Why Eddie Jones is winning his duel with Michael Cheika

Nicholas Bishop Columnist

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    June 25, 2016, is a date that may return to haunt Michael Cheika. On that day, Australia were playing the third Test of their series against England in Sydney.

    England had already won the series the previous week in Melbourne, but their Australian coach Eddie Jones was determined that there was going to be no let-up.

    Directly after the game in Melbourne, he emerged from the changing sheds to say, “We are not going to be satisfied unless we win 3-0… The players are already talking about it now.”

    The England players were shot physically after a long domestic season, but somehow they found the mental application to compete for another round of 80 minutes and emerge victorious by 44 points to 40.

    It is a turning point that Jones now credits as the most important in England’s recent rugby history. They already had the series under wraps and it would have been so easy to write off that game and head for a sunny holiday destination the following week, but Jones’ England chose to come out and fight to the death one more time.

    That win, dredging up the last ounces of physical and psychological reserve, has become the grit in England’s pearl under Eddie Jones.

    It has given them the confidence to know that they can find a way to win in the face of the unforeseen and in a wider range of circumstances than before.

    Later that year in the autumn international against Argentina, left winger Elliott Daly was sent from the field in only the 11th minute of play. Towards the end of the first half, England lost another player when prop Dan Cole was shown a yellow card.

    They still found a way to win the match 27-14, and Jones was happy that England had adjusted to the change of situation:

    “We are gradually becoming more tactically adaptable and that is super-important for the World Cup”.

    Wind the clock on to 25 October 2017, and another ex-Randwick contemporary of Eddie Jones is coaching Australia in an end of term tour game against Scotland.

    His players, like Jones’ in Sydney the year before, are tired after a long season – some probably cannot wait to step on to the plane home after doing most of the living through a turbulent year for Australian rugby as a whole.

    At the same time, the game represents a terrific opportunity for Michael Cheika to build into his team the same mental fortitude that England now enjoys as a result of that game in Sydney.

    Scotland have proven to be difficult opponents for the Wallabies ever since the World Cup in 2015, winning the last match between the two countries in June – again on Australia’s home patch in Sydney – by 24 points to 17, so there is something riding on the game.

    In the event, Sekope Kepu is sent off for a reckless cleanout right at the end of the first half, and the Wallabies find themselves in the same situation that England faced against Argentina – the similarity growing even closer when Kurtley Beale becomes the second Wallaby to be sin-binned later in the second half.

    Kurtley Beale

    (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

    However, after drawing level at 17-all with an excellent try at the start of the second period, the Wallabies disintegrate mentally and physically, losing the match 53-24.

    The score in the last 35 minutes of the game is 36 points to 7 to Scotland. At that point, the current international coaching career paths of the two ‘Galloping Greens’ concretely diverge.

    Aside from the issue of mental toughness, it is the lack of Eddie Jones’ other cardinal point – tactical adaptability – that must be of most concern to everyone connected with the Wallaby inner sanctum.

    England understood what needed to be done playing with 14 men for 70 minutes of the match.

    They slowed down the tempo of the game to minimise the aerobic workload on their forwards and reduce it to structure, they accented areas of set-piece dominance like scrum and driving maul, and above all, they defended well short-handed.

    On Saturday, Australia did not achieve any of these objectives or even demonstrate that they understood what they were.

    Instead of slowing the game, the Wallabies seemed to delight in trying take on the Scots in the unstructured areas in which the Scotland attack had already shown itself proficient with even numbers.

    Scotland’s go-ahead score occurred in the 45th minute, and although the finish to the try by Sean Maitland is shown on the highlight reel, it is worth examining the set of circumstances which led up to it.

    Scotland had just knocked on the ball after trying to up the tempo with a quick tapped penalty by their no.9, Ali Price. Australia had previously gone through 20 phases of play and two minutes and 20 seconds of sustained offence to score their try, one man down.

    Time to give the forwards some much-needed R&R, you would have thought. All the Wallabies had to do was accept the scrum, slow the game down and give their forwards time to recover from their efforts.

    Instead, Will Genia tries to launch a counter-attack by feeding the ball out to Reece Hodge immediately. Although Hodge makes a half-break, when he goes to offload the ball he finds that the following situation has developed:

    Only Kurtley Beale is running in support of the break, and seven of the nine players around the ball are wearing blue jerseys. By trying to stay with tempo, the Wallabies have created more problems for themselves than they have opportunities.

    In the second frame, five Australian forwards are struggling to get up to the play, and one of them (Scott Sio) is walking with his hands on his hips. On the highlight reel, no.4 Rob Simmons is labouring almost comically in his bid to raise to gallop and catch Maitland.

    But let’s remember that it was Simmons’ ball-four carries and three cleanouts that were such massive factors in the build-up to Beale’s try on the previous sequence of play.

    This pattern of tactical carelessness was repeated for Scotland’s next try three minutes later.

    Tevita Kuridrani has done all the hard work by robbing Peter Horne on the ground in the first frame, but instead of treasuring possession so hard-won, Samu Kerevi immediately gives it back via a reckless offload to John Barclay.

    On the next play, the Scotland replacement prop Jamie Bhatti is relishing a nice choice – either run over Wallaby hooker Stephen Moore or exploit the 6-3 overlap out to his left.

    In the event, he runs over Moore and Scotland converted the break six phases later, on the run by Johnny Gray at 48:50.

    After prop Taniela Tupou came on to the field in the 54th minute to replace back-rower Ben McCalman, it should have been a signal to tighten down all the nuts and bolts defensively yet further.

    Instead, one minute later the Wallabies conceded probably the worst of the eight tries they shipped by switching off completely before the intention behind a Scotland penalty in the Australian 22 had been revealed.

    No less than fourteen seconds elapse between the penalty being awarded and Scotland’s no.10 choosing to take a ‘quick’ tapped penalty, but the Wallabies still do not have all the bases covered.

    Usually, a defensive team will appoint a ‘mirror’ (a defender ready to track the movement after a tapped penalty) if they suspect a quick tap to be on the opponent’s attacking menu in their preparation.

    But there is no-one ready to react to Finn Russell’s change of option immediately in the first frame, and most of the Wallaby bodies are turned towards the far touchline, away from the play.

    Even though the pass from Russell to Huw Jones hits the ground before it ever reaches him, Jones still has about ten metres of space in which to attack Samu Kerevi one-on-one – a situation Scotland would probably have identified in their preparation for the game.

    Kerevi still finds it difficult to change feet quickly when defending at 13, which is why Tevita Kuridrani still has the starting job at outside centre. Jones skirts around him handily to score the try.

    There were several other simple examples of Australia’s failure to adapt as the game wore on, particularly on defence:

    At this lineout, the Scotland drive has been ‘on’ for a full 15 seconds and Tatafu Polota-Nau and Michael Hooper have still not swapped places in order to connect Hooper with Karmichael Hunt and give him a better shot as a folding defender when Australia mount their defensive rush.

    After Hunt leads the rush forward, Hooper needs to be the first folding defender to take Huw Jones when he breaks inside Beale in the third frame.

    The final ignominy was the three-man miss on John Barclay for Scotland’s seventh try in the 75th minute:

    Three defenders are in contact (Kuridrani, Hunt and Lukhan Tui) and Tui and Kuridrani both have a solid shoulder on the ball-carrier, but somehow he slips through all of them to score.

    The current difference between Eddie Jones’ England and Michael Cheika’s Wallabies is nowhere illustrated more clearly than in their response to the adversity of ‘last match of the tour’ syndrome in prep weeks, and the red and yellow cards received during matches.

    While England used the first as motivation to go the extra mile and mentally tough it out against Australia in Sydney, and the second to develop their tactical adaptability against the Pumas a few months later, the Wallabies collapsed on both counts.

    England and Australia lay second and third in the World Rugby rankings going into last weekend’s round of matches, but after the debacle against the Scots, it may be that England’s superiority in the mental/tactical sides of the game indeed warranted the 30-6 margin of victory in the match between the two countries.

    It should be remembered that probably only three Scotland players who started on Saturday would have made the Wallaby XV purely on talent level.

    Those two qualities of mental toughness and tactical adaptability have to be developed together for the Wallabies to grow as fast as teams like Scotland and Ireland are. Otherwise, they will only fall further behind in the rugby arms race to 2019.

    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”.