DEANS: It’s up the ante time for Australian rugby

Robbie Deans Columnist

By , Robbie Deans is a Roar Expert

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    Australian Rugby union head coach Robbie Deans. AAP Image/Paul Miller

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    As Super Rugby edges towards its mid-term break, and the British and Irish Lions arrival moves ever closer; there is no doubt that the Australian sides have upped the ante on the park.

    In recent weeks, we have seen Australian teams achieve a number of tremendous results, most notably against their New Zealand counterparts, which is a trend we have been waiting a while for.

    This time last year, Australian teams had won just eight matches from 23 starts against their Kiwi and South African opponents.

    At the time of writing, the figure stands at 11 wins, a draw and 12 losses for this year – although the record against the Kiwi teams sits at an impressive eight wins and just three defeats. It was four wins and eight losses at the corresponding point a year ago.

    The latter point particularly is a pleasing statistic and is the result of a number of factors.

    Certainly the impending arrival of the Lions, and the excitement that opportunity is generating, plays a part.

    For many, playing the Lions will be the pinnacle of their careers, and I’m not just talking about in the three Test matches.

    It must not be forgotten that the tourists will play six other matches in Australia; games that will provide six other playing groups, outside of the Test squad, with the opportunity to experience both the Lions and international rugby.

    So what we are seeing is enthusiasm across the board: players are not just bidding for Test spots, they are also bidding to make sure that, if they miss out on the Wallabies, they will get a shot at the tourists for their States.

    But it would be simplistic to attribute the raising of the bar in Super Rugby solely to the Lions.

    Undoubtedly our teams have prepared well.

    That has shown through in the level of on-field organisation that is apparent: the level of clarity and understanding of the playing method is evident across all five states, as is the collective buy in of the players to that method.

    Strides have also been made on the injury and rehabilitation front.

    Injury numbers are down (touch wood!) and the off field management of these is becoming more proactive, with the addition of the new ARU Injury Rehabilitation Coordinator, who works with the states, monitoring the players work-loads while also helping to map out suitable recovery time-lines and return dates.

    It might sound simple but its importance can’t be overstated.

    The impact was clear in the successful returns made by Will Genia and James Horwill, who were both monitored closely in their rehab by the Reds and the ARU before timelines were set, and a carefully graduated return instituted.

    Both returned with agreed steps: 40 minutes for the first game and 60 for the second, before they were let loose over the full 80.

    This undoubtedly assisted in the two returning to the form of old quickly, which has had a significant impact on their team-mates, the Reds and ultimately Australian Rugby as a whole.

    A more coordinated rehabilitation is one area in which we have taken steps towards the highly successful and centralised New Zealand model.

    Our growth of playing depth across the field is another.

    I said at the time, one fringe benefit of last year’s injury trials – which forced the use of 52 players in the national programme – would be the widening of the player learning and development as a result of that exposure.

    We are seeing that now, with players such as Liam Gill, Ben Tapuai, Michael Hooper, Dave Dennis, Sitaleki Timani, Joe Tomane, Dan Palmer and Nick Phipps standing up to play influential roles for their teams.

    Not only has last years’ experience provided them with confidence in their ability to belong at the next level, and added to their hunger; it has also taught them valuable lessons around the requirements needed to succeed in Test matches, especially in the area of physicality.

    The trends that develop in Super Rugby invariably follow on from what has unfolded during the previous year’s Test season, both in terms of the approach taken by the teams, but also in the way matches are refereed.

    That has certainly been the case this year.

    There has been massive emphasis on the breakdown and on defensive pressure, along with the increase in physical confrontation at the expense of open play.

    That hasn’t made the rugby any less enjoyable, it has just meant that sides that win the collision, and dominate at the breakdown – whether it be by securing the ball, or just as importantly by making delivery messy and slow for the opposition, are profiting.

    We saw that recently in the Reds-Brumbies match, but even more pertinently the weekend before, when three Australian teams beat three New Zealand teams in the same round for the first time in Super Rugby.

    In each instance, the Australian side won while having less of the ball, because they applied the most defensive pressure, dominated their opposites physically and profited from the mistakes that pressure forced.

    These are attributes the Wallabies didn’t always get credit for last year, when the players held their nerve to win eight of the nine Test matches we had that were decided by margins of a converted try of less; games where our relentless pressure ultimately got us over the line.

    Pleasingly the players have taken these habits back to their franchises and added to them.

    This is indicative, both of their own personal development, but also of the collective maturity that is beginning to show across a broad spectrum of the potential Wallaby playing group.

    All of which offers great promise for the challenges ahead.