It has been a significant week in rugby across both hemispheres. While the members of SANZAAR sat down to ponder the future of Super Rugby in the south, England finally climbed off their plateau and began the ascent from ‘base camp two’ towards the top of the mountain in the north.
Australian teams again failed to beat their opponents from South Africa and New Zealand in Round 2, but England rediscovered their mojo in a 61-21 demolition of injury-hit Scotland, underlining their superiority in Europe with a second consecutive Six Nations win.
Next week promises a momentous climax in both hemispheres.
By the end of the week we will know the plans for the new format of Super Rugby, and whether the cuts to Australian and South African representation, hinted at in Spiro’s Monday article, have come to pass.
By late on Saturday afternoon, we will know whether England has been good enough to break the All Blacks’ record of 18 consecutive international wins by beating Ireland in Dublin.
Australian rugby is under pressure to pick the right pathway, both internally and externally. Its own structures, both domestically and within the frame provided by Super Rugby, have to be spot on. At the same time, at Wallaby level it has to be in a position to keep up with the Joneses – not just the All Blacks across the Tasman, but now with Eddie and his cohorts across the other side of the world.
The good news is that there are some signs of life.
The Reds flashed brief glimpses of huge potential against the Crusaders in a game they should have comfortably wrapped up by halftime. Chances are that they will put it all together and land a big right hand on an unwitting opponent sometime over the next few rounds of the competition.
The Queenslanders remain Australia’s best hope of achieving success in the long haul, but they may also turn out to be Michael Cheika’s best hope of improving Wallaby fortunes.
The Reds are the one team in Australia possessing a kicking game anywhere near international standard. The inside trio of Nick Frisby, Quade Cooper and Duncan Paia’aua managed to control the quality of kick-return ball available to the Crusaders for most of the first hour of the match.
It was only in the final quarter that the kick-chase began to break down and offer the Canterbury outfit genuine returning opportunities – the lifeblood of all New Zealand teams.
If Australia wants to keep pace with England, let alone the All Blacks, this development of their kicking game will be essential over the course of 2017.
In their game against Scotland, the unmistakable tokens of the ‘winning mentality’ that have been built up in the Red Rose mindset were all back in place. Most impressive of all was the accuracy of the set-piece moves from the lineout, which England used to establish their unassailable halftime lead.
Set-piece nuance and accuracy in the back-line are not qualities traditionally associated with England sides, and this is where Eddie Jones’ coaching has probably had the most positive impact of all – just as it did with the World Cup-winning Springboks of 2007.
England is now a consistent threat to score from the first phase, and this new development has catapulted them ahead of the other Northern Hemisphere nations.
England scored three tries directly from lineouts in between the Scotland 22 and the halfway line. It became clear that they had identified the defensive seam between the two Scottish centres, Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones, as a primary area of attack.
Lineout attack #1 – 2:04-2:18
The first try occurred with Scotland hooker Fraser Brown off the field, for a yellow card after a tip-tackle on Elliott Daly. As we shall see, Brown is a key component of Scotland’s lineout defence and his absence was important.
Brown would normally be filling the space in between the Scotland No.7 Hamish Watson and scrum-half Ali Price (see the replay from behind the posts at 2:43) – a ten-metre gap which slows up the Scotland backline slide across field further out.
England accentuate both the gap and the momentary hesitation it causes by faking a lineout drive to pull the other Scottish forwards in and shifting their own No.9, Ben Youngs, one space out so that he is on Watson’s outside shoulder at 2:42.
With Owen Farrell’s angled run fixing the Scotland fly-half Finn Russell, England has what they really want as the second pass is made – a match-up between George Ford (with his ball-handling) and Jonathan Joseph (with his footwork in traffic) against and the two Scotland centres.
Ford passes early and then wraps around Joseph, which pulls the eyes of Huw Jones outwards towards the far touch, leaving Joseph and Dunbar in a man-on-man contest. With Dunbar fractionally late to leave, Joseph’s feet do the rest.
It is a moment with potential Lions’ significance, because it may have cost Dunbar his chance of a place on the plane to New Zealand, and booked Joseph a seat instead.
Lineout attack #2 – 23:52-24:08
The attention to detail in the set-up for England’s lineout attacks is perhaps where Jones’ influence is most apparent.
As the set-piece forms at 23:54, England’s No.8 Nathan Hughes moves into midfield, with Hamish Watson shifting into the space between No.10 Russell and inside centre Dunbar to mark him.
Brown, now back on the field, is held at the front of the line by Youngs’ positioning there. This means the ‘tail-gunner’ spot around the end of the lineout is now vacant.
In American football this is called ‘formationing’ the opponent – you adopt a formation which creates a new weakness as the defence tries to adjust to it.
With England again taking ball from the back of the lineout to accent the weakness, at 24:27 on the replay, the big gap between the main group of Scotland forwards and the first back defender, Russell, is clearly visible.
Brown is nowhere near the play as Farrell goes to make the pass at 24:27, which means that Russell has to turn in towards him and Watson has to stop for Hughes. At 24:28, England have the same basic situation as in the first example – Ford and Joseph running at the space between two Scotland centres on the back foot.
Joseph glides through the gap and the defender closest to him in coverage, who simply fails to get close enough to make the tackle. That defender? None other than Brown!
Lineout attack #3 – 34:43-34:55
In the final example, Brown is restored to his natural position as tail-gunner, which means he can easily get out on to the England first receiver, Ford, at 35:17.
However, Russell unaccountably decides to rush straight upfield at Ford in the 10 channel rather than drifting off onto Farrell, and Watson again has to stop for Hughes.
At 35:19, the same basic scenario we have already witnessed in the previous two examples has been repeated. The two Scotland centres are faced by an England receiver plus Joseph, with England blindside wing Anthony Watson as a bonus attacker.
Joseph again takes the gap outside Dunbar and Brown is again a couple of strides too late in cover defence – the only difference is that Joseph decides to give Watson a flavour of the try-line on this occasion.
The England-Scotland match will not have done the chances of the Scotland midfield being selected for the Lions tour of New Zealand any good at all. It would not be surprising to see both Alex Dunbar and Finn Russell slip out of contention as a result, with the England axis of Ford-Farrell-Joseph advancing to become automatic choices, alongside Johnny Sexton and Jonathan Davies.
However, Scotland will in all likelihood beat Italy in the final round of the Six Nations to achieve their first winning record in the tournament since 2006, and that is a worthy achievement.
England will seek to overtake the All Blacks’ 18-match winning streak in what promises to be an emotional cauldron in Dublin. Ireland have shown their ability to produce exceptional one-off performances recently, and they will be looking to end their season on a high in the last international showcase before Lions selection is finalised.
Meanwhile, in the Southern Hemisphere, a significant portion of the future of Australian rugby is being decided by SANZAAR.
Will five Super Rugby teams become four? Will the Reds emerge as the leading standard-bearers for Australian success over the coming months?
As the old Irish proverb phrases it, with typically dark humour, “Don’t worry… it’s always darkest just before it goes pitch-black!”