One Force fades away, another force begins to re-awaken

Nicholas Bishop Columnist

By Nicholas Bishop, Nicholas Bishop is a Roar Expert

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    Question: what do the Glasgow Warriors in Scotland, Leinster in Ireland, and the Hurricanes and Chiefs in New Zealand all have in common?

    Answer: they are all driving rugby innovation forward at club level in their respective countries.

    Gregor Townsend will be anointed the new head coach of Scotland when Kiwi Vern Cotter leaves for Montpellier and the Top 14 in June – reputedly on a contract that will make him the first coach to earn more than €1 million per annum.

    Townsend is the brains behind the Glasgow Warriors, who were good enough to reach the knockout stages of the European Champions Cup for the first time in their history in 2017, and provided nine run-on starters for the first Scotland team to win more matches than it lost in the Six Nations since 2006.

    Stuart Lancaster and Leo Cullen have reinvented Leinster in the afterglow of their winning European tradition, reversing two humiliating losses suffered against Wasps in last year’s European Champions Cup with a resounding victory over the same opponents in the ECC quarter-final two weekends ago.

    It should be noted that none other than England coach Eddie Jones has recently been taking a keen interest in discovering just what makes Leinster so good over the past few weeks, which is a generally a sign that you are close to the cutting edge of innovation in the game as a whole.

    Meanwhile, the Chiefs and Hurricanes show few signs of slowing down in the 2017 Super Rugby tournament, with both clubs having suffered only one defeat apiece over the six matches they’ve played so far.

    All of these sides are programmed to keep the ball in hand and maximise their skills in unstructured situations – that is, in scenarios well way from the set-piece and in the more formal responses it engenders. Turnover and kick returns are their specialities.

    Up until now, this is the area where the New Zealand provinces have been the undisputed kings of Super Rugby. Thankfully for Australia, at a time when off-field matters are casting such a pall over the rugby landscape Down Under, there were strong hints in Round 7 that some of the New Zealand magic was at long last beginning to rub off on their rivals from across the Tasman.

    Exactly one year ago last weekend, the Brumbies were being thumped by 23 points to 48 by the Chiefs at home – a game I analysed in some depth here. This time around, the boot was on the other foot, as the Ponies took a rudderless Reds team apart in the second period, routing the Queenslanders by 43 points to 10.


    The 2016 Chiefs scored four tries and 28 points in only nine phases from kick returns or turnovers, while the Brumbies failed consistently, going 0-7 in the same area where the Chiefs proved to be so potent. Although frequently dominant in ‘structure’ (at set-piece and breakdown), the Brumbies lacked the extended finishing power in ‘chaos’ (offloading, improvisation and support play) to make their superiority count.

    What a difference a year makes! Against the Reds, the Brumbies scored four tries of their own (and 26 points) either directly from kick returns (in the 44th minute) or from positions close to the goal-line established by them (52nd, 71st and 79th minutes).

    For those who have become attuned to, or deadened by the Brumbies’ emphasis on abrasive defence, winning penalties from scrum and driving the subsequent lineouts, the change of attitude came as a pleasant surprise. I am tempted to believe that the influence of ex-All Black coach Mick Byrne is being felt in a concrete way in Canberra.

    The benefits that the new emphasis on unstructured attack is having on the self-belief of the team cannot be doubted. The Brumbies are not heavily talent-laden (except for the front five), but in their tradition of over-achievement they are finding a way to make the best of themselves. Their self-belief can be broken down into several mini-categories:

    Empowerment to offload in contact – ten in total over the four sequences
    The climax comes in the joyful basketball sequence of inter-passing between Scott Fardy, Dewet Roos and Henry Speight right at the end of the game.

    Improvement of ‘forward hands’
    Five of the offloads are authored by forwards, including two by props (Allan Alaalatoa and Ben Alexander) and another two by a forward (Scott Fardy) who is not primarily considered to be a off-loading back-rower. A little encouragement goes a long a way, in a department in which New Zealand retains its greatest advantage over the rest of the world. It will certainly help extend Fardy’s career at his new club Leinster next season!

    Exercising the ‘support play muscles’
    The principles of correct support play are best learnt in unstructured situations. In the sequence from 50:02-50:18, there is no real overlap as Aidan Toua goes to make the second pass at 50:08. What makes the true difference, is the way that the Brumbies in the ‘hot zone’ work back towards the ball and become available once Andrew Smith makes his inside cut and offload.

    All of a sudden there are four Brumbies in the frame at 50:12 (Joe Powell at the top, Robbie Abel in the middle and Tom Banks at the bottom) with Toua demanding a second touch – and three of those players are closer to the ball than the nearest Red, #12 Duncan Paia’aua.

    Raising the standard at 9 and 15
    The new emphasis has two important ricochet effects – it develops more active, visionary halfbacks and it rewards more enterprising fullbacks. Toua has never looked like fulfilling his potential while all that was demanded of him was a rather mediocre left-footed kicking game towards the left sideline. Against the Reds, he looked like a man in the before and after adverts.

    His ability to pass flat across the face of the defender (Scott Higginbotham at 43:29, Samu Kerevi at 50:09), and to pick a line to support the receiver (Allan Alaalatoa and Andrew Smith) after passing look world-class, and suddenly Toua looks like a potential Wallaby back-three candidate rather than a marginal Super Rugby starter.

    Joe Powell’s great ‘engine’ at 9 will also be seen to its best when he is required to support the counter from halfback – I already suspect he gets to the base of more breakdowns than any other scrum-half in Australia.

    All of this could perhaps be dismissed as a coincidence or a one-off, were it not for the fact that very much the same pattern occurred in the second half at Wellington, a period which the Waratahs ‘won’ 21-5 against the Hurricanes.

    The desire to counter from initially unpromising positions is there, with both Bernard Foley at 41:46 and Bryce Hegarty at 62:42 coming on boldly from a situation as the ‘last man in the backfield’.

    The positive pressure on quality forward hands is present from Tolu Latu and Ned Hanigan at 59:22, as is the pressure on work ethic to get back to the ball at 41:50 (#9 Jake Gordon and #14 Taqele Naiyaravoro) – even Hegarty contributes with a subtle block on #3 Toomaga-Allen well upfield!

    The raising of the standard at 9 and 15 is notable, with both Hegarty and Gordon enjoying the aspects of decision-making, offloading and support play generated by the need to keep tempo high after a kick by the opposition at 41:52 and 66:18 (from a quick lineout).

    There was some solid evidence in Round 7 of Super Rugby that Australia is starting to enter the modern professional era, the era ruled by New Zealand for the past six or seven years.

    Like the emerging powers in the Northern Hemisphere (Glasgow and Leinster), Australian teams are beginning to see the light. If you want to elevate the level of your individual skills (particularly forwards), and empower the players to make on-field decisions, the boldest way forward is to insist on attacking in unstructured scenarios.

    If you want to produce great 9s and 15s, focus on exploiting the opportunities presented by chaos.

    The Brumbies look to have bitten down hard on that necessity, and finally appear to be moving away from the set-piece game that arrived with Jake White. They have entered the modern era.

    In their courageous second half comeback against the Canes, the Waratahs may also have experienced their moment on the road to Damascus.

    Whatever the strife and turmoil that Australian rugby is experiencing off the field, on the field the repeated humiliations doled out by their cousins on the far side of the Tasman Sea may finally be removing the bandages from its eyes.

    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?. He is currently writing articles for The Roar and The Rugby Site, and working as a strategy consultant to Stuart Lancaster and the Leinster coaching staff for their European matches.

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    The Crowd Says (267)

    • April 12th 2017 @ 4:22am
      Dan in Devon said | April 12th 2017 @ 4:22am | ! Report

      I was also impressed by the intelligent kicking by the Brumbies players who were prepared to put the ball behind the rushed defence – and challenge the structure of the Reds defensive line. All too often Oz teams allow opposition defences to settle into a predictable rhythm.

    • Columnist

      April 12th 2017 @ 4:25am
      Nicholas Bishop said | April 12th 2017 @ 4:25am | ! Report

      The penny does seem to have dropped with the Brumbies Dan. Although their style of play could be very effective it was also very rigid – and rigid things tend to break under pressure. I think that game against the Chiefs had a big shock effect, and the new add-ons they’re evolving will make better use of the talent they have.

      Maybe having a Kiwi provincial 10 helps!

      • April 12th 2017 @ 5:38am
        P2R2 said | April 12th 2017 @ 5:38am | ! Report

        They still revert to type a la line out and maul/drive to the line which against the Highlanders crud T succeed so what has changed?? Nothing that I can see

        • Columnist

          April 12th 2017 @ 4:30pm
          Nicholas Bishop said | April 12th 2017 @ 4:30pm | ! Report

          The lineout drive and scrum is part of their lifeblood now P2, but that doesn’t mean they cannot expand their game using that as a basis.

          • April 12th 2017 @ 9:09pm
            matp said | April 12th 2017 @ 9:09pm | ! Report

            The brumbies get criticised for the rolling maul but now everyone does it. NZ teams score tries from the line out drive every week but I never see anyone saying this is a problem. Why not celebrate an aussie innovation!!

            • April 13th 2017 @ 2:34am
              P2R2 said | April 13th 2017 @ 2:34am | ! Report

              But NZ teams don’t rely on it Matp…whereas the Ponies do…all the time, it’s boring, they got held out by the Landers time and time again, where was the nous to try something different, something more intelligent…? Wasn’t going to happen…

              • April 13th 2017 @ 11:01am
                Fionn said | April 13th 2017 @ 11:01am | ! Report

                P2R2, I guess because they only just lost to the Crusaders and Highlanders that means they should throw out their entire strategy.

                I mean, because, it’s not like almost all other teams get smashed by the Kiwis?

            • April 13th 2017 @ 9:26am
              Mzilikazi said | April 13th 2017 @ 9:26am | ! Report

              I think you will find it is not actually an Aussie innovation…….has been around a long time, but more recently picked up on again. Queensland under John Connolly were excellent at the rolling maul when when Super 10…I think it was then ?? Some 15/20 years ago.

              But I can remember seeing this kind of play in the UK in the 70’s……once saw one of the Welsh Club sides take a kickoff and roll and spin 70 metres or so for a score.

              • Columnist

                April 13th 2017 @ 4:47pm
                Nicholas Bishop said | April 13th 2017 @ 4:47pm | ! Report

                Yep Connolly tried to graft that tight driving style on to Bath when he was briefly coach there – sadly the Bath lot are true cavaliers and demand a lot of ball movement!

            • Columnist

              April 13th 2017 @ 4:48pm
              Nicholas Bishop said | April 13th 2017 @ 4:48pm | ! Report

              I quite like the balance the Brumbies have with their rolling maul and front of the lineout surprise moves 🙂

    • April 12th 2017 @ 4:37am
      riddler said | April 12th 2017 @ 4:37am | ! Report

      cheers nic.. nice article..

      am very happy for lancaster… am a big fan of the nice, humble guys in rugby doing well..

      would have loved to him get the qld gig.. but we missed that one.. maybe he will come down at the end of the season.. here is hoping..

      • Columnist

        April 12th 2017 @ 4:53am
        Nicholas Bishop said | April 12th 2017 @ 4:53am | ! Report

        Yeah he enjoyed the process, but I think there was something fundamentally flawed in it – in the sense that they were using the prestige of international coaches applying simply to increase the kudos of the job, but then they picked the wrong guy! I suspect that at this stage of his career Nick Stiles is a no.2, He may develop into a head coach, but atm there no experience base in the Reds’ coaching group anywhere.

        • April 12th 2017 @ 5:14am
          Dan in Devon said | April 12th 2017 @ 5:14am | ! Report

          They have recruited poorly- they rely too much on three players for on field leadership, namely Smith, Hunt and to a lesser extent Cooper. In fairness to Stiles he deserves more time before he is properly judged. The Reds will be a different outfit with Hunt and Cooper back this week even though the forwards were the main problem against the Brumbies. Hunt’s defence and attacking play is phenomenal for me and his exit kicking is intelligent. I just hope Cheika will give him at opportunity at 15 for the wallabies. Lancaster will coach again internationally. I suspect he will stay at Leinster for a while with an eye on the Ireland job in the long run.

          • April 12th 2017 @ 6:16am
            riddler said | April 12th 2017 @ 6:16am | ! Report

            dan.. hunt is quality.. have said before he was superb for biarritz.. pity that he went to afl..

            we need him more than we need cooper..

            he is showing leadership and go-forward mentality..

            but more we need trhe management to show some leadership and set out how they go forward and win territory..

            we are the most penalised team in the comp?

            that is down to poor coaching and laziness..

          • Columnist

            April 12th 2017 @ 6:50am
            Nicholas Bishop said | April 12th 2017 @ 6:50am | ! Report

            I’d agree with you about Karmichael Hunt, although he’s comparatively late on in his sporting career I think he may add something tot he Wallabies – sort of player who thrives at the more rarified levels…

            The Reds have it in them, but the coaching has no real picture of what it wants, and this is the issue with inexperience.

            Yes I’m sure Stuart will become an international coach again, but it may not be where you suspect at all!

            • April 12th 2017 @ 8:01am
              riddler said | April 12th 2017 @ 8:01am | ! Report

              now you are teasing!!

              please don’t say that he going to the saffas!!

              would love him in oz.. whatever connections you have with him.. please please push him towards brisvegas.. and if not there atleast oz in general..

              • Columnist

                April 12th 2017 @ 4:32pm
                Nicholas Bishop said | April 12th 2017 @ 4:32pm | ! Report

                As I say Ridds he seems to be very happy where he is right now, so cannot see that changing in the immediate future!

            • April 13th 2017 @ 2:36am
              P2R2 said | April 13th 2017 @ 2:36am | ! Report

              I would hazard a guess he goes to the Highlanders…..what say ye

          • April 12th 2017 @ 1:13pm
            RubberLegs said | April 12th 2017 @ 1:13pm | ! Report

            The Reds have waited a long time for Hunt to learn the game and put on some muscle after his Aussie Rules days. He is not a playmaker but his hard running aggressive style is essential with McIntyre a disaster at #10. The Reds backrowers are playing well but it is demoralizing for them when the backs provide little or no organised resistance. Quade has to be more assertive on-field and modify his game to accommodate the limited skills of some of the Reds backs – He seems to pass the ball to Kerevi every time.

        • April 12th 2017 @ 6:13am
          riddler said | April 12th 2017 @ 6:13am | ! Report

          i didn’t realise you were mates with him.. good work..

          in all of his interviews that i watched over the years with him, he comes across as a quality guy and guy you would love play for..

          maybe he isn’t cut throat enough, like a jones or a dwyer, to be an international coach (ie political).. but i do hope he is..

          bakkies, i didn’t realise that he has signed the extension.. thought it was a wait and see decision.. cullen was in way over his head last year and floundering by all accounts.. good on the board for putting in lancaster, good on cullen for letting him in and good on lancaster for taking a coaching role..

          wonderful lack of egos on part of all the parties.. wish oz would show some of the same..

          ballymore is a festering, incestual, back stabbing mess at the moment..

          how is it possible that george smith is becoming so ineffective. 6 months ago he was sublime in the uk.. what the heck is happening with our forward pack.. where is our structure? where is the go-forward with 6 wallabies in the pack .. game plan 1: give it to cooper.. game plan 2: give it to kerevi.. abysmal..

          • Columnist

            April 12th 2017 @ 6:53am
            Nicholas Bishop said | April 12th 2017 @ 6:53am | ! Report

            He is a quality man, and ultimately I do not believe his decency will stand in the way of his success – it may even enhance it. Stuart wanted to get back into hands-on coaching and he has found a way to do it.

            George Smith is playing pretty well considering how poor the Reds’ scrum and game-planning is at present. I would place very little of the responsibility for the current failure on his shoulders. The framework provided by the coaching is not good enough.

            • April 12th 2017 @ 7:59am
              riddler said | April 12th 2017 @ 7:59am | ! Report

              glad to hear it nick.. i hope you are right and he does get back up to the top of interrnational rugby..

              macqueen is a nice bloke as well so it is possible..

              as for smith i have no problem with him at all, he is one our greatest ever wallabies and still could not embarass himself at intl level…

              my concern is that the team and the planning is so bad that he has become a shadow of himself because of the lack of structure and game play.. he is trying his guts like he always does, but it is an impossible task when the other don’t know or don’t stand up..

          • Roar Guru

            April 12th 2017 @ 11:00am
            Poth Ale said | April 12th 2017 @ 11:00am | ! Report

            Wonderful lack of egos also got driven by some hard-nosed enforcement from the IRFU in the shape of David Nucifora. One of the IRFU’s goals is to develop a cadre of domestic Irish coaches supported/mentored by an experienced international coach. Ulster were given Les Kiss to oversee things. Lam at Connacht. Anthony Foley was under huge stress and pressure last season with Munster performing poorly on the pitch and at the bank resulting in a bailout by the Union, and the appointment of Rassie Erasmus as DOR, effectively demoting Foley. Leo Cullen despite getting Leinster to the top of regular season league but losing to Connacht in the PRO12 final saw the writing on the wall and moved to bring someone in rather than it be imposed. He rang Lancaster to see if was interested and as you say egos didn’t get in the way with Lancaster happy to take the role of Senior Coach and Cullen remain as Head Coach/DOR. It was an inspired move because it allowed Lancaster to get hands-on without having to deal with the politics of the IRFU Union and admin who control the provincial branches and employ the players/coaches through them – a quite different system to that employed in England. Leinster are top of the PRO12 league again with 3 rounds to go, and critically are also in the European Cup semi-finals. But nothing is won yet. And Munster may have a thing or two to say about the destiny of both cups since they’re gunning for both too.

            • Columnist

              April 12th 2017 @ 4:36pm
              Nicholas Bishop said | April 12th 2017 @ 4:36pm | ! Report

              Yes Poth Stuart had had quite enough of the politics and the media attention after four years with England, and as he said it pulled him steadily away from what he enjoys doing the most – on-field coaching.

              Wouldn’t a Munster-Leinster final in the ECC be a wonderful thing? 🙂

              • Roar Guru

                April 13th 2017 @ 12:51am
                Poth Ale said | April 13th 2017 @ 12:51am | ! Report

                It would, Nic. Although, Leinster v Munster at Lansdowne Road in the PRO12 final which I bought tickets for at beginning of season without knowing who the finalists would be just as good. 🙂

                Besides, I suspect that it will be Saracens v Clermont in the European Cup final. Clermont at home will be too tough a task for this relatively young Leinster team. And Munster are beginning to flag after the exhausting emotional roller-coaster caused by Foley’s passing, notwithstanding that Stander and Murray are still out injured. Saracens have a grim concentration and determination about them, and an admirable winning run, that should see them home in the premiership and in Europe for the second year running.

              • Columnist

                April 13th 2017 @ 1:10am
                Nicholas Bishop said | April 13th 2017 @ 1:10am | ! Report

                It would, Nic. Although, Leinster v Munster at Lansdowne Road in the PRO12 final which I bought tickets for at beginning of season without knowing who the finalists would be just as good. ?

                You may get both, hope you put some money on as well!

                Clermont at home will be too tough a task for this relatively young Leinster team.

                We will see about that.

              • April 13th 2017 @ 5:04pm
                adastra32 said | April 13th 2017 @ 5:04pm | ! Report

                Munster-Leinster would be good, but the Saracens bus is now rolling ominously well since the end of the 6N.

      • April 12th 2017 @ 5:03am
        Bakkies said | April 12th 2017 @ 5:03am | ! Report

        He is going to sign an extension with Leinster

        • Columnist

          April 12th 2017 @ 5:30am
          Nicholas Bishop said | April 12th 2017 @ 5:30am | ! Report

          Yep I know Bakkies, saw him over the weekend and he’s very happy there 🙂

    • April 12th 2017 @ 5:23am
      Bakkies said | April 12th 2017 @ 5:23am | ! Report

      Just curious about the Brumbies apparently it is down to two people and there was overseas interest in the position (with no leaked names). Of course it’s strongly suggested that Dan McKellar may get the gig. Would prefer a bigger name to take this team to the next level. Despite the youth in the squad a lot of the heavy lifting has been done which includes new training facility, more feeder sides with a local emphasis, players know there are going to be a chance on the horizon which gives them extra motivation rather than being stuck in a rut in club Rugby, player culture has been addressed and the players are based in the ACT full time.

      • April 12th 2017 @ 8:22am
        Red Menace said | April 12th 2017 @ 8:22am | ! Report

        ” more feeder sides” In 1996 the local Canberra competition had 8 premier sides, they now have 7. Norths had to merge with ANU. There was four grades per club plus colts. There was also 2 divisions of Monaro clubs – regional teams from Yass, Cooma. Now the premier sides put 3rds and 4ths into Monaro. The Killer Bees – Canberra Uni – had to merge with ANU. There are less regional sides playing now, Boorawa, Jindabyne, Yass have less sides.

        So “more feeder sides” what rot.

        A few years after Norths demise some parents wanted to resurrect North Juniors. They asked the Brumbies for help and got the response – you will have to find referees. No development officer to go to the local schools, nothing. Those parents got that junior club up without any help from the Brumbies.

        Oh by the way go to the Brumbies website and check the Development page – it’s blank!

        • April 12th 2017 @ 8:40am
          Bakkies said | April 12th 2017 @ 8:40am | ! Report

          To save yourself and your monitor more spit I am not talking about club Rugby. I am on about the Brumbies second XV the Runners which White used to provide more opportunities for local club players to show what they are capable of, the ACT under 20 side and the Canberra Vikings.

          • April 12th 2017 @ 10:58am
            Red Menace said | April 12th 2017 @ 10:58am | ! Report

            Gee, like no other franchise us an Under 20’s or NRC teams.

            BUT the other franchises have a club scene that is growing unlike Canberra.

            BTW, I’m not spitting at you, I’m laughing at you.

            • April 12th 2017 @ 5:10pm
              Bakkies said | April 12th 2017 @ 5:10pm | ! Report

              Again Red Menace I’m not talking about club Rugby.

          • April 12th 2017 @ 1:52pm
            ClarkeG said | April 12th 2017 @ 1:52pm | ! Report

            “to save your monitor more spit” – lol – that’s a corker.

          • April 12th 2017 @ 5:23pm
            AndyS said | April 12th 2017 @ 5:23pm | ! Report

            I reckon you’ve got a million dollar idea there B, a splutter guard for monitors!!! Gift idea of the century for blog addicts…

            • April 12th 2017 @ 6:14pm
              Bakkies said | April 12th 2017 @ 6:14pm | ! Report

              and people who post on here

    • Columnist

      April 12th 2017 @ 5:32am
      Nicholas Bishop said | April 12th 2017 @ 5:32am | ! Report

      Both the Reds and Brumbies would benefit from a foreign coach who would be happy to develop the coaching talent beneath them Bakkies1

      • April 12th 2017 @ 10:03am
        Bill said | April 12th 2017 @ 10:03am | ! Report

        You can throw the Rebels in there as well.For a team that promised so much in 2016 has simply gone backwards and you can’t always blame the players

    • April 12th 2017 @ 5:35am
      P2R2 said | April 12th 2017 @ 5:35am | ! Report

      I am not sure using the loss by the Ponies to the Chiefs as a justification to prove their win over the Reds was showing some improvement for them or even in Aus rugby…a bit rich to be fair

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