‘Cheika-Ball’: Making two playmakers and dual opensides work

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    We’ve heard of ‘Warren-ball’ to describe the mid-field crash-ball game of Warren Gatland’s Wales and his 2013 British and Irish Lions.

    We’re maybe too familiar with the territory-oriented percentage play of ‘Jake-Ball’ at the 2007 Rugby World Cup, and its manifestations at the Brumbies and Sharks.

    Likewise in Australia we hear a lot about the nearly mythical invincibility of ‘running rugby’, which has our Kiwi cobbers scratching their noggins when they quite rightly observe the All Blacks play a pretty handy brand of it as well.

    But to get bums on stadium seats and in front of TV sets the re-branded big cheeses at Rugby Australia have given Michael Cheika carte blanche to reinvigorate this apparently lost Randwick rugby art and save Aussie rugby in the process.

    So what exactly then is this style of ‘Cheika-Ball’ in the Wallaby context, besides run the ball like headless poultry? We maybe can be forgiven for asking this from what we saw from the Wallabies in 2016 and at various stages in 2017.

    bernard foley makes break

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    Seeing Cheika’s Waratahs, and the games the Wallabies played in the last Rugby World Cup and in 2016-17, we know Cheika-Ball tries to be abrasive and direct with ball in hand. There are dynamic forward runners getting over the gain line and in behind the defence before quickly recycling for a left or right side attack through or behind a screening forward pod which is directed by twin playmakers to maintain pressure and continuity.

    The Wallabies dual opensides roam the field as part of the three pods with Mike Hooper leading the defence of the 10/12 channel and lurking wider in attack.

    David Pocock has license to pressure opposition phase ball when the tackle situation permits around the centre pod. To the chagrin of many supporters, in Cheika-Ball kicking duties seem extraneous in nature and distributed between the two playmakers who in the Bernard Foley/Kurt Beale selections do not defend in the front line and drop back to return kicks or link with Israel Folau to launch a counter.

    It is a system influenced by rugby league which uses a similar two playmaker system to quickly direct the attack during the tackle sets behind a screen of decoy runners.

    Australia and England, with their Aussie coaches, stand out in international rugby with this league-influenced attacking system, rather than the more general trend of selecting large humans to form Test centre pairings and controlling play mainly from the 9/10 halves axis.

    Out of the Aussie Super Rugby franchises the Tahs, Force and Brumbies also used the two-playmaker system with varying degrees of success during 2016 and 2017 seasons.

    Cheika-Ball seeks attrition through wearing down the opposition forwards via dominating frequent collisions in attack and defence, and when the gain line is eventually won or a salient created in behind, the playmakers look to pour fast troops into the holes.

    Nonetheless, some valid questions remain to be answered about the model and Cheika-Ball, and here we have a paradox.

    Although the approach is simple and verges on uni-dimensional, the current Two Playmaker system Cheika uses to execute it is complicated in both attack and defence.

    It’s a complex system with inherent risk that requires a lot of understanding and on-field communication between the 9/10/12/15 combinations and the rest of the backline.

    In particular as they alternate roles and scramble for varied positions in attack and defence, particularly in unstructured play on opposition counter, all while trying to make decisions and select the right options.

    Complexity creates its own stress – especially under physical and psychological pressure.

    Michael Cheika Australia Rugby Union Wallabies 2017

    (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

    As we have seen with the Wallabies against NH opposition, the two-playmaker system can be very vulnerable to pressure from a quality rush/blitz defence that results in the playmakers being trapped behind a forward pack that is not getting across the gain line or generating enough time and space for them which affects their decision-making and execution.

    Therefore, enormous responsibility for successful Cheika-Ball lies with the ball carrying forwards winning the gain line battle by forcing the defence backwards and maintaining the speed of recycling.

    This fact is not lost on opposition teams who are well versed in slowing down ball, as are nearly all teams nowadays.

    The essential dynamic ball carrying forwards needed for this are not a current strength of the Wallabies, although Dempsey and McMahon have these qualities if not quite the size, and we sacrifice a big ball running No 8 for another openside with the inclusion of Pocock so the system contains its own personnel limitations.

    Additionally, the forward pods need to exceptionally accurate at the ruck to maintain possession and achieve the quick recycle/reload needed to generate pressure and continuity.

    The two playmakers running the system and the halfback must also execute basic passing skills with technical accuracy and choosing the right options at a sufficiently high tempo to maintain pressure and continuity for 80 minutes.

    This requires high fitness levels (hence Cheika’s frustration in June at the conditioning of his players and the Super Rugby franchises fitness regimes) and composure, which impacts on Phipps and Foley in particular.

    The Kiwis have also worked out that astute tactical kicking can exploit the seams between structured and unstructured play with Wallabies playmakers and defenders caught in no-mans land during the transition phase.

    Having said that and in all fairness, we have also seen some wonderfully creative passages of play from the Tahs and the Wallabies in recent times under the two-playmaker system – when our forwards are getting go-forward by winning the tackle contests, gain line and set-pieces that is.

    For me, the jury is still out on whether the twin playmakers, dual opensides and the current version of Cheika-Ball is versatile or complete enough to consistently beat quality opposition at Test level.

    It worked at the Tahs behind a dominant pack in 2014 but was quickly countered in 2015 when the Highlanders used a smart kicking game to defeat NSW in their Super Rugby semi-final and denied the Waratahs field position and the go-forward they thrived on.

    The ABs used this knowledge to dismantle the WBs in the Rugby World Cup Final that year and again in the 2016 Bledisloe matches, including cleverly defusing the threat of dual opensides after Cheika exposed them to the tactic in Sydney in 2015.

    Personally I don’t think the WBs have settled on the dynamic forward pack necessary to play Cheika-Ball at international level (especially with a lack of quality ball runners in the pack and the baffling selection of players like Mumm and Hanigan), nor can afford the luxury at Test level of hiding two backline players from the ten and 12 channels.

    In contrast, Eddie Jones probably does have the luxury of a dominant pack and dynamic back five for his two playmaker system – and a ten and 12 who are more than capable defenders and kickers.

    Nonetheless, the 2013 Spring Tour 10/12 combination which featured Quade Cooper and the hard-tackling Matt Toomua actually looked like our best dual ‘Yin and Yang’ playmaker option for some time, however both are on the outer and Cooper has struggled to recapture the same form and fitness.

    In time maybe a Hodge/Beale or Hodge/Foley combination could be a better balance in the 10/12 channels with no reshuffling in defence required. But a lot depends on Hodge’s development in the squad as a ten (and Duncan Pau’aua for that matter).

    Reece Hodge

    (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

    So my conclusion is that any positional reshuffling of Beale and Foley at ten and 12 creates a defensive vulnerability, adds complexity, and places nearly all the pressure for go-forward ball on a handful of not very dynamic forwards and the 13.

    The Hodge / Beale or Hodge/Foley combination seem a logical choice to address all these issues in combination with more dynamic forwards like Naisarani, Higgers, Sio, Tupou, Tatafu Polota-Nau, McMahon, Hooper, Dempsey, Holloway, Coleman and Arnold to assist Cheika’s approach to the gain line.

    In time, Hodge could actually be a genuine second playmaker in his own right: he kicks goals at distance, is strong and direct, has speed, tackles hard and has a great if slightly slow boot out of hand. His distribution needs improvement (as does Foley’s!) but his skills add another dimension to the Wallaby game plan and shores up and simplifies the mid-field defence.

    Maybe ‘Cheika-Ball’ could evolve by installing Hodge at ten or 12 if he’s given the chance over the Beale/Foley combination.

    To put it out there I think our most balanced and complete backline for Rugby World Cup 2019 would be.

    9. Genia
    10. Hodge
    11. Naivalu / Korobeite
    12. Beale
    13. Kuridrani
    14. Folau
    15. DHP

    So what say you Roarers? Is this two playmaker and dual opensides caper sustainable for the Wallabies? Is Cheika finally getting the forwards he needs to execute it?

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    The Crowd Says (61)

    • January 10th 2018 @ 3:22am
      Sherry said | January 10th 2018 @ 3:22am | ! Report

      A thoughtful study, Steiner, and one certain to get a lot of reaction. Is Cheika-Ball winning ball? So far, no. It’s easier to juggle selections. Hodge at 10? We only have one real season to find out. But I feel our pack will always be at a disadvantage if we play Pocock at 8. Playing at the back of the scrum he’s very much shaded by Read and Vunipola to name but two. If Dempsey proves to be the answer at 6, then we need a big, ball-running 8 to allow Pocock to star at 7. So is that three players we need? A 10, an 8 and a prop who can charge which Sio can’t? Looks like it from here. BTW, I watched Toomua play on the weekend. Be nice to have him back.

      • January 10th 2018 @ 7:55am
        Steiner said | January 10th 2018 @ 7:55am | ! Report

        Agree Sherry, the back row balance with Pocock’s return will be interesting. Fitting Hooper and Poey into the team has always created some mixed opinions on The Roar! Great to hear Toomua is going well, am a big fan and I think he still has a lot to offer Oz rugby.

        • January 10th 2018 @ 5:42pm
          PiratesRugby said | January 10th 2018 @ 5:42pm | ! Report

          I agree that Hodge should already have been tried at 10 more extensively. Foley can’t win us a Bled or RWC.
          So far Cheika ball has failed miserably but I’d say this is largely due to selection. He persisted with dud forwards like Skelton, Mumm, Hanigan, Simmons and yes, Moore. Hooper is not our best 7. Foley is not a test 10. Phipps has done his dash. Folau should be on a wing. And so it goes. The trajectory of the Wallabies and Cheika ball is downwards. Running rugby is a great idea. Using the Wallabies as a development squad for the Waratahs is deplorable.

          • January 10th 2018 @ 8:14pm
            Steiner said | January 10th 2018 @ 8:14pm | ! Report

            I think this frustrates the heck out of many supporters Pirates. Nic White Matt Toomua Joe Tomane LLF and Scott Fardy may have all been Brumbies but contributed strongly to the WBs pre-Cheika-Ball. Young Banks may struggle to get a look in too.

            • January 11th 2018 @ 1:08pm
              PiratesRugby said | January 11th 2018 @ 1:08pm | ! Report

              Fans of Cheika cite his success at RWC15 (ignoring persistent and humiliating failure ever since). But the axis of the 2015 success was Pocock and Fardy. Cheika should have moved heaven and earth to keep them both. Instead both have gone overseas.
              For RWC15, Cheika was keen on Skelton, Palu and Mumm. Great investments.

              • January 11th 2018 @ 6:12pm
                Fionn said | January 11th 2018 @ 6:12pm | ! Report

                Can’t disagree with that, Pirates.

                What gets me is the fact that some people find the suggestion of moving Folau to the wing as one that is somehow offensive to Folau. I think that Folau would walk into the All Blacks and certainly be a member of a world 15 team, but on the wing, not at at fullback. He’s the best attacking player with ball in hand in the world, let’s put him on the wing where he has a bit more space and can score more tries off of cross field kicks.

                I’m still not convinced that Hodge at 10 is the best idea of how to use him. I still think he looks like he could be our next Stirling Mortlock—the glue that holds out backline defence together, but who is also capable of scoring plenty of tries, breaking the opposition line freely and getting the ball out to our wingers.

                Fardy, Pocock, Toomua and Luke Jones, to name but a few, would be invaluable to Aussie club rugby and the Wallabies, but have gone overseas. I fear that others may follow. Whether Pocock would have gone if he was Wallabies captain and starting 7 is an unanswerable question, but the fact is that he wasn’t given the positions that he had been groomed for for years, and most of us thought he had earned.

    • Roar Guru

      January 10th 2018 @ 7:17am
      Harry Jones said | January 10th 2018 @ 7:17am | ! Report

      Enjoyed the read.

      Against the mediocre 2017 Boks, in two drawn matches with an aggregate 50-50 score, it seemed as if Hooper was the workhorse ballcarrier, up against Marx, Etzebeth, and PSDT, and it just didn’t have enough punch.

      Fardy is looking great at Leinster.

      • January 10th 2018 @ 7:57am
        Steiner said | January 10th 2018 @ 7:57am | ! Report

        Thanks Harry. It sometimes looks like the charge of the Light Brigade watching Hooper batter away at big packs! Fardy was hard done by imo especially with Hanigan being selected over him.

    • January 10th 2018 @ 8:36am
      Highlander said | January 10th 2018 @ 8:36am | ! Report

      Nicely thought through Steiner.

      Watching the 3 iterations of a two player maker system Aus used over the last 2 seasons, Foley 10/Beale 12 – Cooper 10/ Foley 12 or Foley 10/Beale 15, it doesn’t seem the game plan fits a two play maker model.

      I would have thoug(t the outcomes targeted would have been
      – being able to play make in the wider channels off 12
      – to have a playmaker either side of the ruck
      – to have a second playmaker stepping into the line at 10 when attacking opportunisties are afforded.

      So many times the duel play maker system in the wallabies just seems to have different guys having turns at playing in the 10 channel.
      Foley camped there when Cooper was at 10.
      Beale camps there when Foley is at 10.

      Not sure that makes it too difficult to defend against.

      • January 10th 2018 @ 9:04am
        Steiner said | January 10th 2018 @ 9:04am | ! Report

        Thanks Highlander and good points about the playmakers roles and purpose. A lot seems to rely on KB and BFs individual intuition on finding holes and playing flat. Agree that sometimes both playmakers seem disconnected though rather than playing in tandem.

    • Roar Guru

      January 10th 2018 @ 9:18am
      PeterK said | January 10th 2018 @ 9:18am | ! Report

      Good article and thought provoking.

      I have issue with the conclusion.

      Hodge lacks the passing game to be at 10, he also lacks the speed off the mark to be a running threat with the defence so close.

      Lealiifano back to form would be a far better option at 10.

      I have been saying for years that 2 the dual playmaker system at 10 and 12 just doesn’t work that well. I accept Beale at 12 half proved me wrong this year but in fairness Foley plays more like a running 12 positioned at 10 than a playmaker anyway.

      Better off having a creative complete playmaker at 10 like Lealiifano and then a running 12 who can also distribute the ball.

    • January 10th 2018 @ 9:41am
      Steiner said | January 10th 2018 @ 9:41am | ! Report

      Thanks PeterK and hard to argue with the LLF observation if he returns to the kind of form we saw in the final Bledisloe match of 2014 which was Link’s last game as coach. I think LLF played 10 in that test and from memory had a very good game? We’ll have to wait and see where Hodge ends up for the Rebels this year too.

    • Roar Guru

      January 10th 2018 @ 10:26am
      Machooka said | January 10th 2018 @ 10:26am | ! Report

      Enjoyable read Steiner… and congrats on your first ROAR article.

      For mine I’m just hoping the Wallaby deceases with it’s outta position defence system… it’s too complicated and unsettling.

      • January 10th 2018 @ 10:34am
        Steiner said | January 10th 2018 @ 10:34am | ! Report

        Thank you Chook and amen to binning the defensive musical chairs! It seems like everyone except Nathan Grey knows how it ends up for the Wallaby when the music stops…poor Samu Kerevi usually the last one looking for a chair:)

      • January 10th 2018 @ 2:39pm
        soapit said | January 10th 2018 @ 2:39pm | ! Report

        agree chook. we’ve been scoring plenty enough points to win most matches. just the defence and free points (chargedowns etc) and being able to play in the right areas that have .let us down.