When the Reds’ players ran on to the field at Suncorp Stadium to play the Waratahs on Saturday evening, I saw their maroon shirts and an association arose immediately: State of Origin.
The marketers had their triumph, because I’ve no doubt that was the desired effect on the unwary!
The link to that profound history of State of Origin games between rugby league teams from New South Wales and Queensland increased the sense of expectation surrounding the match.
I can still recall my first experience of the Origin series back in 2001, touring around Australia with the British and Irish Lions squad. The two series are running exactly in parallel when I climb into a taxi in Brisbane. After a brief introduction, I tentatively ask my driver whether he is going to be following the games between the Lions and the Wallabies.
One pause and a quizzical look later, I hear a cry from the front seat:
“Who’d ya prefer then mate?… Sterlo or Alfie?” We end up talking league and league half-backs, not union.
It was like this over every morning breakfast. Whatever newspaper I picked up, there were seven or eight league articles to every one on union.
Phil Larder still remembers his first experience of Origin, back in 1983, as if it was yesterday. It is the images that stick in his mind: the shattered face of NSW coach Ron Willey close-up after the series is lost; handing over five crisp new twenty dollar notes to Bobby Bax after the bet Phil had made with such confidence – that a sky-blue team containing eleven of the 1982 ‘Invincibles’ could not be beaten – had been overturned.
He walks away with Bax’s gleeful cackle still ringing in his ears. He has learnt his lesson – “never bet against Wally Lewis at Lang Park”.
After the initial impact of the association with those maroon jerseys wears off, questions seep in – serious questions. Can the game to follow really live up to the history that has been invoked? Does Australian rugby union have the players to live in the memory as long as the likes of Lewis and Langer and Sterling? Does a Wallaby figure as strongly in the Australian sporting imagination as a Kangaroo?
In terms of desire and intensity, the match probably delivers on it’s promise. In terms of a consistently high level of skills, less so.
At number 7, Michael Hooper and George Smith play out one of the grandest of battles on the open-side flank of the scrum. At number 15, two old Maroon teammates from their league days, Karmichael Hunt and Israel Folau, flag up their claims to a Wallaby jersey in that position in the upcoming June series.
George Smith, along with Richie McCaw was one of the first players to provide the template for #7 play in the professional era. That template is basically defensive (in line and at the breakdown), with some linking play in attack an add-on.
The questions raised about Smith’s ability to sustain the tempo of a Super Rugby match in his mid-to-late thirties have all been answered ten weeks into the season. In the course of this ‘Origin’ game, he had:
- Four dominant tackles-for-loss
- Three breakdown turnovers
- Three fumble/interception recoveries
- Two decisive (line-breaking) contributions on attack
and his significant involvements were spread evenly between the two halves.
As a defender, Smith is effective sliding out towards touch (27:20), but even more so when he is able to square up and deliver a frontal hit to a ball-carrier running off first or second receiver (4:08, 6:36 and 63:48). With Smith in situ, you do not need to worry about that sensitive 7-10 defensive channel.
If you’re a fraction late at the cleanout and allow George Smith to dip his shoulders and get into low position first, you are done in terms of ball retention. There is no way he can be removed from an over-the-top start. Smith’s powerful ‘starfish’ position over the ball wins turnover at 4:14, 15:09 and 44:40 and creates another loose ball at 27:23.
There were also a couple of examples of Smith’s subtly nuanced play on attack – the quick hands in front of the last defender at 48:10 to set Sam Talakai and Eto Nabuli free down the right – can any Reds’ supporter tell me why Talakai is still starting ahead of Taniela Tupou at tight-head? – and the ‘scatter-block’ ahead of Scott Higginbotham’s pick and go at 11:13.
Teams use scatter-rucking to block out defenders right on the edge of the tackle zone perimetre when they want the following phase to go right up the gut; here Smith wipes out Rob Horne to create the path for Higginbotham’s drive and offload to Karmichael Hunt for the score.
Michael Hooper, along with other new 7s like Ardie Savea in New Zealand, represent the potential development of the open-side flanker position to a new level. Both Savea and Hooper are capable of being extra attacking centres, as well as enjoying the Smith-like attributes of physical impact and work-rate in defence, and stickability at the breakdown.
A summary of Hooper’s decisive involvements during the game show the modern tilt towards offence:
- One line-break assist
- Two line-breaks and one tackle-break
- Two breakdown turnovers and two significant slow-downs
- Two forced fumbles on defence
Once again the raw stats are impressive, but the extra involvements on attack are what set Hooper apart.
At 0:39, Hooper is set up at first receiver from lineout (a tactic the Waratahs used throughout the game) with Bernard Foley outside him making the in-pass which creates a hole for Cam Clark to run through.
Hooper’s real excellence lies in his ability to bust the line off a distributor at first or second receiver, rather than be that distributor himself however. The picture at 36:23 is typical, with Hooper using his great speed-endurance to run around Bernard Foley and create an extra attacking body in the hole.
Playing tight off the shoulder of a flat-lying distributor, Hooper will hit the seams between two defenders. He has the speed and power (see 38:25 with Hooper powering through three Reds tight forwards on the carry) to make it count once the breach is made (38:30).
Because of that speed, he rapidly gets separation away from line defenders once he is in the gap (62:53).
Both Israel Folau and Karmichael Hunt played State of Origin for Queensland in their rugby league heyday. Now both are challenging for places in the Wallaby back three for the June series against Fiji, Scotland and Italy.
But where Hunt is currently on an upward curve, providing commanding leadership as well attacking purpose and solid D for the Reds, Folau is floundering and temporarily unable to rediscover the spark that has made him one of Australia’s genuine international stars.
Although he still has that world-leading ability under the high ball (32:18), he is either making mistakes in contact after it (65:50) or throwing uncontrolled passes, often in no-pressure situations (27:59, 55:12 and 73:13).
Mentally he often appears to be wandering during games (his reactions at 41:40 after the ball goes loose) and he tended to come off second-best to a powerfully-energised Hunt in their head-to-head moments (28:00, 52:15 and 57:37).
No-one has put up their hand to wear the Australia #15 jersey more forcefully than Karmichael Hunt this season. He has the flexibility we know Michael Cheika wants – able to function well on attack at first or second receiver and get his arms over the tackle to deliver the offload (13:00, 18:18 and 78:17).
He has been running the in-pass support angle well off Quade Cooper (22:00 and 22:19) and will bring the ball back aggressively on kick returns (52:20 and 78:14). On defence, he has the strength to be effective in the front line, in between Michael Hooper and Samu Kerevi or Tevita Kuridrani.
He makes hard upfield tackles and is putting people on the floor at 27:55, 57:37 and 61:02 – meat and drink to Nathan Grey, the Wallaby defence coach.
There were specific elements of the inter-state derby last Saturday which were worthy of the historic State-of-Origin association.
The contest between George Smith and Michael Hooper at #7 was the highlight of the evening and it illustrated the development in thinking which is currently occurring at the very top of the game regarding that position.
Smith remains at the highest level of performance at the ripe old age of 37 and probably sits only behind Hooper in the current Wallaby rankings. He still has the edge on his closest challengers, Colby Fainga’a and Chris Alcock.
Hooper once again illustrated the immense bonus features that either he or an Ardie Savea offer on offence. He can reach more gaps, and be more effective once he’s through the hole than any other 7 in world rugby.
I fully expect both Karmichael Hunt and Israel Folau to be in the Wallaby starting line-up this summer, though Hunt’s presence may push Folau out to the wing, especially if Dane Haylett-Petty is injured.
His presence would allow Michael Cheika to make a choice between another play-maker at 12 (Kurtley Beale), or opt for two power centres (Kerevi and Kuridrani) knowing that Hunt can function effectively in that alternate first receiver role.
When all is said and done, the possibilities for the coach of Australia currently look rather more promising than they do for the franchise coaches at their Super Rugby regions right now!