Bonus points keep Brumbies and Reds in Super Rugby hunt
The Brumbies can congratulate themselves over what is turning into a successful season (AAP Image/Annaliese Frank)
The old rugby adage that forwards win big matches needs the footnote that it also helps to have a well-coached side.
And this is the lesson that was spelled out in capital letters as both the Reds and the Brumbies not only defeated their local rivals, the Rebels and the Force, but also recorded four-try bonus point victories.
The victories were first won off the field with superb preparation of the teams by their coaches, and then on the field when both sides played splendidly to their specific and different game plans.
Bonus points at this stage in an incredibly tight and interesting Super Rugby tournament are like gold. They could be the difference between making the top six and just missing out. Both teams went out with the intention of achieving bonus point victories, by scoring at least four tries.
Here is why bonus points, especially with four-try victories, are so important in Super Rugby. The Brumbies are leading the Australian conference with 54 points, with the same number of victories as the Reds. They have accumulated 10 bonus points, the equal-highest tally in the competition with the Bulls and the Waratahs.
The Reds, on the other hand, have accumulated only 49 championship points, because they have created a meagre four bonus points.
To reinforce the value, the Sharks have won only eight matches but their championship points tally is the same as the Reds’. The Sharks have compensated for their fewer wins with nine bonus points.
Before the Rebels-Reds match at Melbourne, Greg Clark, the excellent rugby match caller for Fox Sports, noted that the Reds had scored no bonus points on the road in 2012. The task facing them was to defeat the Rebels while scoring at least four tries for an elusive away bonus point.
There is always the danger when a side is chasing a large victory by scoring tries that they lose whatever structure they might have gone into the match with. The Reds, especially in the crucial first half of the match, got the balance right between the intention to attack without playing willy-nilly, careless rugby.
At half-time they had a secure grip on the match when they scored three tries, which Mike Harris converted along with a penalty to establish a 24-3 lead.
The Reds did this by basing their game on the fundamentals of strong forward play. The less-fancied Reds second-rowers outplayed their Rebels counterparts. In the loose, the Reds’ dashers were too fast and muscular for the Rebels’ loose forwards.
While James O’Connor, the Justin Beiber lookalike in his new snazzy hairdo, was on the field, the Rebels had some structure and scything attack. But when he left injured, it was left to Kurtley Beale to be a one-man attacking party.
Beale was terrific in everything he did. He exhausted himself trying to provide the sort of attack that the Reds backs as an ensemble mounted on a number of occasions. One of the tries which followed a super Harris dink-and-regather proved to be one of the tries of the season.
I liked the way, too, that when Quade Cooper was on the field he under-played his hand. In the main he relied on his passing game, which is one of the best in world rugby, and in Australian rugby a throwback to Stephen Larkham – to put runners into gaps and to open up the defence. A lot of the headless chook style that often marks his play seems to be on hold while he is finding his way back to match fitness.
It might be a good thing if he just dropped the magic-pass syndrome and the no-look plays and just concentrated on putting players into gaps, kicking for position where required and taking the ball to the line to stop the defence drifting, or when he gets a match-up with a tight-five forward who he can step.
In other words, play like a thinking and effective playmaker.
It is a tribute to Jake White’s coaching skills (and with no doubt great input from the Duke of running five-eighths Stephen Larkham, the Brumbies’ back coach) that Zack Holmes has emerged as a all-round playmaker for the Brumbies. It was noticeable that Holmes was playing very flat, in the Larkham manner. By running on to the ball he forced the Force defence to stop in its tracks rather than drift. Runners in the first line of attack were quickly behind the gain line.
The result was that the Brumbies had their four tries up before half-time.
White and his coaching staff have been able to get really smart play out of Holmes and other players like Jesse Mogg. This is an indictment on other Australian coaches. Rod Kafer, who Holmes resembles in his play and his chunky bum-out manner of running, pointed out that Holmes was in the Perth Rugby Academy and also played for Norths in the Sydney grade competition. Why wasn’t he spotted by the Force or Waratahs coaching staff?
The Force were pretty clueless throughout the match. This state of not knowing how to make the correct play at a specific time was illustrated in the beginning of the match when Josh Holmes (a player who had great promise early on in his career) kicked a box kick from his tryline after the Force had repelled several sharp sorties that looked like succeeding.
From his tryline! Unbelievable.
The result was Jesse Mogg fielding the ball well inside the Force’s half and then scampering away for an early and easy try.
Why do Australian and New Zealand teams persist with the box kick inside their own half? Aaron Smith did it for the Highlanders and they were punished by the Chiefs.
Chris Eaton, the Hurricanes halfback (usually an incessant and stupid box kicker) refrained and refrained and refrained and then, finally, did it with the Hurricanes leading 10-9 against the Crusaders. The result: Zac Guilford ran the ball back about 50 metres and scored under the Hurricanes’ posts. Crusaders 16-Hurricanes 9.
Fortunately for the Hurricanes, Andy Ellis put in a box kick a bit later for the Crusaders. Result: a try to Conrad Smith Smith which was converted to give the Hurricanes a 17 – 16 lead.
The only team in the tournament that plays the attacking-kicking game with any efficiency is the Bulls. They chase the kicks, and when they get turnovers they roll out their big forwards to smash through in the middle of the field. They also have a strong driving lineout which makes oppositions tentative about kicking the ball out when Morne Steyn varies his high kicks with long raking kicks intended to establish a field position for his team.
Yet despite Steyn’s undoubted kicking prowess and the power of the big runners like Pierre Spies, the fact is that the Bulls have won only 8 of their matches and are on 49 championship points along with the Hurricanes, Reds and Sharks, and with four other teams three points or more above them.
In my view, the kicking-attacking strategy, even when played as well as it is by the Bulls, is a self-defeating strategy because it relies on the opposition making mistakes with their catching.
It worked for the Bulls and the Springboks around 2007 because referees allowed chasers to come forward from an offside position, take the catcher out in the air, and then wrap him, preventing him from releasing the ball. At the time, referees penalised the catching side rather than the tackling side for the ball not being released.
The interpretations on all these matters have changed, thankfully, since 2007. The catcher has far more protection. The result is that the Bulls game (and the Springboks game) is not over-powering as it was in their glory days, when they looked like establishing a mortgage on the Super Rugby Championship.
The crucial thing about rugby is that it is a clever and brutal game. Think of it as chess with the pieces able to smash into each other. Winning teams have to be smart and tough. They have to know how to apply their violence in a calculated and cunning way. Players learn this from coaches who know their players, and their strengths and weaknesses both physical and mental.
Right now in the five Australian franchises there are only two coaches who have the combination of rugby intelligence and experience on and off the field that has allowed them to produce teams that have a chance of winning the Super Rugby tournament.
Ladies and gentlemen, may I present for your applause, Jake White of the Brumbies and Ewen McKenzie of the Reds.
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.