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Rebels play the bigger back-row hand at AAMI Park

Amanaki Mafi goes for a run. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
Expert
14th March, 2018
234

The Force-fed Rebels are thriving under Dave Wessels down in Melbourne. Despite the eleven-hour flight and a six-day turnaround after their win over the Sunwolves, the Rebels still had more than enough in the tank to dispatch the Brumbies at AAMI Park last Saturday.

With Brad Thorn’s Reds shoving their season back on track via two characterful, disciplined wins after their first-week disaster – it never harms to win the penalty count in a ratio of 3:1 over two successive games – these could be the two Australian franchises to watch in 2018.

The Reds will be worth watching primarily because of the young talent beginning to blossom in their ranks. They are too limited in too many key areas to beat the better teams in the competition, but the development work Thorn and his coaches are pumping into the likes of Taniela Tupou, Izaack Rodda, Liam Wright and Filipo Daugunu is an exciting event in Australian rugby per se. They are being taught the right values, and that can only benefit the Wallabies in the long term.

The Rebels will be worth watching for the more ambitious Australian rugby supporter. They boast the best young coach in Australia in Dave Wessels, they enjoy the deepest talent pool of any of the Australian franchises having gobbled up most of the ex-Force squad, and they have the same grit and determination as Thorn’s Reds.

That makes them a decent prospect to post a healthy win-loss record, top the Australian Conference and advance further in the knockout stages.

The game against the Brumbies was one for the breakdown connoisseur. With two of the brightest minds in that area in direct opposition (Wessels and the Ponies’ Laurie Fisher) and one of the master number eights (Amanaki Mafi) matched up against one of the hottest young prospects in Isi Naisarani, we stood to learn more about coaching response to the new breakdown laws, and learn more about the number eight pecking order for the Wallabies later this year.

In the event, it was a hands-down victory for Rebels. They held all the trump cards in the back-row and on the day, Wessels proved to be the smartest man in the room.

So first, how did the new ruck laws work out at AAMI Park – in a game where that area was accurately and consistently refereed by Kiwi whistle-blower (and ex-Ospreys number nine) Jamie Nutbrown?

Answer: there were only three pilfers in 194 total rucks during the game, and those were blotted out by three defensive penalties given away. Both teams won over 98 per cent of their own ball.

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The Brumbies did not win their first steal until the 78th minute, at a time when it looked like the Rebels were going to go through the entire game with a clean, 100 per cent ruck-win record!

Wessels’ Rebels had prepared to adapt to this new refereeing environment at the breakdown much better than their opponents. A key to their preparation was the selection of big 6’3″ flanker Angus Cottrell at number seven, ahead of renowned on-ballers Colby Fainga’a and injury returnee Richard Hardwick.

Cottrell is no groundhog compared to those two, but the big and physically imposing back-row he formed with Lopeti Timani and Mafi dominated the contact work off the floor.

The Rebels’ plan was the same blueprint which has been seen in some of the top Northern Hemisphere sides – keep all the defenders on their feet so that they can push hard off the line on the next phase:

Cottrell and Ross Haylett-Petty keep the Brumbies ball-carrier high and off the deck, and on next phase they are able to make a tackle ten metres upfield!

Here is another example in real time:

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After Brumbies’ replacement second-rower Richie Arnold is brought to ground, Cottrell neatly sidesteps the cleanout lunge by his brother, leaving more attackers pinned to the breakdown than defenders – it was not the first or last time in the game that Cottrell managed to pull off this neat trick!

The defensive pressure the Rebels were able to exert led directly to their second try of the match in the 33rd minute. At first, there is minimal commitment of bodies by Angus Cottrell and his mates at the first two points of contact:

This in turn creates pressure on the next phase with more people available to rush upfield and force an offloading mistake out of Isi Naisarani:

From this position, Joe Powell had his relieving kick charged down, and the Rebels were able to convert the counter-attack on a flat pass from Will Genia to Reece Hodge (at 57 seconds on th following reel):

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Ironically, Cottrell’s final act in the match before he was substituted for Colby Fainga’a was to disrupt Naisarani on the deck after the Brumbies’ big man had made a telling break into the Rebels’ 22:

Naisarani was immediately dispossessed by Fainga’a after the Rebels’ pilfering specialist entered the fray in the 50th minute. After the Rebels’ big men had done the spadework, it was also part of Wessels’ plan to bring on his speed and turnover ability (Fainga’a and Hardwick) in the final half-hour of the game:

Although the stats indicate quite a level battle on the ball-carrying front between Mafi (15 runs for 82 metres) and Naisarani (17 for 82), in reality there was a world of difference in terms of decision-making, ball retention and impact on the course of the game as a whole.

Although Naisarani had a big hand in the Brumbies’ second try with a strong pick and go (at 1:35 on the highlight reel), Mafi scored one try himself (at 0:45) and was an explosive threat from the base throughout (at 1:45). He also contributed a try assist (at 2:41) with a no-look offload to Jack Maddocks after another handling error by Naisarani about ten seconds earlier.

The final picture of the clash at number eight was the sight of Mafi fighting over the tackle ball with Naisarani at 70:00 (3:06 on the reel), with Mafi winning enough of the physical battle to paw the ball loose for Hardwick to pick it up and create the final Rebels’ try:

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Summary
The Melbourne Rebels’ ability to bounce back from a long round trip to Tokyo and ultimately overwhelm the Brumbies on a six-day turnaround marks them out as the class leaders of the Australian Conference.

Jamie Nutbrown’s refereeing of the new laws at the breakdown showed that pilfers are far harder to produce in quantity on the deck. The game was steal-free at the ruck for the first 50 minutes, and only generated three in the last half-hour. The Brumbies had to wait until two minutes before the end of the match to win their first turnover in that area.

All this justified Dave Wessels’ selection of Angus Cottrell at number seven despite the quality groundhogs (Colby Fainga’a and Richard Hardwick) sitting on the pine behind him. When the dogs were finally let loose in the final quarter, they both proved their value. Wessels won his philosophical battle with Laurie Fisher in the breakdown battle convincingly.

Big things are expected from hulking Brumbies’ number eight Isi Naisarani this season, but on this evidence, he still has a ways to go to uproot the Australian Conference king in that position, Amanaki Mafi.

Naisarani has power and speed to burn, but his decision-making and technique in contact are currently very average. He was held up or dispossessed by the Rebels in these situations far too frequently with June Wallabies selection not too distant on the horizon.

Michael Cheika’s back-row selection, meanwhile, has more questions than answers. The option of playing two openside flankers like Michael Hooper and David Pocock remains at the mercy of refereeing interpretation, which at present seems to depend too heavily on the luck of the draw.

It is unlikely that Cheika will change the structure of his back-row completely to the Wessels version, but in any case he will be waiting anxiously for one of Australia’s big men to stand up and be counted – even if it’s only to fit in around ‘the Pooper’.