ROBBIE DEANS interview (pt.1): Wallabies need an attacking mindset
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In the first of a two-part exclusive video interview with Wallabies Head Coach, Robbie Deans, Brett McKay goes to the heart of Wallabies’ planning for the upcoming Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship series.
“We won’t defend the title,” Robbie Deans responds to my question of the confidence within the squad of defending the Wallabies’ southern hemisphere trophy, in this season’s inaugural Rugby Championship.
“You don’t win the Rugby Championship without an attacking mindset. You just don’t succeed against the All Blacks and the Springboks without bringing something to the game.
“We did that last year, and obviously, it was satisfying to pick up the Tri-Nations. It’s something that hadn’t been done for a decade, which is indicative of the challenge. It’s the toughest comp in the world.”
And it’s a pretty sound plan. Logical, but sound. He’s right, too; you can’t expect success in a notably difficult international tournament by simply defending your own line. At some point, you have to score points yourself.
The Wallabies had an excellent lead-in to the Rugby Championship with the series against Wales, and I was interested to hear his thoughts on the parallels between what the Wallabies faced in June and to what is on its way from the southern hemisphere super powers.
“It’s the quality of the Welsh side, first and foremost,” Deans offers. “They’re Grand Slam winners, went through the Six Nations unbeaten and they’re a side that’s probably as close as any to the southern hemisphere. They play 80 minutes, they use width, they’ve got capability across the park, and they’re also strong at set piece. So it was the ideal background for us, we believe, going into playing against what are traditionally the best two teams in the world.”
And that’s probably fair enough. Certainly the Wallabies should have taken some major lessons away from the Welsh series, particularly in the crucial set piece area where you just know that New Zealand, South Africa, and even Argentina will be targeting Australia.
The tight five, but particularly lock still looks to be an area of concern with regular Wallabies captain, James Horwill, out for the season, and the evergreen Nathan Sharpe delaying his retirement with the blessing of his sons. What remains behind these two is something of an undoubtedly talented, but ultimately raw bunch. Deans seems to share the same concerns:
“We’ll work with what we’ve got. Sitaleki [Timani] played well in the Third Test as well. Simmo’s [Rob Simmons] a young man who’s learning the role, learning to become a senior player. We’ll make the most of that [younger] group, and they’ll have to be ‘full noise’ and well prepared to get the job done. But it can be done.”
Reasonable arguments could be mounted to inject the likes of Kane Douglas and Rebels pair Hugh Pyle and Caderyn Neville sooner rather than later. However, you get the sense that blooding potential locks of the future will have to wait, as Deans pumps up the learning curve on Timani and Simmons and milks the last drops of rugby from Sharpe during this series.
Overall, Wallaby squad depth is certainly better than it was not all that long ago. Deans rightly points out that in the lead-up to the Wales series, “We lost something like four or five top shelf five-eighths, and yet we were still able to get through the series, whereas you go back a couple of years and that simply wouldn’t have been the case; we couldn’t have done that.”
“You look at some of our positions of need,” Deans continues, “we’ve lacked a bit of depth at openside, but we’ve now got a couple of opensiders coming on.”
“We’re not without challenge. Nine [scrumhalf], we don’t have a huge amount of depth; the locking stocks probably aren’t that flash. But aside from that, I think we’re making headway.”
This, of course, places even more importance on that core group of players in their mid-to-late twenties. Alexander, Moore, Ashley-Cooper, Barnes, Mitchell, Polota-Nau, Robinson, Genia, Ioane, Pocock. All aged between 24 and 29, these guys have all played somewhere between 25 and 70 Tests each. Even McCabe and Higginbotham, the same age, but with fewer Tests to their name should be included here too.
“The senior group made good strides in June, and that’s what we’ve been working hard at, and waiting on, in many ways, that maturity kicking in and turning that experience into hunger, and not being prepared to accept anything but the best. Because that’s what it’s going to take to take the next step.”
And he’s right, these guys are who Deans can develop his squad around for the future; these are the guys that need to start delivering Test Match consistency as a group. These are the guys who need to deliver a Bledisloe.
With this evident development around his senior group, you get the feeling of a slight change of tack in the way Deans is forming his Wallabies side this year.
Where once you felt the Wallabies tried to build a team and game plan around the likes of Quade Cooper, James O’Connor, and Kurtley Beale, Deans speaks in the build-up to the Rugby Championship of “substance”, and the need to work through games, rather than on the undeniable gifts of these young playmakers.
Those sweating on a 2012 Wallaby game plan built purely on the so-called ‘X-factor’ players are set to be disappointed:
“We will need some ‘X-factor’, but we’ll need a lot more of the substance the group showed in June than the ‘X-factor’, because that’s the ingredient we’ve been deficient of.
“We’ve had ample ‘X-factor’. It doesn’t cut it against the All Blacks in particular, in the first instance,” Deans reasons.
And it’s this notion of substance over ‘X-factor’ that ultimately switches to discussion and/or debate over Australia’s centre pairings over the last 12 months or so.
While Berrick Barnes was superb against Wales steering the Wallaby ship around the park, the reviews of Pat McCabe and especially Rob Horne in the centres were rather mixed. The interesting revelation here from Deans is that it would seem we’re likely to see more of the McCabe/Horne-type combinations than less.
“People look at individuals and draw conclusions about the team, which is nonsense; it’s a team game. It’s about how you apply all your people. There was a lot of discussion around Pat McCabe last year; well, our attack in the Tri-Nations was the best it’d been in ten years, and it was superior to the All Black and Springboks and hence we won the title,” Deans says.
“And Patty was a big part of that. He’s a young man learning the ropes as well, just as we as a team are learning to combine effectively. We’ve made good progress in our attack … our line breaks essentially doubled with each outing*. So we’ll just keep pushing on with that.
“To have a combination is great, you know, we haven’t had a combination for a long time because of injuries. That’s the first time that I can recall that we’ve gone through a series with the same midfield pairing, so that’s definitely advantageous. And when you talk to those blokes, they’ve come to understand each other and in particular come to understand the team game.
“Ample attack. Because they’re blokes who ask of the opposition.
“Some of the viewing public prefer the visible ‘X-factor’ stuff,” Deans says, even adding the ‘air quotes’, “but it’s a team game and that doesn’t cut it against teams of substance.”
“But we’ll try and blend the two. Last year we modified the way we played the game, in order to bring the ‘X-factor’ players into it; they might not have been involved in the start of play, but they were certainly involved in the secondary play. So it was about fitting the skill set of our playing group to what was required.”
I’ve long held the theory that if want to play the likes of Cooper, O’Connor, and Beale in the same backline, you nearly need a couple of ‘straight men’ like McCabe and Horne, Mike Harris, Anthony Fainga’a, or even Adam Ashley-Cooper in the centres to maintain the pursuit of forward direction.
News in recent weeks that McCabe will miss the first two Bledisloe Tests (with a lower leg stress fracture), and that Horne initially and Fainga’a latterly the suggested replacement at 12 maintains that stance. And it seems my theory has a strong ally:
“If you recall the fixture at Eden Park [the first Bledisloe Test of 2011; Cooper played 10, O’Connor on the wing, Beale at the back], we didn’t stick to the script and we played very laterally, we kept going to the edges, and we disrespected our opponent,” Deans explains.
“So that ‘play, play, play’ mentality and approach doesn’t cut it. So you’ve got to have blokes who ask of the defence, you’ve got to engage them and you’ve got to ask enough of them to sap them in order to profit. We adapted our game, we learnt from that outing, and we were more effective in Brisbane when we picked up the Tri-Nations against an All Black side that was lying in wait [after the Wallabies had returned from South Africa].”
“Clearly … our next outing against the All Blacks [the RWC Semi-Final], we obviously came up short. We weren’t as effective, and the reasons were pretty obvious; we didn’t engage once again, we went away from the script, and kept giving them the very ball they like to play with.”
In the time since the interview, I’ve kept thinking that Deans might be looking to use the likes of Cooper, Beale, and O’Connor (once fit again) differently in 2012. I can’t help but wonder if Cooper’s return from a knee reconstruction might provide the avenue for him to be used from the bench as an impact player for the last half an hour of games. Certainly, Barnes has done his chance of holding the no.10 jersey no harm through the Wales series.
He could still utilise O’Connor and Beale from the back to great effect. But I just wonder if we mightn’t be seeing a more measured method of attack for the Wallabies this year.
We’ll find out soon enough.
The Wallabies name their side for the first Bledisloe Cup Test at 11am today.
* Footnote: It’s entirely possible the Wallabies have a different definition of a “line break” to what we might know it to be. Ruckin’ Good Stats had the Wallabies’ 2011 Tri-Nations line breaks numbered at 11, 8, 5, and 7 across the four matches. ESPN Scrum had slightly different numbers, but telling the same story.
Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-1st Grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009 (having joined in Sept 2008), Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport
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