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Playing both Pocock and Hooper is more naive than clever

How long will Australia persevere with this backrow? (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)
Roar Guru
25th April, 2016
110
2633 Reads

The debate goes on as to whether two No.7s should take the field for the Wallabies, but whether we are prepared to admit it or not, the Michael Hooper-David Pocock combination created holes.

In some quarters of our Australian rugby fraternity, there is a reluctance to criticise Michael Cheika, or Australian rugby royalty like Pocock.

Hooper, as we all know, is not so blessed, even though he has a better skill set than Pocock in some important areas of the game.

If Cheika continues with the Hooper-Pocock combination, or even brings Hooper off the bench while leaving Pocock on, then the one key area of the game that suffers is the lineout.

Last season, a false sense of security was allowed to set over Australian rugby after the Wallabies defeated the All Blacks in Sydney, with most claiming the reason was because Pocock and Hooper played in tandem.

True to a certain extent – some will no doubt still argue that it was a large extent – but it was not the only reason; not by a long shot.

The All Blacks’ kicking game was uncharacteristically wayward. Dan Carter, trying to make his way back into the international arena, had a game that certainly won’t make his highlight reel, proving he is only human after all.

Kieran Read, nowhere near his best form, was coming back after a series of concussions, and boy did they miss the imperious attacking and defensive nous of Ma’a Nonu, out with injury.

As he demonstrated at the World Cup, Nonu’s replacement Sonny Bill Williams, can be just as effective with his own unique set of skills, but he was still coming to terms with the game of rugby union and the All Blacks’ gameplay.

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Williams in Sydney was neither the player he was before he returned to the NRL, nor the one he became at the World Cup, where he almost led the tournament for offloads, with 12.

Sam Whitelock, returning form injury, was on the bench, and Luke Romano, also making his way back into the All Black fold, did not have the same impact as an in-form Sam Whitelock.

This is not to say the Wallabies did not play very well and deserve victory against the old foe, but it did lull many into a false sense of where they were at when measured against the All Blacks. Perhaps most all, it seemed like evidence the Hooper-Pocock combination should stay.

At Eden Park, Cheika surprisingly left Pocock on the bench, but he still played in tandem with Hooper for a large part of the game.

Hooper had to come off for a concussion check, so Pocock replaced him off the bench. After Hooper returned, and with the breakdown under enormous pressure, Pocock stayed on.

This time though, the All Blacks under the tactical genius of Wayne ‘The Professor’ Smith and Steve Hansen’s uncanny ability to get his side up several levels after a loss, was a wake-up call for the Wallabies.

With Nonu back, Read better for his run, and Eden Park the only genuine international home ground fortress in world rugby, the Wallabies’ task was never going to be easy.

Carter put in a masterclass, just as he did in the World Cup final. This time, a rampaging All Black tight five, and the masterstroke of replacing Jerome Kaino with Victor Vito at No.6 to speed up the attack to the breakdown, came together to nullify the effectiveness of the Hooper-Pocock combination.

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But the most telling aspect was Whitelock and Read poaching and disrupting the Wallaby lineout.

We saw the same lineout issues during the Rugby Championship, and in the World Cup tier-one nations attacked the Wallaby setpiece, but none more effectively than the All Blacks.

With two shorter (though Pocock is a stocky 1.84 metres) non-jumping number 7s in the Wallaby back row, and with Will Skelton – whether he started or came on from the bench – inept at the lineout for a guy his size and too heavy to effectively lift with speed, the Wallabies’ throw was highly vulnerable, and opposition sides knew it.

With fewer options to throw it too, the lineout is much easier to target, especially if the opposition has world-class poachers, and in Read and Whitelock, the All Blacks arguably have the world’s best. At the World Cup they both topped the lineout steals with six apiece, making it a major turnover weapon for the All Blacks.

But the All Black pair are masters of not only making the turnover steal, but disrupting the opposition ball even if it is won.

Just as they did at Eden Park, the All Blacks destroyed the Wallaby lineout in the World Cup final.

Sydney Morning Herald journalist Paul Cully’s post-match headline read: “Rugby World Cup 2015 final: Wallabies Lineout ends dream against the All Blacks”.

There was more to their victory than just the Wallabies wobbly lineout, nevertheless it was one of the key reasons the Kiwis dominated the Wallabies at the set piece.

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This is where Cheika was naïve – and not for the first time in the World Cup.

After the quarter-final escape against Scotland, Cheika said, “We didn’t go to our kicking game, maybe that was a bit naïve of me. Maybe we shouldn’t have opened it up for them.”

Mind you, whatever happened to players thinking on their feet regardless of the instructions from the coach if the plan isn’t working on the field? Or even the captain taking some initiative to operate another plan, even if just temporarily?

So why did Cheika play Hooper and Pocock in the final run-on side when he knew – or should have known – it would badly weaken the lineout, and that the All Blacks had the jumpers and the firepower to exploit such a glaring weakness.

This meant they were able to create defensive and attacking turnovers on the Wallabies’ throw, which they most certainly did, and they were crucial.

It appeared as if even Cheika started to believe the hype surrounding the Scott Fardy, Pocock, Hooper combination with claims being made – although largely by Australian journalists – they were the best fetching trio in the world, and therefore must play against the All Blacks.

But the best fetching trio does not by definition make you the best back row, because there is much more in the modern game than fetching – a point lost by our media until the end of the World Cup final.

Pully Cully, in the same post-match article, perhaps put it best: “the Wallabies trio confirmed their status as the best ball-fetching trio in the world. But loose forward play has other components – lineout prowess, dominant tackling and continuity in attack. Here, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw and Jerome Kaino held all the cards…”

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Any Australian who watched the final without one eye knows this is a fair assessment.

The All Blacks had a better-balanced back row, with a wider skill set, operating like three jackals across the park. They were always at the right place at the right time from lineout to ruck, in the backline as link men, as bludgeoning line breakers with superb offloading skills, as very physical hard hitting defenders, and of course as poachers of the ball.

Rod Kafer on Rugby 360 argued that Hooper is a better player for the Wallabies than he is for the Waratahs right now, because they have a more balanced back row, allowing him to operate like a No.6 playing at No.7, leaving the bulk of fetching to Pocock, and even Fardy who is also strong over the ball.

But it is not balanced enough.

While it may be well balanced for open play, it is not for the set piece, namely the lineout, and it hurt the Wallabies in 2015 by turning the ball over or having it disrupted.

Teams like the All Blacks and the Springboks hunt as a pack, with just about every player in the side skilled at making breakdown turnovers. This frees up the backrow to rove into more defensive and attacking spaces operating as ball carriers, and can provide an avenue for taller operators and more lineout options, which both McCaw and Read certainly do for the All Blacks.

This is where, and as McCaw reminded us in interviews, the role of the No.7 has evolved to be more versatile and effective in other areas of the park – not just an out-and-out fetcher.

But you need 1-15 to understand the darks arts of the breakdown to complete this transition effectively.

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Both the Boks and the All Blacks do this as a team better than the Wallabies. It is also one of the reasons Pocock is so badly missed when he doesn’t play. A sense of panic seems to come over some in the Australian media.

Michael Hopper has been criticised this season, rather famously by Bob Dwyer recently, who proclaimed the Waratahs 7 had lost his mojo and was now so far down the pecking order that he should not be picked for the upcoming England Test series.

I can’t see this happening. Cheika will rightly show loyalty to his World Cup trio, at least in squad selection.

Though Dwyer’s criticism was a bit harsh, in some ways I am on the same page, at least in that Hooper should not start with Pocock because the lineout becomes a source of turnover ball.

At just over 1.82 metres, Hooper is not the biggest openside going around, and not really a serious lineout option at Test level. This would be okay, except that Pocock is not a lineout option either. This leaves only Fardy as a genuine option.

Hooper’s assets are his speed, ball-running skills and his defence. His body size means he is not as strong over the ball as many other backrowers, and it is no secret that he often gets bulldozed off the ball. But he has a high work rate, is a great link player, and lifts the tempo of the Wallaby forward game.

The reality is that even though he plays at 7, his game is more like that of a 6. Thus, in the Test arena, Hooper is a better bench player, coming on when most teams are tiring. But which player to take off is the problem – and who starts instead of him?

The other contenders are Liam Gill (Reds), Sean McMahon (Rebels) and Matt Hodgson (Force).

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The stats for the 2016 Super completion after Round 8 show some interesting comparisons between the top five contenders.

Up to Round 8, Gill has only played three games and yet his stats make good reading. In only half the number of games as Pocock, Gill has made considerably more metres, made three more clean breaks, beaten only two fewer defenders, made more offloads, and taken two lineout catches.

In fact, Pocock, with the same number of games, gets beaten hands down by both Hooper and McMahon for metres gained, carries, clean breaks, defenders beaten, and offloads. Hooper has even managed a lineout catch. These stats show that areas of Pocock’s game are not as strong as others.

After Pocock’s recent suspension, the New Zealand Herald’s Gregory Paul wrote an article heaping praise on his fetching skills, but said, “For all his brilliance over the ball, his skill-set is stunningly limited.”

Pocock is the best over-the-ball poacher in the world, no doubt, but the other areas of his game seem to get swept under the carpet as long he is getting vital turnovers and making crucial tackles in defence, which of course he always does.

He does not have the game of McCaw, yet no one wants to talk about his deficiencies – or at least his weaker overall skillset.

Now I am not suggesting for one minute that Pocock should not start for the Wallabies. He is so good at what he does that he is a first-pick, no question, but I am suggesting we need to talk about what he does not bring to the game.

McMahon’s stats are the standout here.

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Most importantly, he has taken eight lineout catches and made one steal, proving he is a genuine lineout option which the Wallabies desperately need. He is also in blistering form, showing the kind of physicality in his defence and carries that have been lacking.

Hogson is also in good form, despite the dismal showing of the Force, topping the tackle count for the competition (but he has had a lot of defending to do). As of Round 8, he also just beats Pocock for percentages on effective turnovers.

Like Pocock, he is not a huge carrier of the ball in terms of metres gained and defenders beaten, but he can offload reasonably well in traffic. He is more a Pocock in his game style than a Hooper of McMahon type.

Thus McMahon must start ahead of Hooper, not only because of the physicality and skill set he brings, but also because he is the best lineout operator. Cheika cannot afford to play favourites when the lineout was such a weakness last season.

The question is where does he play?

If there was a No.8 in Australia in the same class as Duane Vermeulen or Kieran Read, David Pocock would play 7. So I would have McMahon at No.8 and Pocock in his preferred position.

True, Poccock has played there at Test level and McMahon would need time to adjust. Yet long term he would be a better No.8 than Pocock, because of his wider skill set, stronger ball carrying, less stocky body type, and height (just over 1.86 metres), which all suit this position.

The bench then would have to be Michael Hooper, because he has the Test experience and brings that extra zip with tired bodies on the field. That said, Gill has been a shining light in a disappointing Reds side.

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I’m sure many will have their own views on this subject, but the starting backrow is Scott Fardy, Sean McMahon, David Pocock, and a bench of Michael Hooper or Liam Gill, with Hooper getting the nod from me.