Can the Wallabies defence win them the World Cup?

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By Steiner, Steiner is a Roar Pro

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    In the 1991 Rugby World Cup the Wallabies defeated the All Blacks in the semi-final and kept England tryless in the final. They had only three tries scored against them in the entire tournament.

    In 1999 the French defeated the All Blacks in a classic sem-final only to be kept tryless by the Wallabies in the final, where they were well beaten, which helped avenge the 30-24 semi-final knockout Australia suffered at the hands of Les Blues in 1987.

    In the previous Rugby World Cup, up until the final against New Zealand, the Wallabies had let in only five tries in the pool of death and scored 26 themselves.

    There is truth to the saying that defence wins world cups when you look at the respective winners’ defensive records for each tournament.

    There has been a lot of discussion on The Roar about Nathan Grey’s defensive system, in particular when our ten and 12 change positions with outside backs at various times on opposition ball. To be fair, it is not uncommon for the flyhalf to drop back on defence when field position indicates an opposition clearing kick or exit is on the cards.

    Grey’s system also has Kurtley Beale at 12 dropping into the back three with Israel Folau and Bernard Foley, the trademark Waratahs counterattacking structure that served them well in 2014.

    (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

    On certain lineout plays Michael Hooper and his speed are added to the ten and 12 channels as extra cover to do the shooter role and pressure the first and second receivers as part of the inside-out pattern. Once again, this is not an uncommon tactic, but it requires alertness and good communication for other players to cover the space left around the shooter.

    We’ve seen Wallaby outside backs try to do this on the number 15 second playmaker that New Zealand prefers with mixed success, and sometimes it is the best option, but it is high risk and can be predictable.

    Grey’s system functioned well at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, where experienced players like Matt Giteau, David Pocock, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Kurtley Beale and Drew Mitchell seemed pretty well versed in it and were strong decision-makers, communicators, leaders and organisers.

    Then in 2016 and 2017 the Wallabies started shipping a lot of points with the introduction of over 30 new caps and the loss of the older heads from overseas who were critical to confidently holding the system together. Other teams also did their homework of course, but essentially the defensive system doesn’t appear to have changed dramatically since the Tahs in 2014.

    The only change was for last year’s second Bledisloe test, where Foley and Beale held their positions in the frontline, and, to be fair, both defended pretty well for most of the match. It makes you wonder why it doesn’t happen more often in Grey’s system.

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    The departure of Giteau and his ability to kick with both feet, of Ashley-Cooper and of Drew Mitchell’s booming left boot has also left big holes in the Wallabies kicking game. Naturally this impacts on a team’s ability to defend its line too.

    What must concern Grey after last season is the very poor individual reads and lack of spacing and alertness in defence. Seeing Wallabies defenders narrowly bunching up, ruck watching, over-committing at the ruck, getting too dispersed or defending blindsides that have no attackers within a bull’s roar is not smart rugby.

    It gifts attacking opportunities to teams with playmakers who specialise in exploiting these errors by reading what is in front of them and identifying space or mismatches. Until the Wallabies can minimise these errors, intelligent heads-up rugby teams like New Zealand, England and, dare I say it, Scotland will continue to expose them.

    It is worth mentioning too that it is usually the unfortunate Wallabies player who is the last man standing in defence and hung out to dry who gets caned by Roarers for letting in a try when the defensive errors happened much earlier in the movement. Nick Bishop has illustrated some of these compounding errors in his high-quality analysis last year.

    Personnel changes and new combinations obviously have a detrimental effect on the system until players are familiar with it, so maybe the system needs to be simplified and adapted before the next World Cup to develop the team’s confidence in it and to focus on heads-up rugby and communication.

    (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

    Maybe Rod Kafer and Michael Cheika need to use this as an opportunity to innovate and get the Super Rugby clubs, players and brains trust involved in developing a new defensive system, or maybe they need to leverage Australia’s advantage in having the strongest rugby league competition on earth to innovate in defence. The All Black and Wallabies have all used rugby league defensive coaches to excellent effect – back when we used to innovate, that is.

    At times it looks like our defensive line has no cohesion or intensity and that the players are mentally switched off. It frustrates supporters no end watching players casually jog back into the line, trotting after kicks or generally lacking any urgency in defence for an entire 80 minutes.

    The poor performances and lack of impact of our so-called ‘finishers’ in 2017 did not help either when it came to defending well in the final quarter of test matches. Unfortunately this was common among the majority of our Super Rugby teams as well.

    My other lingering question: who are the on-field leaders who manage the defensive system? This is becoming a critical role in modern professional rugby and we need cool heads with game vision in there by 2019. Is it Will Genia? Beale? Reece Hodge? Hooper? All four? I have no idea, but the Wallabies defensive line needs glue players in there to hold its shape and provide some direction to less experienced players about when to bang it in, slide, chop, choke or hold.

    (Matt King/Getty Images)

    No doubt the Wallabies attack made significant progress in 2017 with some improved interplay between backs and forwards, so the coaches deserve credit for this. However, the Australian defence has a lot of work to do before 2019, and I suspect a lot of Roarers will be watching and hoping this year that we stop shipping 25-plus points a game.

    The 2018 campaign is shaping as a big one for Australia in settling on combinations to achieve consistent success that is underpinned by a solid defensive structure to gain some momentum. The three tests against Ireland is a prime opportunity to show that Grey’s system is still viable against the best teams or to ditch it and introduce another one.

    If the Wallabies can get their defensive house in order, they will be a genuine top three team in 2019. But there is no time to waste, and it should start next month when Super Rugby kicks off, with all Australian teams focussing on 100-minute fitness and better defence. We may even beat a Kiwi team if that happens!

    What do we think, Roarers? In Grey and Cheika we trust and she’ll be right by 2019? Or is it time to ditch the system and try something new?

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    The Crowd Says (115)

    • January 19th 2018 @ 5:38am
      P2R2 said | January 19th 2018 @ 5:38am | ! Report

      ….If the Wallabies can get their defensive house in order, they will be a genuine top three team in 2019…..

      And what happens if they don’t against an Irish Team that will be looking to annihilate the WBs….? it doesnt augur well…

      • January 19th 2018 @ 10:04am
        Steiner said | January 19th 2018 @ 10:04am | ! Report

        If we don’t improve the defence P2R2 and get hammered by Ireland then Cheika will need to make some hard decisions.

        • January 19th 2018 @ 10:42am
          Dontcallmeshirley said | January 19th 2018 @ 10:42am | ! Report

          If the Wallabies get hammered by Ireland it will be Ms Castle who has the hard decision to make.

          • January 19th 2018 @ 11:05am
            Steiner said | January 19th 2018 @ 11:05am | ! Report

            Maybe DCMS! Then we would be back to the same situation we were in before the last RWC.

            I personally think he’s safe through to 2019, but Ms Castle may tighten the reins on him quite a bit until then if the losses mount up. Whether Cheika would accept that though?

            • January 19th 2018 @ 11:12am
              Fionn said | January 19th 2018 @ 11:12am | ! Report

              Surely if we lose another series at home, especially if it is 3-0 (which is a distinct possibility given how we finished last year and how Ireland is playing) Cheika cannot be allowed to continue coaching the Wallabies.

              We have gone from a powerhouse to a laughing stock under him.

              • January 19th 2018 @ 11:42am
                Steiner said | January 19th 2018 @ 11:42am | ! Report

                I think if we get whitewashed again, and a lot depends on what team the IRU send out for this series, then I think Cheika will have some selectors or advisers imposed on him. Not sure the appetite is there in RA to sack or pay out another coach, but if he resigns of his own accord then that may be another story.
                I think Ireland will send the strongest team they have and will be in pretty good nick after the 6N. Cheika should ensure his prep and that of his players is way better than last June! We have always been scratchy first game of the test season the last couple of years so Cheika needs to get a few more trial hit out arranged for the WBs rather than just 2 squads bashing each other at training.
                I like the ABs approach where they play something like 3 different NPC teams in the same match for 20 -25 minutes each.

              • January 20th 2018 @ 11:40am
                PiratesRugby said | January 20th 2018 @ 11:40am | ! Report

                The time for selectors and advisors was after the 0-3 loss to England. 2018 was our chance to start with a new coach. When we lose to Ireland and have another disasterous TRC and spring tour, it will be too late and we’ll be on a death march to RWC19 with the Clown leading the way.
                Pointing to the win against the ABs in a dead rubber while ignoring successive losses to England and Scotland will be the response, I’m guessing.
                I burst out laughing when I read the title of this article. Cheika has turned one of the best defensive sides in top tier rugby to a very ordinary one. He hobbled our forward pack with ridiculous selection and continues to indulge the most pedestrian flyhalf in international rugby in Foley. It’s been a recipe for failure.

              • January 20th 2018 @ 9:32pm
                Steiner said | January 20th 2018 @ 9:32pm | ! Report

                Hi Pirates! Luckily the World Cup isn’t this year or I would join your laughter. But the good thing with WB teams mostly is we seem to get our crap together just in time for a RWC to avoid total embarrassment. Let’s hope that hold true again in 2019 mate

              • January 19th 2018 @ 11:50am
                Fionn said | January 19th 2018 @ 11:50am | ! Report

                Yeah, I think Ireland will send their strongest squad in preparation for the WC. Ireland are playing seriously well and I suspect may be equal favourites with England for the 6N.

              • January 19th 2018 @ 12:27pm
                hello said | January 19th 2018 @ 12:27pm | ! Report

                I think the main problem is (from my limited understanding) Chieka does not have a performance clause. it could cost too much to get rid of him

              • January 19th 2018 @ 1:22pm
                Fionn said | January 19th 2018 @ 1:22pm | ! Report

                But Hello, at what point does Cheika either resign or else the ARU decides keeping him is more financially disadvantageous due to declined results than booting him.

        • January 23rd 2018 @ 5:44am
          P2R2 said | January 23rd 2018 @ 5:44am | ! Report

          I agree with you totally…this has to be his last chance …

        • January 23rd 2018 @ 10:52pm
          terrence said | January 23rd 2018 @ 10:52pm | ! Report

          Hey Steiner, ”If we don’t…”? Are you playing? I thought you were just supporting laundry like the rest of us! What did Seifeld once say…

      • January 21st 2018 @ 2:35pm
        Rebellion said | January 21st 2018 @ 2:35pm | ! Report

        Problem with our defence is Chieka has pretty much instructed Grey to design it in a way to get all of his favourite Tahs in, shifting their workload onto others. The problem is that some of these players like Foley or ruck mosquito Hooper haven’t got enough strengths to cover their weaknesses. Throw in a blindside flanker who can’t clean out, a halfback who can’t pass straight, an inside centre who is as mentally weak as Quade (and just as suspect a defender) and you have everyone running around like headless chooks wearing themselves out after 60 minutes.

        • January 21st 2018 @ 6:26pm
          Steiner said | January 21st 2018 @ 6:26pm | ! Report

          The defensive system does seem like a bit of a compromise based on selections Rebellion. Like I have said previously 2018 could be a tipping point if it is too much of a compromise and we keep shipping a lot of points in D. Atm we’re giving teams a 25 point start.

      • January 22nd 2018 @ 11:56pm
        terrence said | January 22nd 2018 @ 11:56pm | ! Report

        p2r2, if they offer 35 short term contracts to 2nd tier rugby league players (from the QLD and NSW Intrust Cups) they’ll win the world Rugby Cup and not affect the premier code in Australia, the NRL. Win-win!

    • January 19th 2018 @ 6:37am
      Crash Ball2 said | January 19th 2018 @ 6:37am | ! Report

      “In Grey and Cheika we trust and she’ll be right by 2019? Or is it time to ditch the system and try something new?”

      Trust? No. The second thing.

      • January 19th 2018 @ 8:40am
        jimbo81 said | January 19th 2018 @ 8:40am | ! Report

        amen. We’ve seen no real improvement in defence since 2014. Why would that change for 18/19?

      • January 19th 2018 @ 10:18am
        Steiner said | January 19th 2018 @ 10:18am | ! Report

        Yeah Crash Ballz and Jimbo plenty of people feeling that way about Cheika. We have a good pool at the next RWC and should make the semis at least.

      • January 22nd 2018 @ 11:59pm
        terrence said | January 22nd 2018 @ 11:59pm | ! Report

        You got it cb2, something new. Now that Ms Castle is in charge, and Des is looking for a gig, offer 35 short term contracts to 2nd tier rugby league players (from the QLD and NSW Intrust Cups) they’ll win the world Rugby Cup and not affect the premier code in Australia, the NRL. Win-win-win-win-win!

    • January 19th 2018 @ 7:15am
      Red Block said | January 19th 2018 @ 7:15am | ! Report

      Down 54-6 to the All Blacks in Bledisloe 1, a record loss to England and then a week later, another record loss to Scotland.
      Nothing to see hear folks!
      The WBs attack this year was much better but the defending at times was comical. It appears there are too many moving parts to the WBs defensive system where Beale and Foley need to be hidden.
      Its time we considered at least trying something new but Cheika has proven to be so stubborn in his selections and strategy, there is little hope of meaningful change.

      • January 19th 2018 @ 10:35am
        Steiner said | January 19th 2018 @ 10:35am | ! Report

        The last loss to Scotland was pretty much a capitulation Red Block and a really disappointing way to finish a long season. I’m hoping Kafer may be able to have some influence with Cheika if the D is broke and that the new coaching staff at many of the franchises focus heavily on it. Wessels, Thorn and MacKellar are all known for emphasising defence.

        • January 21st 2018 @ 3:07pm
          Tom Jones said | January 21st 2018 @ 3:07pm | ! Report

          And if you’ve been watching the Champions Cup the Scottish teams seem to be on the up and up.

          If the mediocrity that is Grey and Cheika continue I think you’ll find defeats at the hands of Scotland will become more common place.

          • January 21st 2018 @ 6:28pm
            Steiner said | January 21st 2018 @ 6:28pm | ! Report

            I have been really impressed with Scotland TJ and their first 20 against the ABs was some very clever rugby. Won’t be surprised at all if they knock over more fancied opponents in the 6N this year.

    • January 19th 2018 @ 7:36am
      Fionn said | January 19th 2018 @ 7:36am | ! Report

      There’s two problems. One, selecting too many players who cannot defend and, two, Grey’s defensive system. Both need changing if the Wallabies want to become a good team.

      • January 19th 2018 @ 10:39am
        Steiner said | January 19th 2018 @ 10:39am | ! Report

        Yes Fionn the players need to take responsibility as well. There is a strong link between attitude and defence.

    • Roar Guru

      January 19th 2018 @ 7:36am
      Kia Kaha said | January 19th 2018 @ 7:36am | ! Report

      Thanks for the article.

      You’re right, defence is paramount. I’ll never forget that match against Wales right at the death after a squillion phases and I think it was AAC who made the decisive play.

      As you mention take that defensive leadership out and Kuridrani makes his case as defensive lynchpin in the back line because nobody else is putting their hand up.

      Take away the breakdown work of Fardy and you notice it. Pocock returns this year but that is likely to see Pooper in combination so you need someone like Tui (let’s see how Dempsey returns) or a new weapon as NB hinted at this week.

      I don’t see an overhaul one year out so it’s Grey’s system.

      • January 19th 2018 @ 10:44am
        Steiner said | January 19th 2018 @ 10:44am | ! Report

        Thanks Kia. If we get pumped by the Irish mate and lose badly 3-0 then change may be forced I reckon

      • January 19th 2018 @ 12:58pm
        MitchO said | January 19th 2018 @ 12:58pm | ! Report

        Hi KK, at the back end of that Welsh game was a huge defensive effort by a forward who is good at fighting on the advantage line – McCalman. Hanigan could not have done that and we dunno if say a Dempsey or McMahon would have had the size required.

        Looks like our backline is gonna be Genia Foley Beale Kuridrani Folau Korobeiti and Hodge.

        CLL and Naivalu can both defend and DHP is okay without being particularly good. We are going to have to make that work.

        Leave Foley and KB in the line. That worked as well as anything and better than most of the shuffling.

        If we are stuck with the Pooper then to be fair both Pocock and Hooper can defend. Coleman gives some grunt. Sio, AAA and Kepu can all defend. We need a 6 and a lock who can defend. If Coleman is fit then Simmonds is a good enough defender to take up some space on the field.

        Kepu and AAA can hold down tighthead well enough but we can’t have Sio being subbed off for someone who can’t scrum coz that just drives a big hole in our defense with all the backpedalling. Yes Robertson I am looking at your last two performances in the North. What a way to gift momentum in the last twenty minutes. Would have been better leaving a tired Sio out there.

        On a similar note, I like AAA but if Kepu is still going strong FFS leave him out there.

    • Roar Rookie

      January 19th 2018 @ 7:56am
      Paulo said | January 19th 2018 @ 7:56am | ! Report

      Nice article, agree our greatest weakness has been defence.

      I like Cheika, but one criticism I have of him is that he doesn’t have a plan B. After 2014, when the other teams figured out how to beat his system, the Tahs had no response.

      I see the same pattern with the Wallabies – in the first year (WC) the other teams hadn’t figured out the Cheika way, so he took that team far. Afterwards, they figured him out and it became much harder. No flexibility neither in the game nor across multiple games.

      I do grant we’ve blooded a large amount of new players, but the strategy didn’t adapt to the new players at hand and their capabilities, it stayed the same.

      I hope Cheika finds some creativity, I really think it’s what’s missing for him to be a great coach.

      Oh, before I forget, in advance, bah-humbug to the haters. Now back to my holidays – another caipirinha please.

      • January 19th 2018 @ 10:50am
        Steiner said | January 19th 2018 @ 10:50am | ! Report

        Thanks Paulo! I agree 100%, survival of the fittest is about adaptation and in top level rugby we see the All Blacks are masters of it. Both in overall tactics/strategy and adapting to what is in front of them during the course of a game.

      • January 20th 2018 @ 10:22pm
        double agent said | January 20th 2018 @ 10:22pm | ! Report

        The 2015 Tah side was weaker. It doesn’t take much to go from premiers to semi finalists.

        • January 21st 2018 @ 12:05am
          Steiner said | January 21st 2018 @ 12:05am | ! Report

          They also hit a Highlanders team DA that had them on wood with a superior game plan that made the most of the Tahs not having effective kicking options from the corners in 2015. Sound familiar?

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