How the Wallabies went from Bledisloe blunder to flying form

Scott Allen Columnist

By , Scott Allen is a Roar Expert

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    With the Wallabies unbeaten in seven matches, Bledisloe 1 in early August seems like a distant memory.

    The team’s defensive performance in the first 50 minutes of that match was diabolical as they allowed the All Blacks to score eight tries and build a 54-6 lead before the Wallabies scored some consolation points.

    I watched that match in a hotel in Ireland with players and coaches from all around the world who were participating in the Women’s World Cup. Fortunately the New Zealanders were staying at another hotel so we only had to put up with one lone Kiwi in the room, but that was enough as we copped a serious ribbing during the annihilation!

    The criticism most people had for the Wallabies’ performance focused on their defence. There was a lot of talk about the complicated system Nathan Grey had implemented with lots of players switching positions dependent on field position and the type of set piece the opposition were starting from.

    After the match, Brumbies assistant coach Laurie Fisher tweeted:

    Michael Cheika agreed that the defence wasn’t good enough saying: “It was pretty plain to see that our defence wasn’t good enough, at all. The adherence to the way we want to defend and the tackling in itself, it’s got to be better.”

    Both Cheika and Stephen Larkham made comments during the week after the match saying the team would stick with Grey’s defensive system.

    “We’ve been building towards that game for a fair while and we’ll make sure that we don’t change too many things this week, particularly with the travel over to New Zealand,” Larkham said.

    “We’ve got a relatively young combination out on the field, guys who are getting a handle on this system.”

    In Bledisloe 2, the Wallabies conceded another five tries but since that match they have conceded just 16 tries in seven Tests. No team has managed to score more than three tries on them in a match. So how have they turned their defence around?

    In Bledisloe 1, here’s an example of how they were defending from a five-man lineout. Bernard Foley is in the tracks at the front of the lineout, Michael Hooper at receiver, Will Genia back in the defensive line but ready to drop in behind to act as cover, there are two forwards out in the line and Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau are in the backfield.

    The positioning in that example is not that different to what most teams do from a five-man lineout with two players in the backfield and a back in the tracks.

    It’s very rare that you don’t see No.15 in the backfield and most teams have their No.7 in the receiver position with two forwards out in the line. It’s also common to see the open side winger (No.14 in this example) on the end of the line.

    So, the only real difference is where the Wallabies have No.11 and 12 positioned. Most teams will have their blind side winger (No.11 in this example) in the backfield and their No.12 in the front line.

    The Wallabies use this structure to get Beale in position to launch a counterattack if the opposition kicks. Yes, there’s no doubt that the structure has the added benefit of getting Foley and Beale out of the front line in defence, which preserves them a little more but the main thrust behind this is to get their best two attacking players, in Beale and Folau, in the backfield ready to launch a counter-attack.

    It’s the same strategy Ewen McKenzie used so well with Quade Cooper at the Reds in 2010 and 2011. Of course, most people at the time claimed the structure was mainly about hiding Cooper in defence rather than understanding what it was really used for.

    Let’s look at another example from Bledisloe 3 last month with the Kiwis having a five-man lineout just inside their half. A similar field position to the example above.

    This time the Wallabies used a more traditional structure with Tatafu Polota-Nau in the tracks and Genia at receiver.

    Does this mean the Wallabies have abandoned the defensive structures they used in Bledisloe 1?

    Let’s look at examples from full lineouts in those two matches. In Bledisloe 1, the Wallabies used Foley in the tracks and Genia at receiver.

    In Bledisloe 3, we saw Tatafu Polota-Nau in the tracks and Genia at receiver.

    Now to examples from the match on the weekend against Wales.

    From a six-man lineout we saw Foley in the tracks and Genia at receiver with Polota-Nau and Hooper out in the defensive line, which is very similar to the first example from Bledisloe 1. You’ll notice that for this match there was another change with Reece Hodge in the backfield and Beale on the end of the line.

    In this example, Foley is in the tracks but Hooper is in the receiver position.

    In this one, Hooper is back out in the defensive line with Foley in the tracks and Genia at receiver. Again Hodge is in the backfield with Beale on the end of the line.

    As you can see, the changing defensive structures we saw in Bledisloe 1 are still being used. In fact, there appear to be more variations dependent on the number of players in the lineout and field position.

    Obviously players have become more familiar with the structures as the season has progressed but when you look closely at Bledisloe 1, it wasn’t the changing structures that caused most of the issues – it was poor decision making and execution by individuals.

    In this first example, Samu Kerevi is certainly too slow to fold around the corner and get into the line. But despite this the Wallabies had numbers in place to deal with what was coming at them. It was Folau’s mistake turning in and getting beaten on the outside that was the issue here.

    Folau should never have been thinking about the inside players – he had to stay on his man outside.

    This was on the second phase after a lineout but it wasn’t poor structure that caused the problem, it was a simple one-on-one miss by Sean McMahon and then Beale didn’t take anyone in the backfield.

    In this example it was poor communication that resulted in Beale thinking he needed to jamb in, when he needed to stay out.

    Allan Alaalatoa had to keep moving around and let Beale know he’d take the inside man so Beale could stay out.

    And finally, it looked like there was no communication between Foley, Kerevi and Henry Speight here.

    Eliminating basic mistakes, like those highlighted, has transformed the Wallabies’ performances. The improvement since that dreadful loss in Bledisloe 1 in communication, individual technique and decision making has been really good.

    After Bledisloe 1, Michael Lynagh said: “I can’t overestimate how angry I am at seeing an Australian team who have skills that are non-existent. Passing and catching and making tackles and trusting the bloke beside you are pretty basic, even at schoolboy level.”

    He’d probably feel a lot better about the Wallabies now and Eddie Jones was correct this week to praise the contribution Mick Byrne has made to the Wallabies – he was brought in to improve individual skills and it looks like he’s well on top of it.

    Let’s hope it continues because England will be a real challenge this weekend.

    Scott Allen
    Scott Allen

    Scott has been a rugby contributor with The Roar since 2013. After taking some time out to pursue other roles in the game, including coaching Premier Grade with University of Queensland and the Wallaroos at the recent World Cup, he’s returned to give us his insights. You can follow him on Twitter @ScottA_ to hear more from him.