There are many things the Wallabies will need to do better in 2014 to compete with the All Blacks and Springboks, but how they compete in ruck contests will be one of the most crucial.
The Wallabies attack plan under Ewen McKenzie is clear – play an up tempo game and keep the ball in motion until an opportunity arises, then seize the opportunity without hesitation.
The game plan relies on quick, clean ball being generated from the ruck and any team defending against this type of game plan knows the key is disrupting the ball before it is moved away from the ruck.
If the defending team can create a turnover at the ruck or even just slow the ball down, the ‘moving game’ can be shut down before it really gets started.
In the first half of the 2013 season, the Lions, All Blacks and Springboks all dominated the Wallabies in the ruck contests, which had a large bearing on the outcome of these matches.
While the Wallabies improved their performances in the second half of the season we are yet to see how those improvements will stand up to the scrutiny of the All Blacks and Springboks.
So what do the Wallabies need to do better in 2014 to compete in this area against the best teams in world rugby?
To answer that question I’ve taken a detailed look at how the Wallabies performed in the ruck contest on the recent end of year tour by analysing all 831 rucks in their five matches on a team basis and for each player.
There’s a lot of detail in this analysis so I thought this was a great time of the year to publish it when there’s very little rugby to watch.
This may be an article to bookmark and work your way through over your holiday break.
Before I get into the player analysis, let me discuss some key points regarding the ruck contest and how the Wallabies have performed.
Overall the Wallabies won 95% of their own rucks on the end of year tour and 5% of the opposition’s rucks.
According to Rugby Stats, the speed of the ball coming back from the Wallabies’ rucks was 21% quick, 71% normal and 8% slow.
That compared favourably with the opposition ruck delivery of 12% quick, 78% normal and 10% slow.
Teams must have plans for how to approach the ruck contest for both ‘attacking rucks’ (those where they take the ball in) and ‘defensive rucks’ (those where the opposition takes the ball in).
The biggest decision to make is how many players to commit to the ruck and this decision can have a major impact on attacking and defensive performance.
If you commit too many players to attacking rucks, you’ll have less players to carry the ball or support on the next attacking phase which may limit your effectiveness.
However, if you commit too few the opposition may be able to disrupt your ball in the ruck, making it less relevant how many players you have ready to attack on the next phase as momentum will be lost.
If you commit too many players in defensive rucks trying to disrupt the opposition ball, you may find yourself short of players in the line ready to defend the next attacking phase.
It’s important to get the balance of numbers right so teams start with plans for every match but of course once players cross the white line, decisions have to be made by the individuals at every ruck.
On the recent end of year tour, the Wallabies had 364 attacking rucks where they committed an average of 2.52 players per ruck.
The five teams they played contested 84% of the Wallabies’ attacking rucks.
The Wallabies only contested 62% of the 477 defensive rucks in those matches, preferring to fan out and concentrate on defending the next phase in the remainder.
The Wallabies committed 1.46 players per defensive ruck they did contest.
That raises the issue of what I refer to as a ruck – if the opposition didn’t contest, it’s not technically a ruck as there wouldn’t be at least one player from each team on their feet and in contact over the ball.
My reference to rucks in this article therefore includes tackle situations where the ball is on the ground but a ruck has not technically formed.
The more effective a player is in the ruck contest the more impact they have.
Cleaning out an opposition player so they are no longer a factor in the ruck is much more valuable than ineffective play, where the opposition player is only partially cleaned out so they can make a second effort and therefore remain a factor that must be dealt with again.
Effectiveness is a product of both technique and physicality.
Players have to be good technically with their positioning, body shape and how they clean out a player but physicality plays a major role – a little man with good technique will struggle against a big man with similarly good technique.
The more effective players are, the fewer numbers their team has to commit to rucks to achieve the same result meaning that more players are available to attack or defend.
The team with more effective players in the ruck will force the opposition to commit more numbers in rucks to compete, which will leave them short in defence or attack.
This can have a major impact on the effectiveness of the opposition in both attack and defence.
Just as decision making and accuracy are important aspects to consider when assessing ruck performance, so too is the number of involvements a player has.
The speed of the modern game means that all players have to do more – hence the reason so much time is spent on the conditioning of the players.
Measures such as the number of things a player did in a match or the number of things they did per minute played form part of the assessment process used by coaches.
The majority of player involvements in rucks are always in attacking rucks and on the end of year tour 68% of the Wallabies involvements came in attacking rucks despite the Wallabies attacking rucks only representing 44% of total rucks.
Which players are responsible for the ruck?
Obviously every player is – no matter where a ruck occurs, the closest players must get involved as required.
However, the forwards do the majority of ruck work in matches. On the recent end of year tour the Wallaby forwards accounted for 80% of all involvements in rucks.
Traditionally the front rowers in rugby did less work around the field than the back five forwards and the backrowers did more ruck work than the tight five forwards, primarily because they were more mobile than the tight five players.
These days the ruck workload is spread more evenly in the pack.
On the end of year tour the Wallabies front row accounted for 33% of all forward involvements at the ruck, the locks 24% and the backrow 43%.
First into rucks
One of the keys to winning rucks is getting into the ruck first.
Whether it’s an attacking or defensive ruck, the player that gets into a good position first will have the advantage as the opposition then has to move them, which is harder to do than to resist being moved.
In a defensive ruck a player that can get into the ruck first has a great opportunity to get their hands on the ball as it is still a tackle situation at that stage.
If they can then hold on to the ball as the opposition try to clean them out, they’re likely to either achieve a turnover or earn a penalty.
The Wallabies were first into 29% of defensive rucks on the end of year tour and achieved some crucial turnovers.
Michael Hooper’s speed across the ground is a good advantage as it helps him get into rucks first as shown below against Italy where he got into this defensive ruck first and earned a turnover.
Ben Alexander also got to this ruck before the Italians.
In an attacking ruck a player being into the ruck first minimises the opportunity for the opposition to get to the ball and therefore helps to provide the quick, clean ball required.
As you can see in the image below, there is often a very fine margin as to who is first into a ruck.
Despite Hooper not being that far behind Kelly Brown in getting into this attacking ruck, the fact that Brown was first into the ruck allowed him that split second longer to get in good position and that allowed him to win the turnover as Hooper couldn’t move him off the ball.
With Toby Faletau first into the Wallabies attacking ruck shown below, the Wallabies arriving after him have to work that much harder to get him off the ball.
The Wallabies were only first into 66% of their attacking rucks on the end of year tour and that’s an area that needs further improvement.
With the opposition being first into 34% of our attacking rucks, the Wallabies were giving them too many opportunities to deny the quick, clean ruck ball necessary.
If the All Blacks and Springboks are given that level of opportunities, they’ll make the Wallabies pay again as they did this year.
Getting support runners a little closer to the ball carrier would help the Wallabies to be first into their attacking rucks.
In the example below, Tevita Kuridrani only just beats Luke Marshall into the attacking ruck, but the fact he was first in denied Marshall an opportunity to get to the ball and the Wallabies retained the ball and could play on quickly.
As I detailed earlier, the forwards do the vast majority of ruck work in matches and because of their better mobility it’s the backrow that should get into rucks first more often that the tight five forwards.
Earlier this year in articles I wrote after the first two Bledisloe Cup matches I was critical of the Wallabies backrow for not getting into rucks fast enough, which had allowed the All Blacks to dominate the ruck contests.
In those two matches, the Wallabies backrow was first among the forwards into only 36% of their attacking rucks.
In stark contrast, the All Blacks backrow was first among their forwards into 52% of their attacking rucks.
On the end of year tour, the Wallabies backrow were first among the forwards into only 34% of attacking rucks so it appears the Wallabies backrow are not being told to focus first on attacking rucks or the coaches would have changed this during the season.
While we don’t have to follow the All Blacks in every aspect of the game, the significantly higher work of their backrow in getting into attacking rucks first suggests a priority of securing the ball first and this gives them an advantage over other teams as they get such quick, clean ball to attack with.
The tactics of the Wallabies need to be adjusted slightly in 2014 to ensure the backrow get into more attacking rucks first.
Tomorrow in part two of the article I’ll reveal how the players performed in the ruck on the end of year tour.