The Wallabies’ defensive woes show the need for connectivity and communication

Nicholas Bishop Columnist

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    Sydney on a Saturday night – 54 points and eight tries conceded.

    Michael Hooper said in his interview after it was all over that the Wallabies were trying to bed in a new defensive system. This comment maybe more than any other encapsulated the difficulties Australian rugby is experiencing both on and off the field with those twin pillars of team-ship: connectivity and communication.

    Off the field, communication between the ARU and its Super Rugby franchises has not been of the best in 2017. The announcement of the decision to cut one of the Australian teams mid-season was sudden and surprising, and clarity and decisiveness was lacking thereafter as the union seesawed between the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels for months afterwards.

    The sense of connectedness in Australian rugby – between east and west, between the professional game and grassroots level, even between administrators, players, coaches and supporters – is in urgent need of repair and more than a little TLC.

    On the field, the problems were laid bare in a first 50 minutes where the All Blacks rattled along at over one point per minute.

    New Zealand were looking to reassert themselves and their characteristic, highly-skilled counterpuncher’s approach to the game after a disappointing series against the British and Irish Lions, and the selection of Damian McKenzie at fullback was a statement of intent.

    The All Blacks were determined to use the width of the field, and McKenzie’s skills in unstructured counter-attack, to the full, even if it meant pushing the world’s best fullback, Ben Smith, out to the right wing in order to do it.

    They were rewarded in spectacular fashion, scoring four of their eight tries from turnovers and another two from a kick return and a tapped penalty. They only needed a total of 34 phases to make those scores, at an average of just over four phases per try.

    Rieko Ioane New Zealand Rugby Union All Blacks Bledisloe Cup Rugby Championship 2017

    (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

    So what price the new Australian defence system? The first indications are that Nathan Grey is trying to do away with the old hybrid of shooting and drifting defenders and replace it with something more Lions-like, with the defence driving upfield as a unit rather than mixing and matching roles on the line.

    On the flip-side, issues with the constant interchange of positions in the backline – and with leadership, communication and connectivity – remain.

    With McKenzie picked at 15 in the New Zealand team, it was crucial for the Wallabies defence to deny him the countering opportunities on which he thrives, much as the Lions were able to do in their tour match against the Maori – as I outlined in a previous piece.

    Unfortunately for Australia, the hard triangle of defence the Lions were able to assemble around McKenzie was a lot more watertight than the Wallaby chase early in the game:

    Instead of the close-meshed, mutually-supporting three points of the triangle, there are two chasers in a line (Michael Hooper and Curtis Rona) well ahead of everyone else. This allows McKenzie to make a break between Hooper and Rona and commit Samu Kerevi to a tackle a further seven or eight metres downfield.

    The next phase of play turned into an All Black try as the Wallabies failed to reintegrate Kerevi into their defensive line as the ball was moved out to their right. In real time, the try can be seen on the highlights reel here:

    Having made a tackle on the previous play, Kerevi is (quite naturally) struggling to reload into the line:

    There is no pressure on either of the first two receivers (Beauden Barrett at 9:04 and Brodie Retallick at 9:06) after the All Blacks win a quick ball from the previous ruck, so the rush option on defence is not a realistic possibility for Australia.

    The obvious place for Kerevi to rejoin the line and become a factor in the play is in between Scott Sio and Henry Speight, but in order for him to do that, Speight has to drop off towards the sideline instead of firing straight upfield.

    Speight hits Kieran Read, and Bernard Foley steps in to hit Rieko Ioane outside him in the ‘domino effect’. But the cumulative effect of Speight’s decision is to make Kerevi’s running to reload all the way from site ‘1’, where he made the tackle on McKenzie, back to the far-right sideline all for nought.

    After all the recovery running he has already done, there is no way that Kerevi can get to Liam Squire when he receives the pass from Ioane – so Speight’s decision to fire up has left him trying to execute the (cover) tackle he is least capable of making at that moment. Either there has been a lack of communication or connectivity, or both.

    It is sure not intelligent defending of the type that is needed to keep the All Blacks in check.

    The theme of defenders making the effort to reload after a tackle, but struggling to become useful on the next play, was a constant one:

    Kerevi has got off the floor after making a tackle on Codie Taylor in the first frame and is rejoining the line in the second. It is a positive situation for the Wallabies, and there are six defenders against three attackers in the last shot from behind the posts.

    With such an advantage in numbers, they can afford to attack the ball and the space around Beauden Barrett. Kerevi’s effort has given him the opportunity to defend the cutback, which in turn should allow Sio to attack Barrett directly and Genia to flood up into the space between Barrett and his only receiving option (Rieko Ioane) and block the path of the pass.

    At least, that’s what Andy Farrell’s Lions would have done. Instead, the Wallabies stand off and wait for the All Black magic to happen.

    In the next example, Rory Arnold is circling around from off side guard to join up with his mates, who are outnumbered six to four on the far side of the field.

    The Wallabies are down on numbers, so it makes sense to make use of Arnold’s movement across the back of the breakdown and add another defender into a drift to that side.

    Instead, Ned Hanigan rushes straight out onto Brodie Retallick, losing his connection with Henry Speight outside him and giving Arnold no role to play underneath him. The outcome is an easy line-break for Joe Moody, and Arnold is still waiting to make a tackle in the third shot, over 20 metres downfield and six seconds later!

    The sequence ended with a try for Ryan Crotty.

    The Wallabies showed that they can get it right, and that offers a glimmer of hope for the future:

    Although they have lost ground from the first couple of phases from a lineout, the Wallabies still have good numbers out to their right although they are compressed. Michael Hooper and Bernard Foley both make good decisions to push up and this makes Kerevi – who is recovering from a tackle on Retallick in the first frame – a real factor by the third, as Barrett is forced back inside and into the grasp of the big Fijian.

    Perhaps the biggest the single biggest system failure on defence occurred right at the end of the first half, at a scrum close to the Australian goal line:

    In the first frame, Samu Kerevi is clearly visible with his right arm out, directing Curtis Rona and Henry Speight to swap sides – presumably this was part of the planning before the game.

    Rona (who had been defending at 13 outside Kerevi for most of the match) goes to the short-side to help out Kurtley Beale against a lone All Black attacker in Rieko Ioane. Right winger Speight comes across to the left side to defend outside Kerevi.

    In my experience, it is highly unusual to see this system (with three defenders starting on the short side in Genia, Rona and Beale) used in this position so close to the goal line. Normally this distribution is designed to give up metres but prevent big line-breaks further upfield.

    In this instance, Australia are voluntarily giving up a five-on-four advantage in numbers to the open-side of the scrum with only 10-15 metres for the attack to go to score a try.

    When Aaron Smith takes a pass off the base in the second frame, it is clear the All Blacks have a host of attractive options at their disposal. They can run Sonny-Bill Williams straight at Bernard Foley and look for an offload, they can use Beauden Barrett on the wide arcing run to link up with McKenzie and Ben Smith out wide.

    In the event, they pick out Ryan Crotty, who benefits from Kerevi standing between a rock and a hard place defensively. Kerevi takes a step in to help Foley, and with Speight’s eyes fixed firmly on Barrett, the space opens up for Crotty.

    Oh, what the Wallabies would not have given for Curtis Rona to be filling that gap – he should have been there right from the start of the play.

    Michael Hooper Australia Rugby Union Championship Bledisloe Cup Wallabies 2017 tall

    (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

    Summary
    There is a new defensive system in place for the Wallabies, but how much time Nathan Grey will be given to bed it in and prove its worth is anyone’s guess. Despite the backing of his head coach, he must be on a definite timeline to either succeed or fail.

    The one constant of the Australian defence at present is constant change. The constant interchange of positions is having a negative impact on the play of men like Samu Kerevi, who is being asked to be a leader of the team (and defensive organiser) while still trying to establish himself in the first-choice side.

    Sometimes Kerevi is required to defend in the 13 channel, at other times he is at 12. He did not defend nearly as poorly as the picture painted in some of the media, and frequently he looked bad because either system errors or individual mistakes elsewhere negated the value of his work (and that of others) off the ball.

    There needs to be more communication and connectivity for the Wallaby defence to work properly, and that in turn requires a bit of stability. People still young in their international careers must be encouraged to learn one position, one role and learn it inside out – preferably surrounded by more experienced heads while they do it.

    Hard as it may be at the moment, the coaches need to stick with the principles and people they believe in and stand by the results of those beliefs, for better or worse.

    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”.