Chaos reigns off the field, but also in the Wallabies’ back three

Nicholas Bishop Columnist

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    The force appears to have deserted Australian rugby.

    Whether that situation becomes a permanent reality, or happens to be just an uneasy interval before a renewed cycle of success, may depend on the actions of ‘a few good men’ – enlightened management by the ARU in the political sphere and enlightened coaching by Michael Cheika on the playing front.

    Both are facing their nemeses at the same time. The ARU has announced that the Western Force is the Super Rugby franchise they intend to cut in order to meet broadcaster requirements for 15 teams in the 2017-18 season. That story still looks to have a fair road to run.

    Meanwhile, Michael Cheika is looking forward to the annual double-header against the All Blacks which marks the start of the Rugby Championship. Australian performances in those two games could go a long way to deciding the fate of the Wallabies’ season as a whole.

    An important part of that narrative will be the selection and output of the Wallabies’ backfield – the full-back and two wings.

    At the national level, Australia is currently undergoing a philosophic change in that area – and change is nearly always uncomfortable. Particularly since the arrival of Mick Byrne from the All Blacks in the coaching group, Australia has adopted the typical New Zealand selection policy of picking two natural fullbacks and one finisher in the back three.

    New Zealand teams have used this system for well over a decade. At the 2011 World Cup, Israel Dagg and Cory Jane were the two fullbacks and Richard Kahui was the finisher. At the same event in 2015, Ben Smith and Nehe Milner-Skudder were the fullbacks and Julian Savea the finisher.

    On the recent British and Irish Lions tour, New Zealand only began to falter once Ben Smith was lost to injury, and they abandoned the twin fullback theory for the second Test, picking two finishers on the wing in Waisake Naholo and Rieko Ioane.

    Rieko Ioane New Zealand Rugby Union All Blacks 2017

    (AAP Image/SNPA, David Rowland)

    Meanwhile, the British and Irish Lions selected three players with extensive fullback experience in their back three – Liam Williams, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly – and never paled in comparison with their Kiwi counterparts in this area. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    With its historical emphasis on controlling the ball by keeping it in hand ever since the early 2000s, Australia has tended to pursue a different selection policy. In the Rod Macqueen and Eddie Jones eras, the Wallabies had big wingers; Joe Roff, Lote Tuqiri, Wendell Sailor, Stirling Mortlock, Scott Staniforth. If you were under 6’2″ or 100 kgs, you need not have applied for the position.

    In contrast to New Zealand, there were always two very big men at the back for the Australians, and that size helped them control the ball when play went wide.

    Now the Wallabies (perhaps under the influence of Byrne) are trying to move in the Kiwi direction, regularly selecting Dane Haylett-Petty and Israel Folau plus one finisher (take your pick from Sefa Naivalu, Henry Speight, Taqele Naiyaravoro and Marika Koroibete).

    However, the policy has also been both complicated and hamstrung by the need to pick someone big and strong enough to fill in at 12 on defence (Rob Horne or Reece Hodge) when a small second playmaker is required – think Matt Giteau at the last World Cup and Kurtley Beale for the forthcoming Rugby Championship.

    It is symbolic of the situation in Australia at the present moment in time that two of the players who might fit the bill from the current Force squad, Luke Morahan and Curtis Rona, are in danger of being lost to the Wallabies. Morahan, a complete finisher and fullback package, is off to Bristol in the UK, while Rona, who played the vast majority of his rugby league career as a winger, has only played at outside centre for the Force and may yet follow Morahan and opt for a contract abroad.

    The current situation in the Wallaby back three could best be described as fragile and, in some cases, confused. There is no shortage of talent and some of it is world-leading, like Israel Folau’s ability under the high ball. But defensively, the division of responsibilities is not at all clear to the observer, and you begin to wonder whether it is clear to the players themselves on the field.

    I examined the Wallabies’ last June match against Italy to understand better how their defensive backfield is operating and what the chances of its success against the All Blacks in the forthcoming Rugby Championship might be.

    When returning kicks, the Wallabies are unquestionably at their best when they can position Israel Folau under the high ball. Here are a couple of instances when Italy exited via the box-kick in the first half:

    The ability of the receiver to not just catch the ball securely, but also beat the first chaser and/or make the offload in contact is invaluable in these situations.

    In the first frame, Folau has rotated towards the right sideline to receive the kick, with Dane Haylett-Petty shifting across in support and Will Genia and Sefa Naivalu shielding the receipt. By the third frame, Folau has offloaded to Adam Coleman and Australia were able to work an overlap on the far side when the ball was spun out to the left.

    The second example is almost identical. Folau catches, Genia and Naivalu block and Haylett-Petty shifts across. This time Folau beats the first chaser to set up another promising counter-attack for the Wallabies.

    There were, however, a number of issues associated with Australia’s defensive organisation in the backfield from the set-piece, and most of them are illustrated in the highlight reel containing Italy’s tries:

    Take a look at the first Azzurri score, direct from a scrum in the 35th minute. Aside from the problems associated with the clean break on the line, there is a deeper issue with the second layer of defence.

    No-one lays a hand on the eventual scorer, Italy 13 Michele Campagnaro, after the break is made, and the closest defender to him is the winger Naivalu, who is defending up on the line. Neither Haylett-Petty nor Folau get anywhere near to making a tackle on the Italian outside centre:

    Hit the ‘pause’ button at 34:47 on the reel and it is clear that play is only going in one direction, out to the Italian right. The Azzurri number eight is positioned to pass right and his scrum-half has already moved away to that side. Moreover, the two Italian centres are on ‘straight–to-unders’ lines and the blindside winger, number 11 Giovanbattista Venditti, has already shifted infield to make the extra man.

    So the attack is only going to one place, the area in and around Australian number ten Bernard Foley.

    In the three frames from behind the posts, the two Australian backfield defenders (Haylett-Petty and Folau) are far too slow to identify the area of attack. Folau is too wide (he should be behind, and no wider than Naivalu until the offence tips its hand), and Haylett-Petty does not recognize the movement of his opposite number quickly enough.

    At other times, even the casual observer could be forgiven for wondering whether the constant interchange of positions in the back-line is of any concrete benefit to the Wallabies.

    In the first frame, from an Italy scrum on their right side of the field, left winger Naivalu is defending over on the right, Folau has come up outside him and Haylett-Petty is rotating into fullback.

    In the second (the third phase from a lineout on the Italy left), Naivalu is back in his natural position with Folau alongside him and Haylett-Petty rotating into fullback, leaving the two Wallaby halfbacks closest to the play when the ball is spun back towards the site of the original lineout.

    Not one of the Australian back three is close enough to the point of attack at the crucial moment. It’s little surprise, then, that the Azzurri created a disallowed ‘try’ down this side of the field five phases later.

    Perhaps the most bewildering example of positional interchange came in the second half, with Reece Hodge now on the field for Naivalu.

    Hodge starts out on the right during this long phase sequence (next to Folau), but when play moves to the other side it is he, not Folau, who moves with it.

    In the second frame, Hodge ends up in the strange position of trying to play fullback in front of his own scrum-half, before shifting back to the right and into line underneath Folau in the third. Whatever the Wallabies are attempting to achieve through this process is unclear, but it certainly does not depend on economy of movement!

    The constant positional interchange also cost Australia another try in the second half – at the 64th minute on the reel.

    Here, Hodge and Folau are again stuck out on the right close to the goal-line, with Will Genia playing acting fullback. While it is not unusual for the number nine to play this role on defence, Genia is not near enough to the play to affect the outcome when Italy go to the cross-kick (ideally he needs to be aligned opposite the Azzurri first receiver).

    This time, Haylett-Petty is called upon to play left wing, but he is outnumbered two-to-one by Italian attackers. If a loose ball is created by anything other than a clean catch, Italy must score – and that is the way it turns out.

    Confusion reigns in Australian rugby at all levels. In many cases, the talent is clearly there, but the structure (both on the political and tactical fronts) is not present to frame it to the best advantage.

    Nowhere is this more true than in the Wallaby back three. There is talent to burn in this department, even though some of it is already on its way to the UK, but the Wallaby coaching group are still in the middle of a transition to a New Zealand outlook on selection.

    The situation is complicated by defensive demands which dictate that players constantly swap sides and interchange roles.

    These demands are only likely to increase with the high probability of Kurtley Beale starting at inside centre against the All Blacks. At least Karmichael Hunt provided a point of certainty in that position in June, playing 12 on both attack and defence throughout.

    My old English teacher gave me the best advice I ever received as a writer: If in doubt, “keep it simple, stupid”. That bit of counsel deserves to be applied to Wallaby systems all over the field against New Zealand in the coming weeks.

    Nicholas Bishop
    Nicholas Bishop

    Nick Bishop has worked as a rugby analyst and advisor to Graham Henry (1999-2003), Mike Ruddock (2004-2005) and most recently Stuart Lancaster (2011-2015). He also worked on the 2001 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia and produced his first rugby book with Graham Henry at the end of the tour. Three more rugby books have followed, all of which of have either been nominated for or won national sports book awards. Nick’s latest is a biography of Phil Larder, the first top Rugby League coach to successfully transfer over to Union, entitled “The Iron Curtain”.

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