How the Waratahs can improve immediately

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NSW Waratahs' Ben Volavola (Image: Paul Barkley/LookPro)

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The performance of the Waratahs against the Brumbies last week was abysmal. They went down to Canberra and came back in a decidedly worse position than when they left Sydney.

I wrote a piece last week which outlined how important this match was for the new regime. I labelled it their first big test to their aims to improve their style of play in tandem with their results.

They failed this test.

On the back of such a rubbish performance Tahs coach Michael Cheika has demanded the players deliver a PowerPoint presentation on what the team can do to improve their play, including at least six academic sources and preferably using an easy on the eye sunburst background.

No, wait. That’s not right.

According to The Australian, he moved the players rest day to Thursday to use days while defeat is still keenly felt to address the issues that resulted in the bad loss.

Sounds like a good idea to me. I’ll get in before the rest day as well. Here are some of the rugby issues I believe can be turned around quickly.

Coming into the match I was keen to see if the Waratahs were able to play an up-tempo style and continue to stick to that method of play if the Brumbies defence was stifling. In reality the Waratahs never really got into the up-tempo game to start with.

I thought it particularly strange the Waratahs didn’t even start out on the right foot. If there was ever a part of the match where a side had enough energy and cohesiveness to execute their plan it would be early on.

The reason they weren’t able to exert any real influence on the game, in the manner they no doubt planned, came down to physicality. Brumbies forwards had their way with their counterparts at ruck and lineout time in particular.

When the ball is being coughed up so often there is no chance to build momentum.

These days Super Rugby sides have only one tried and true method to successfully recycle the ball quickly to establish momentum: forwards running in small pods.

If you watch the sides that establish physical dominance with the ball in hand as well as without – the Brumbies, Stormers, Bulls, Chiefs and Sharks in particular – they station the forwards in obvious groups of two and three to be picked for service by the halfback.

Some New Zealand teams are able to use a slightly more finesse method that includes the forwards re-routing defenders by short, fast passes between the big men. But by far the most successful method of ball retention is forward pods.

The Waratahs simply must make this a prominent aspect of their game.

Two or three runs from a well-supported player opens the field more effectively than most other tactics.

The next part of the play that needs to improve will help the score tick over in groups of five: lifting the speed of the side at the important moments of the game.

All of the best teams in the competition lift their game noticeably when the moment arrives to go for the kill. In reality this is a feature of all good performers in any sport.

Think of a tennis player going from trading ground strokes to suddenly exploding the next shot down the line when there is a small opening. The key is to spy the chance and then to whip into coordinated action.

The Waratahs spent just over four minutes inside the 22m area against the Brumbies. Not scoring a try from that amount of time is atrocious.

That comes down to not elevating the speed and accuracy of the team’s performance at the crucial stages of the match.

Picture the Brumbies maul try. The ball was pushed into the corner, lineout taken and only moments later they’d piled across the line for a perfectly conceived try.

Another example to follow is the Bulls against the Blues on the weekend. What you would notice if you looked carefully at the match was that whenever they had a sniff the Bulls suddenly found an extra gear or two and overwhelmed their opponent.

Their opening try came after Akona Ndungane chased and gathered a high kick.

Suddenly the Bulls transformed from a plodding team, being asked to use it by the ref under the new five second interpretation, into an explosion of pink activity. Just a few phases later they’d travelled the final 20 or so metres to score easily.

Watch all of their tries. The increase in speed and desperation isn’t a coincidence, it’s a key to seizing the opportunity.

One last area I’d try to address this week is the lineout. It’s going to be a bit of a defensive move that I’ll suggest but as a former hooker, I think it is worth adopting especially now it appears Tatafu Polota Nau will not pull up fit for the Cheetahs match.

The Waratahs need to use quick lineouts. Don’t make the calls complicated and drawn out in their execution.

Walk to the lineout quickly and let everyone know the call on the way. Hit your mark and throw straight away. This allows the team making the throw a greater advantage and less time for the defending team to guess the call based on the formations in the line.

It’s a bit of a Band-Aid move that can’t be relied upon to work over the long haul, but the Waratahs need to worry about winning some more matches very soon.

This next sequence of matches is the Waratahs best home stand of the season and they need to move up the standings before they begin to travel.

There are many more areas to polish for this side, as many Waratahs fans have no doubt lamented in the last few days.

However, just looking at these key areas would go a long way in allowing the Waratahs to continue implementing a pleasing style without ignoring the basic need to win rugby matches.

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