Why Bernard Foley has nowhere to hide

Nicholas Bishop Columnist

By Nicholas Bishop, Nicholas Bishop is a Roar Expert

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    It is an axiom of behaviour in the animal kingdom: whatever shows fear and takes flight becomes the hunted. Flight paints a target on your back like nothing else and it is no different in the dog-eat-dog world of elite professional sport.

    The Wallabies have a history of trying to protect their playmakers at number ten, which began around 2010. Stephen Larkham had played the position for Australia for the better part of a decade previously, starting life as a fullback before Rod Macqueen turned him into one of the best tens of the professional era.

    Ironically, there would have been solid reasons then to play Larkham in the same way that Bernard Foley is deployed by Nathan Grey’s defensive system now. Larkham had the experience at Super Rugby level at fullback already in the bank, and he was the key to Australia’s bewildering playbook of attacking moves from the set-piece, which was far more extensive in the early 2000s.

    Diverting him to the backfield would have had the benefit of avoiding the physical wear and tear that occurs in the ten channel defensively and kept his mind and body fresh in a key ‘thinking’ position.

    But Macqueen tended to keep Larkham in the channel, and the balance only started to shift when Robbie Deans moved Quade Cooper to fullback during the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. Cooper was targeted with great success by the All Blacks in a semi-final between what were probably the two best teams in the tournament.

    Move onto another Australian coach in the form of Michael Cheika and the same principles are still being employed. Cheika’s number ten of choice, Bernard Foley, is protected in the tram-lines at first phase lineouts and tends to defend in the backfield during phase-play.

    But it is that principle of masking or concealment which is creating a target for opposing teams who have had success against both the Wallabies and Foley’s Super Rugby side, the Waratahs. They smell blood when they see the Wallabies attempting to hide their favourite playmaker at number ten, and they go after him wherever he is.

    The problem is compounded by the fact Cheika has conspicuously avoided developing alternatives in both half-back positions, where they have been enthusiastically developed elsewhere in the team throughout 2017. Reece Hodge played at ten against Japan, but that is about it.

    The sudden abandonment of Quade Cooper by both his province and his country has sharpened that and really brought it into focus. If Foley is unavailable, who replaces him and how do the Wallabies reorganise in the backline?

    It is no coincidence that England under Eddie Jones are 5-0 against Michael Cheika’s Wallabies and that the bedrock of their game-plan is the ‘hunting’ of Bernard Foley in both attack and defence. It is an awful lot of pressure for one player to handle consistently.

    bernard foley makes break

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    The wet weather conditions at Twickenham in November marked the target on Foley’s back in the brightest of reds.

    It also coincided with another of England’s aims in that match, which was to create a succession of wins in the kicking game, whether they were receiving the kick and returning it, or kicking it themselves.

    The game started with a kicking duel between Foley and England left winger Elliott Daly which resolved in favour of the men in white.

    Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

    Australia spent a couple of phases setting up a kicking position for Foley before he delivered a diagonal which landed in Daly’s lap well outside the England 22. Daly had all the time he needed to pin Foley back in his own 22 with the left-footed return. Foley was forced to kick the ball out at halfway from a narrow angle, with an England attacking lineout to follow.

    England’s ability to read Foley’s kicking game and get into the right position to receive it was a first-half theme:

    They also began to identify the opportunities presented to return Foley’s higher, contestable kicks better as the match wore on. The best chance occurred at the beginning of the second half:

    Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

    The hangtime on Foley’s kick is not too bad at all, coming in a fraction short of the NFL-approved average for punters of 4.44 seconds in the air. However, it is still short of the class leaders in American football, such as Marquette King of the Oakland Raiders, who can keep the ball up in the skies for over a second longer!

    Fatally, the one-man chase from Reece Hodge is not sufficient to prevent Daly making an offload to Anthony Watson and setting up the counter-attack.

    The counter is developed after Watson is tackled in midfield on the following phase, with Maro Itoje part of a three-man overlap out to the English right:

    Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

    Courtney Lawes passes the ball out of the first line of attack and George Ford straightens his run intelligently to condense the Wallaby outside defenders towards the ball. At the key moment, Itoje makes the wrong decision and fails to pass immediately to Jonathan Joseph and Jonny May in acres of space outside him – otherwise, a try would have been the likely result.

    When Foley dropped back from the tram-lines into the backfield from lineouts, England followed him with their own kicking game:

    Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
    May (who is probably England’s best chaser of a ball in the air) got first touch over Foley on this occasion, but the ball went forward. If May had been able to win the ball more cleanly, there was a promising attacking scenario for England with two other players in white in close support:

    The pressure on Foley was cumulative, as England chased their prey around the field. On the next occasion Foley fielded a high kick, he chose to hand on that pressure to Will Genia and Kurtley Beale inside him:

    Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

    The pressure began to make itself felt on the areas which Foley’s positioning was supposed to protect. He shanked his first kick at goal badly in the 23rd minute, and an attacking opportunity was lost due to a forward pass:

    There are still times when Foley has to stand in the front line in defence, and one of those times is at the scrum. England again targeted him when there was nowhere to hide, with Chris Robshaw running straight over the top of Foley to create another scoring opportunity:

    Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

    Robshaw breaks the line from a standing start before offloading to Joe Launchbury, who delivers another good pass to release the England backs.

    Although Stephen Larkham converted from fullback to number ten with major impact on the international scene, for the most part he defended in the front line when Rod Macqueen was in charge of the Wallabies.

    Quade Cooper was probably the first Test number ten to defend regularly at fullback in the Robbie Deans era, but the experiment could not be called a success at the 2011 World Cup. It gave the All Blacks an obvious target in the key semi-final match between Australia and New Zealand, one which they exploited to the hilt.

    In Nathan Grey’s defensive system, Bernard Foley only defends in the front line from scrums, at lineout he is in the tram-lines to start, then drops into backfield duty as a second fullback thereafter.

    Wallaby Bernard Foley kicks for touch

    (Image: Tim Anger)

    Partly because they know Australia currently lack a credible Test match alternative to Foley with the abandonment of Quade Cooper, Australia’s smartest opponents tend to target Foley and give him as much to do as possible – to overload and undermine him at the same time, if you like.

    They either engage him in kicking duels they are likely to win, or force him to kick anticipating a promising return. They target him with their own kicking game when he drops to fullback. If he stays in the line, they look to attack him directly on the carry.

    There truly is nowhere for Foley to hide at present, especially considering Michael Cheika has chosen not to develop his options in the halves so Foley can be given a rest against top-class opposition.

    This applies also to scrum-half, where Cheika has options both home (Joe Powell and Jake Gordon) and abroad (Nic White, who has successfully moved his game on again at Exeter), but has yet to find a convincing back-up for Will Genia.

    Come the new season in 2018, the halves in Australian rugby will under the microscope like never before, as the Wallabies look to create a healthy competition in those positions where currently, none exists.

    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 (377)

    • December 13th 2017 @ 4:30am
      John said | December 13th 2017 @ 4:30am | ! Report

      Hi Nick,

      Thanks for the insights, as usual a stellar effort. I’m curious – I know this is clearly a topic in its own right, but what about when you add Kurtley Beale to the mix. I wonder what compounding effect it has.

      • Columnist

        December 13th 2017 @ 4:37am
        Nicholas Bishop said | December 13th 2017 @ 4:37am | ! Report

        Hi John

        Yes you are right Kurtley Beale is just as integral to the ‘holy trinity’ of Waratah backs who are so central to Cheika’s plan to 2019 (the other is Israel Folau), which I looked at a few weeks ago. KB wasn’t at his best on the European tour either, and that did compound the problem. Worthy of an article in itself!

        • Roar Guru

          December 13th 2017 @ 8:27am
          PeterK said | December 13th 2017 @ 8:27am | ! Report

          Missing Folau also impacted the team greatly.

          • Columnist

            December 13th 2017 @ 10:19am
            Nicholas Bishop said | December 13th 2017 @ 10:19am | ! Report

            Yes Peter, and I think the tour gave a far clearer picture of just what the WBs lack when he’s not there…

            • Roar Guru

              December 13th 2017 @ 11:32am
              Timbo (L) said | December 13th 2017 @ 11:32am | ! Report

              I can’t agree,

              What it showed (as per your article) was the importance of having a decent, accurate kicking game in the back field when playing against teams like the Poms that play in the air.

              On the tour the 2 Fullbacks were Beale and Foley.
              Sure, Beale’s kicking game was off but at least he has one and he has a reasonable sense of where to be. I would prefer a fit Hunt, DHP or Banks in the role.

              Against Scotland Mid year I detected that Scotland were doing the same as England. Kick the ball away from Folau, focus on Foley. That ended with a victorious Scotland. Not a tick to put on your resume, no matter how many “Finisher” tries you made.

              There is no doubt that Folau is the master of the High ball and has an uncanny knack for slicing through broken play but these 2 skills are only a sample of what it takes to be a great fullback. In my opinion he not one. He doesn’t have the tactics, the instinct for field position, the defensive abilities or the kicking game to be worthy of the number on that jersey. I am not saying he shouldn’t be in the team (That is a different Niavalu/Kuridrani/Kerevi/Koribete/Hodge based argument) but in my view he has no business patrolling the deep. He is and Cheika plays him as a 14 with a Roving-insert Mandate, and that is fine, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of having a skilled fullback in the side. Until recently, the Kiwis played 2 – Smith&Dagg, the Wallabies, select 2 part timers. Folau/Beale/Foley.

              • Columnist

                December 13th 2017 @ 6:58pm
                Nicholas Bishop said | December 13th 2017 @ 6:58pm | ! Report

                All back three players have to have some full-back skills nowadays Timbon, just because the amount of rotation that goes on and the different start-points. Shifting Folau to 14 would change the complexion but not the root of the issue you describe.

                I would give far more weight to Folau’s positives than you do however!

              • Roar Guru

                December 14th 2017 @ 5:14pm
                Timbo (L) said | December 14th 2017 @ 5:14pm | ! Report

                I would take a player that is good in every aspect of their position over a specialist with excellent, albeit narrow skills any day of the week.
                Right or Wrong, it is a view not Shared by Michael Chieka nor many Roarers.

                I personally think that the the localized brilliance does not adequately offset the downstream costs, some of which i believe we see in Foley’s backfield YoYo mentioned in your recent dissertation.

                As I alluded to earlier, Folau was already playing a roving 14 role, just with a 15 Jersey on his back. He has never really been tasked with the deep or patrolling roles covered by a traditional 15. He tends to be tucked short under the wing ready for the highball or doubling up in the 13 channel to create an overlap.

                The Confusion and subsequent debate ensues over different peoples understanding of each players role in the team and the ambiguity introduced by the number on their back.

                As a thought experiment, Drop Folau from the team and see if you can select a group of players that can replace his skillset to at least 95% and cover the rest of the traditional roles that he is not proficient in.

                If you can’t, then it is a good choice.
                I can, and in multiple permutations, and that is why I am not a big fan of his selection.

              • December 24th 2017 @ 9:27pm
                double agent said | December 24th 2017 @ 9:27pm | ! Report

                I know you hate him Timbo but let’s face it – the Wallabies needed him.

    • Columnist

      December 13th 2017 @ 4:33am
      Nicholas Bishop said | December 13th 2017 @ 4:33am | ! Report

      Note to readers: for some reason the second gif. ( http://gph.is/2B4JgSS ) has not appeared, but the link is still valid – simply copy and paste in your browser and it will take you to the right place on the hosting site!… Or just click on it here.

    • December 13th 2017 @ 4:43am
      Lostintokyo said | December 13th 2017 @ 4:43am | ! Report

      Thanks Nick. The fly half or 5/8 selection has been a conundrum for Wallaby coaches after the eras of Ella, Lynagh and Larkham. All of whom could tackle.

      Like the US Football quarterback it is a position of strength or the team is not going to fill the trophy cabinet.

      I am old fashioned, and I like the 10 to defend in the line. Australia is not alone in shifting the 10 in defence but under Nathan Grey things do seem to get overly complex. I bet he is at the whiteboard now, up at 3:00am like me.

      • Columnist

        December 13th 2017 @ 10:22am
        Nicholas Bishop said | December 13th 2017 @ 10:22am | ! Report

        I fully understand the reasons behind Nathan Grey’s thinking Lost, but as the saying goes “Trouble can follow you around”. I recall Bath trying to find ways to hide George Ford a couple of years back, and that never really worked either. I’m not convinced Foley believe he needs to be subtracted from front line D either – he and KB coped pretty well with Sonny Bill in that regard at Bledisloe 2 after all!

        • December 13th 2017 @ 12:11pm
          Lostintokyo said | December 13th 2017 @ 12:11pm | ! Report

          I agree, I think Foley is capable to defend in the line. Defence/ kick returns philosophy is probably more the issue.

          • December 14th 2017 @ 3:45am
            mz.ilikazi said | December 14th 2017 @ 3:45am | ! Report

            Will add my agreement to that.

            MF is not, IMO, a player who hides from tackling. Sure, he “run over” by big players from time to time, but his wonderful short distance speed helps him get up fast before opponents gain momentum, and execute plenty of good and effective tackles.

        • December 13th 2017 @ 12:54pm
          Perthstayer said | December 13th 2017 @ 12:54pm | ! Report

          Nick, great article.

          You may feel otherwise but I believe small people can tackle, they just need to be taught in a manner that suits their physique and temperament. (There are others but Neil Back comes to mind).

          Can’t be nice to know your team mates know hiding you is making the team weaker. Or maybe he comes from the Cheika school of denial

          • December 13th 2017 @ 12:57pm
            Charlie Turner said | December 13th 2017 @ 12:57pm | ! Report

            Hoopers not a bad tackler for a little fella…..

            • December 13th 2017 @ 1:07pm
              Perthstayer said | December 13th 2017 @ 1:07pm | ! Report

              Yeah, but he could do better at covering the No.10 channel 🙂

          • Columnist

            December 13th 2017 @ 7:00pm
            Nicholas Bishop said | December 13th 2017 @ 7:00pm | ! Report

            Interesting last comment P/S. Yes England toyed with the idea of moving George Ford (who is much smaller than Foley) out of the 10 channel, but even with their small midfield England (no-one of the size of the two K’s in it) find a way to manage….

        • December 13th 2017 @ 3:40pm
          Old One Eye said | December 13th 2017 @ 3:40pm | ! Report

          I like the idea of the 2 weak tackles together helping each other out rather than sacrificing a strong tackler to assist. Hopefully the 2 weaker tacklers together will make a whole (not a hole) and it keeps the strong tacklers free to defend one on one. There is still a pairing up but there is only one potential weak point and not 2 as would be the case if you split Foley and Beale. I think that was why it worked so well against the All Blacks, there was only one not so “weak” area of defence and it was predictable that it would be targeted and because players weren’t being shuffled around there was no confusion about roles. Why haven’t we seen the same strategy since?

          • December 13th 2017 @ 4:41pm
            savant said | December 13th 2017 @ 4:41pm | ! Report

            Good question.

          • Columnist

            December 13th 2017 @ 7:02pm
            Nicholas Bishop said | December 13th 2017 @ 7:02pm | ! Report

            OOE, I recall spotting Beale and Foley defending at the end of the line at one point towards the end of the RC, that would just widen the target for an opponent.

            • December 14th 2017 @ 12:34pm
              Old One Eye said | December 14th 2017 @ 12:34pm | ! Report

              I was thinking more the 10-12 channel where the defensive channel is a bit narrower and there is more support from forwards on the inside and the 13 on the outside. Even though that is a busy area. Can’t say I like either of them either on their own or paired up being the last line of defense.

      • December 24th 2017 @ 9:29pm
        double agent said | December 24th 2017 @ 9:29pm | ! Report

        The list of 10s that can’t tackle is about a thousand times longer than the list of 10s that can tackle. Even in NRL the 7 is often not that great a defender.

    • Roar Guru

      December 13th 2017 @ 6:00am
      Harry Jones said | December 13th 2017 @ 6:00am | ! Report

      I think the reason why Australia and South Africa keep drawing is they have equal number of weak links upon whom each team’s predators can easily prey:

      – The Wallabies can run big backs at wee frail Boklings wings and fullback (as selected by Coach Kootchie Koo)
      – Bully Boks bash undersized Wallaby loose forwards like Hanigan or Hooper
      – Folau out leaps earth-bound Boklings
      – Bok props make soft Aussie props squeal
      – Beale giveth and Beale taketh away
      – Bok centres pretend to be statues, whilst Genia, Foley, Hooper, and Beale dance like pole-dancers around them
      – Bok locks steal LO ball

      Etc. etc.

      • Columnist

        December 13th 2017 @ 10:23am
        Nicholas Bishop said | December 13th 2017 @ 10:23am | ! Report

        hat sounds almost biblical in its balance – or even Old Testament H! An eye for an eye and all that… You are a learned man indeed 🙂

        • December 13th 2017 @ 1:26pm
          Ken Catchpole's Other Leg said | December 13th 2017 @ 1:26pm | ! Report

          South Africa is an Old Testament nation, Nic.

      • December 13th 2017 @ 4:35pm
        cuw said | December 13th 2017 @ 4:35pm | ! Report

        YEAH , a properly selected saffa team – even with the quotas – may beat the auzzy team.

        i go as far as saying a properly selected saffa team may even beat a properly selected auzzy team atm.

        somehow the coach ” Kootchie Koo ” fails to see what many do. as Trump says “SAD!”

        • Roar Guru

          December 14th 2017 @ 2:02am
          Harry Jones said | December 14th 2017 @ 2:02am | ! Report


          If you added the 2017 Bok pack to a decently experience backline that included JPP, Willie, Lambie, Serfontein, and Frans (but introduced firepower like Mapimpi, L. Am, W. Gelant, and maybe even a young phenom like Willemse) …. I think it would have been a 10-win season …

      • December 14th 2017 @ 9:26am
        Rebellion said | December 14th 2017 @ 9:26am | ! Report

        Good point Harry

        I’d be interested to see how the Boks would perform with David Pocock at 7

        Have given up on the idea here under Chieka

      • December 24th 2017 @ 9:31pm
        double agent said | December 24th 2017 @ 9:31pm | ! Report

        “Beale giveth and Beale taketh away.”

        GOLD!!!! Surely one of the best lines ever on the Roar!!! Well Done!

    • December 13th 2017 @ 7:13am
      Redsfan1 said | December 13th 2017 @ 7:13am | ! Report

      Nicholas you seem obsessed with blaming Bernard Foley for every Wallabies woe and elevating Quade Cooper.

      I think the fact that Cooper is not wanted by the national or even his club coach is pretty telling.

      • December 13th 2017 @ 7:57am
        Drongo said | December 13th 2017 @ 7:57am | ! Report

        No it isn’t. It is the same mistake by two coaches. One very inexperienced and influenced by his own loyalties as a player. The other playing favourites and protecting his badly underperforming mate. If Quade had been elevated to the first choice 5/8 role we would have a world class player in the position and a decent back-up in Foley. The on-going preference for Foley has been the worst error made by Cheika as coach.

        • December 13th 2017 @ 8:06am
          Fionn said | December 13th 2017 @ 8:06am | ! Report

          Sorry, posted my comment in the wrong spot.

          Good comment though, Drongo.

          • December 13th 2017 @ 12:44pm
            Phil said | December 13th 2017 @ 12:44pm | ! Report

            Fionn,you’ve just blown any credibility you may have had by complimenting a Drongo post!Even if it does agree with your anti-Foley opinion.
            Hard to disagree with Nick,though,as he obviously knows more about rugby than most of us.I still think Foley could defend in the front line,as Nick indicated the Bled 2 game,but also agree Cheika should have a reliable back up.I do not think Cooper is the answer,though.

        • December 13th 2017 @ 9:36am
          Jacko said | December 13th 2017 @ 9:36am | ! Report

          Not just 2 coaches Drongo…7s coach, Toulon Coach, Aus coach x 2 and Reds coach…thats 5 different coaches who have not required Cooper’s services where he has tried to get selected..

          1 or 2 could be bad coaches but 5 ?????

          • December 13th 2017 @ 10:24am
            Cynical Play said | December 13th 2017 @ 10:24am | ! Report

            Alan Jones picked him. Kiss of death?

            • December 14th 2017 @ 3:51am
              mz.ilikazi said | December 14th 2017 @ 3:51am | ! Report

              Absolutely !!

      • Columnist

        December 13th 2017 @ 10:25am
        Nicholas Bishop said | December 13th 2017 @ 10:25am | ! Report

        Nicholas you seem obsessed with blaming Bernard Foley for every Wallabies woe

        Hardly, I actually think he’s a decent player and about the only Test-worthy 10 in Australia right now. My argument is with the way he’s handled on defence, and the fact there are no back-ups to take the pressure off him…

        • December 13th 2017 @ 2:36pm
          Hello said | December 13th 2017 @ 2:36pm | ! Report

          It is a major worry about the back ups.
          And well the defensive plan has had a lot of detractors on this site and seems to get more and more confusing

      • December 13th 2017 @ 12:55pm
        Perthstayer said | December 13th 2017 @ 12:55pm | ! Report

        Redsfan, did you watch the videos?

    • December 13th 2017 @ 7:23am
      Cole said | December 13th 2017 @ 7:23am | ! Report

      What great tactics by England! Foley is the first chosen in the WBs 15 so working on ways to exploit his lack of kicking game, in line defence etc. is just brilliant. I see that 5 – 0 deficit only increasing in the years to come.

      Great article as always, Thanks Nick.

      • Columnist

        December 13th 2017 @ 10:26am
        Nicholas Bishop said | December 13th 2017 @ 10:26am | ! Report

        No worries Cole. I think Bledisloe 2 proved that even Foley and Beale together can be quite comfortable defending in the front line.

        • Roar Guru

          December 13th 2017 @ 11:15pm
          Fox said | December 13th 2017 @ 11:15pm | ! Report

          A defensive master, one or two games, does not make – and he has made some defensive blunders since including some that remind us of the old defensive Beale. Better yes….as good as he should be at test level consistently?

          No not yet. He is still a work in progress in defence IMO. That being said, at 12, he has been very good in attack fro the Wallabies.

          He is not exactly Sam Cane in defence( not that he has to be of course) but then who is in the world?

          Finally rising out of McCaw’s big shadow this year for the AB’s I think Nick. His game against Wales was the best defensive game by a 7 this season – almost freakish – he was just everywhere and making huge hits time after time.

          Folau was missed by the Wallabies – in attack – but that is not good enough as an excuse for their poor northern tour. Look how many front line players Scotland and the AB’s were missing for goodness sake.

          Tactics and selection issues IMO – yet again – was the issue, not Folau missing and a lack of physicality when it was needed in the contact area – especially against Scotland even before the send-off

          Lots for Cheika to ponder over summer including his pretty ordinary record.

          He will be pleased Pocock has returned in 2018 – but the new laws may well nullify Pococks greatest strength and he has was not as effective as in the previous season even in 2016 so will be watching how he goes for the Brumbies with interest.

          And will Pooper be revisited? A fatal error if Cheika does do this Nick, but with Hooper as captain where else can he go?

          But Pocock is not a test no8 IMO

          • December 14th 2017 @ 9:41am
            Rebellion said | December 14th 2017 @ 9:41am | ! Report

            Have to agree Cane has really hit the peak of his powers this season.
            I still think the Wallabies could field a world class back row with Pocock & Dempsey on the flanks – but that would mean Cap’n Hoopy & Aussie Ned would have to stop bunking with Phipps, Foley & Chiek

    , ,