as the backup fly-half in a knockout game?

I’ll be looking at the different facets of their game – their attack, defence and their goal kicking, and see which player is mostly likely to make the step up if needed. All the stats (unless stated) are from the 2015 Super Rugby season, and are only from their game time at 10, as both Slade and Carter played in numerous positions throughout the season.

In regards to Carter, I would take these stats with a pinch of salt. Because of less gametime overall/ a bad first game back against the Hurricanes, his stats can easily be skewed.


Attack:

Player Minutes Played Tries/Assists
Carter 393 0/2
Sopoaga 1327 2/10
Barrett 941 3/2
Slade 845 3/4

Source: ESPN Rugby Stats

Whilst he’s admittedly had more game time at 10 this season than his competitors, Sopoaga is clearly ahead of the others in terms of assists, having helped produce more tries than any other 10 last season in Super Rugby. Try assists are counted as the last person to pass to the try scorer. Carter has the least impressive stats of the four, but by far has spent the least time playing at 10 this season, having predominantly played 12 for the Crusaders, with Slade at 10.

Player Minutes Played Total Runs Metres run with ball Clean Breaks Defenders Beaten Offloads
Carter 393 130 149 1 2 5
Sopoaga 1327 283 544 9 31 13
Barrett 941 284 742 10 34 11
Slade 845 261 441 13 19 9

Source: ESPN Rugby Stats

Carter’s case doesn’t get any stronger when you compare his runs, offloads, and clean breaks. Whilst he has had much less time, Carter is still someway off from the others. Sopoaga still looks impressive on this table, but apart from offloads he’s beaten to the top spot by Barret, who covered more ground, and beat more defenders than anyone else. To break this down further, lets look at how many meters each 10 makes per run on average:

Player Metres made per run
Carter 1.146
Sopoaga 1.922
Barrett 2.594
Slade 1.70

Source: ESPN Rugby Stats

Barrett made the most metres per run out of the 4. This is perhaps unsurprising, with it being one of the biggest strengths of his game. He made the most metres out of any 10 in the Super Rugby season, and was ranked 11th overall for metres covered by any player; pretty impressive stats for a fly-half. Sopoaga and Slade are similar to each other, with Carter coming last again.

Next, we’ll look at their decision making with ball in hand:

Player Kick % Run % Pass %
Carter 20.30 64.36 15.34
Sopoaga 24.86 54.11 21.03
Barrett 20.59 56.24 23.17
Slade 11.26 68.32 20.42

ESPN Rugby Stats

They are all pretty similar in their decision-making, except for 1 or 2 stats. Carter and Slade both run with the ball more often than Sopoaga and Barrett, and Slade kicks far less than the other contenders. This could be part of his natural game, however he did have Carter outside him at 12 for most of last season, and he’s not a bad kicking option to have outside of you, or it might have been part of the Crusaders game plan.

So far, by the numbers, Sopoaga sets up the most tries, Beauden Barrett is the most dangerous running option at fly half, and Carter’s running game has looked the weakest of the 4 at the 10 position.


Defense:

This again, is only showing their stats at 10:

Player Turnovers Conceded Tackles Made Tackles Missed Tackle Success
Carter 5 38 13 74.51%
Sopoaga 33 70 22 76.09%
Barrett 10 87 14 86.14%
Slade 10 68 16 80.10%

Source: ESPN Rugby Stats

Whilst Sopoaga is one of the more dangerous options attacking wise, he also conceded far more turnovers compared to the other 3, even taking into account his larger game-time. A weakness of his game that will not have escaped the coach’s notice.

Barrett has the best tackle success ratio up at 86%, and Slade next on 80%.

Carter has the worst tackle success of the 4 at 10, however – in one one game against the Hurricanes this year, he missed 9 tackles. This was his first game back at 10 for a considerable amount of time towards the end of the season. If you take that game out, his stats read at 88%, the best of the lot.


Kicking:

A key part of any fly-halves game. Goal-kicking is crucial, especially in the knockout stages. Who can you rely on to make the crucial kick for territory? Who can convert from the touchline?

Unlike the other posts, I’ve included each players stats from the whole season, rather than just playing at 10, as playing at 15 or 12 doesn’t have any influence over the goal-kicking stat.

Player Lima Sopoaga Daniel Carter Beauden Barrett Colin Slade
Penalty goals 31 22 24 15
Missed penalty goals 13 7 10 8
Penalty goal success 70.50% 75.90% 70.60% 65.20%
Conversions 38 23 17 20
Missed conversions 19 5 13 5
Conversion success 66.70% 82.10% 56.70% 80%
Drop goals 4 0 0 0
Kicking success 68.30% 78.90% 64.10% 72.90%

Source: Opta Rugby Stats

Whilst being the bigger attacking threats, both Sopoaga and Barrett have the worst kicking stats of the 4 from last season, in particular the conversion stats. If the All Blacks are in a tight game, they may not feel comfortable relying on those 2 to kick them to a win.

Carter is the most reliable of the 4, which is no surprise. He’s shown many times for New Zealand that he’s the most reliable goal-kicker, and will be aiming to continue his form into the World Cup.

It’s also worth noting that the only fly-half to have got any drop goals last season was Sopoaga. This could be extremely useful, especially in the knockout stages, as New Zealand have found out in previous World Cups. Whether it is enough to balance out his less than stellar conversion percentage however, is a question that needs to be answered.


Overall:

Whilst looking at stats can be useful, and they can tell you certain things about players, they do not take into account things such as workrate, timing of the pass, rucks won and lost, and other facets of the game. By the numbers, Carter shouldn’t be the first choice at 10 for the All Blacks. To be a good fly-half however, you need to have good vision, be able to draw in defenders, organising defence, and kicking out of hand: whether it be a clearing kick, a kick to the corner or an up-and-under. These mostly aren’t quantifiable by stats, and watching their games is the best way of judging these abilities.

Dan Carter:

He may not be the quickest, he may not be the strongest, but Dan Carter has become one of the best fly-halves of all time. His ability to know when to kick for the corner, to draw in defenders, and decision making in general are what have put him head and shoulders above the rest.

Even as recently as the Bledisloe decider, we see 2 key moments when Carter was a decisive factor in 2 of the tries:

Source: World Rugby Highlights HD

First Carter makes the step past James Horwill, and then continues his run, drawing in Quade Cooper, and passing it at just the right time for Dane Coles.

In this instance, Carter draws in 2 defenders, and opens up the gap for Nonu, who runs a great line, targeting Nic White and running in to score. He runs flat to draw them in, and then times his pass perfectly:

Source: World Rugby Highlights HD

Lima Sopoaga:

Making your test debut at Ellis Park against the Springboks is not the easiest debut you could have, but Sopoaga looked calm and collected in a tough environment. He had a rocky start, and took some big hits, but quickly recovered to show us all what he’s been doing this Super Rugby season.

Here are his stats from that game:

Points 12
Metres Made 45
Clean Breaks 1
Defenders Beaten 2
Tackle Success % 63.60%
Kick Success % 71.40%

Source: Opta Rugby Stats

His run and pass here sets up Ben Smith for New Zealand’s first try at the end of the first half.

Source: Sky Sports NZ

Playing with his Highlanders teammate Aaron Smith no doubt helped him, and having that linkup in the All Blacks team could be a decisive factor if he does get picked over his competition.

His tactical kicking is also a big strength, exemplified with this highlight reel of his kicking performance against the Sharks in May:

Source: Observatoire Béarnais

Defensively, he’s more of a risk than the other fly-half options. With the lowest tackle success rate, most turnovers conceded and lower goal kicking stats, this is likely the black mark which New Zealand management will be debating amongst one another.

Another aspect of the game that may count against Sopoaga is the fact that both Slade and Barrett can both cover a number of other positions in the backline. Utility players are valuable in the World Cup, and it’s definitely possible that Sopoaga could get passed over because he hasn’t got that ability to play more than one position.

Beauden Barrett:

Barrett has struggled with injuries towards the end of the season, damaging his medial ligament and straining his calf. He knows goal kicking is one of the areas he needs to work on to be considered, however admitted that he had been having hip pains in the build up to the super rugby semi-final because of over-practicing. If he hasn’t properly recovered from those injuries and they flare up during a match, that could be a real problem.

As shown in the stats earlier, Barrett’s running game is one of his big strengths. He has speed most wings would be proud of, and is frequently utilised as a “super-sub”. Coming on as a sub later on in games for the All Blacks at fullback, Barrett has made a name for himself by tearing apart tired and weary defenders:

Source: LyesalotRUGBY

His athleticism puts him apart from his rivals, and his versatility to cover 10, 12 and 15 is another feather in his cap.

However, his caliber as a fly-half at the top international level has been brought into question. Most notably in recent history, his inability to unlock the Welsh defense back in 2014 was a real problem. It wasn’t until Slade came on that the New Zealand attack starting clicking.

Colin Slade:

Mr Versatile. Slade has played in nearly all the backs positions, slotting in at wing, fullback, centre and fly-half for club and country. It’s something that Hansen has relied on, most recently calling Slade up to the bench for the Bledisloe decider.

Slade, like Barrett also injured himself towards the end of the season. The same questions have to be asked, will he hold out for the World Cup?

His abilities as a goal-kicker are what give him the best chance of being in the World Cup squad. He’s second only to Carter in terms of kicking percentages.

Source: markispostal

He has no fears tackling the big guys either, taking Nonu head on, resulting in knocking out his mouthguard in the process!


Summary:

In the past, the All Blacks have usually taken 2 fly-halves, and then one utility back, who plays at 10. Sopoaga is the least experienced of the trio, but his test debut  showed he can handle the pressure. His lack of versatility will count against him though, perhaps being seen as the starting choice at 10 if Carter were injured, rather than being a bench option.

Barrett and Slade are both versatile, making them the more obvious choices as Carter’s understudy. Barrett’s running game and ability to be a serious attacking threat, as well as being defensively sound count has to be tempting for management. Slade, however, is the more complete fly-half. He has a much more rounded game, and his goal-kicking is superior to both Sopoaga and Barrett. Slade would be the more reliable option in a tight knockout game, when kicking goals is vital, but at the sacrifice of a dangerous runner.

WRITERS NOTE:

At the time of publishing, both Barrett and Sopoaga have been released for the ITM Cup fixtures:

  • Lima Sopoaga (for Southland vs. Northland, Whangarei, 5.35PM Saturday 22 August)
  • Beauden Barrett  (for Taranaki vs. Otago, New Plymouth, 5.35PM Saturday 29 August)

This would suggest that both Carter and Slade will be in the squad, or that they may be carrying knocks from this weekend. However, the ITM Cup also offers both players one last chance to impress Steve Hansen before he announces his final World Cup squad on Sunday August 31st. It’s going to be close!

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4 Responses to Breaking Down the NZ Fly-half Options

  1. Dave says:

    Interesting. As you said Barrett and Slade are more versatile, a feature that you need at the World Cup. Carter has experience and it looks like he is coming into some form which makes him peerless as a general guiding the team around. Sopoanga is the future and would still be desperately unlucky to miss out. Despite all the speculation we shall just have to wait until 31 August to find out which way the three wise men will go.

    • Adam says:

      Completely agree with your comment, I think this tournament may have come a bit too early for Sopoanga unfortunately, but as you say we’ll have to wait till 31st to see who goes!

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