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Waratahs find a kicking game to contest the Australian conference

Bernard Foley of the Waratahs. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Expert
20th March, 2018
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First, to England. Let there be no doubt about Eddie Jones’ desperation to halt Ireland’s progress towards a Grand Slam on the last weekend of the Six Nations. That desperation bled, sometimes unpleasantly, through all of the English preparation in the week building up to the game.

They called in one of the match officials, assistant Marius van der Westhuizen, to advise them on the way the breakdown would be policed. This is clearly against World Rugby rules, and van der Westhuizen had to be recused from duty, to be replaced by England’s bête noir from Murrayfield, Nigel Owens. Bad move.

Jones then asked for the in-goal areas at Twickenham to be extended by three metres, presumably to increase the target area for the England kicking game. Two metres were added.

As they were for almost all of the game, Ireland were one step ahead of Jones – quite literally. When left wing Jacob Stockdale scored in time added-on at the end of the first half, he was only able to ground the ball successfully after a chip ahead because of the new, deeper scoring zone:

The red arrows represent the old markings, the blue line the new extension. The cunning English plan was turned against them. Bad move.

All of this came on top of a week where (by accident or design) a video of a talk given by Jones at a business conference in Japan had been released, in which Jones talked loosely of Wales as “this s**t little place” and the necessity of getting one back on the “scummy Irish” for last season’s defeat in Dublin.

After events of this week, Jones’ chances of coaching the 2021 British and Irish Lions have probably diminished. The scum, it would appear, also rises – like good Irish cream to the very top of the game in Europe.

As I pointed out in this article a few weeks ago, England’s success under Jones – especially in wet weather – is based squarely on their kicking game. When they come up against a team who kick and receive as well as they do, they tend to struggle.

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Against the Wallabies, England have had it relatively easy on this front in the Jones era. They have won five games in a row and they have kicked a massive 44 more times more than Australia, an average of nine times more per game.

Ireland are a different kettle of fish, who can probably now consider themselves the masters of the airwaves in the Northern Hemisphere. Since the November series in 2017, Ireland have won all of eight of their matches and kicked more than their opponents in all bar one – the one game they were on the cusp of losing, to France in Paris, in the first round of this year’s championship. Coincidence? Probably not.

Michael Cheika’s preference to keep ball in hand and leave the kicking game in the locker is well-advertised, and dates back to the Super Rugby success he enjoyed with the 2014 Waratahs.

The Tahs’ conclusive 51-27 victory over the Rebels at Sydney Football Stadium last weekend suggested that Cheika’s spell is finally being broken in New South Wales, and Daryl Gibson is now making the team his own.

The Waratahs kicked 32 times in the game as a whole, 14 times more than their opponents, and the kicking game was the foundation of their spectacular comeback from a 20-3 deficit near the end of the first half.

Questions had been raised pre-game about the shift of Israel Folau to the right wing for the match, but Gibson had a plan which the Tahs put into action with a vengeance from the 38th minute onwards. Instead of trying to run through Melbourne’s brick wall defence, they went over the top of it first.

One of the first hints of the plan came at the kick-off following the Rebels’ second try of the match:

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Bernard Foley chips the ball out to the right, where Folau collects it above Melbourne second row Matt Phillip. This position gave the Tahs the platform they needed to score their first, somewhat fortuitous try of the game (1:26 on the reel):

After Rebels’ fullback Dane Haylett-Petty left the game injured in the 13th minute, Foley and Kurtley Beale launched a steady bombardment down the left side of the Melbourne backfield, usually defended by young wing Jack Maddocks. There was a succession of high kicks that were either won back directly by Folau, or the ball was turned over at the first ruck after receipt:

One common misconception about the kicking game is that it’s purely negative. A kick is often seen as the product of a team who have run out of ideas about what to do with the ball in hand. In fact, nothing is further from the truth. The idea behind the high kicks for Folau is to enable an attack on a far more disorganised version of the Melbourne defence (reel at 1:35-1:50).

After Folau regathers at 1:35 on the reel, it is effectively an attack with turnover ball. After two long passes into midfield, Bryce Hegarty has two backs outside him (Foley and Curtis Rona), with Jed Holloway standing in the far tram-lines.

They are faced by all three Rebels back-rowers, with hooker Anaru Rangi and prop Tetera Faulkner underneath them. Jack Debreczeni is the only back in attendance. Suddenly, a promising scenario for the attacking side has been created:

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Hegarty picks out Rangi and Foley sees the visionary short support line early to create a try for Rob Simmons. The process was repeated in a slightly different form about five minutes later:

The high kick is slightly too far ahead of Folau for him to contest it directly, so he does the next best thing. He puts Reece Hodge on the deck quickly with the follow-up tackle and Michael Hooper, Tom Staniforth and Damian Fitzpatrick descend on the ruck like an angry cloud of sky-blue hornets.

When the ball is turned over, there is an even better situation for the Waratahs brewing on the far side of the field (reel at 2:00-2:12), where Foley, Rona and Hegarty are running against Adam Coleman and Amanaki Mafi:

On the next occasion that Folau was able to win the ball over Maddocks in the air, the Waratahs went straight to the opposite side of the field with a cross-kick from Beale to replacement outside back Taqele Naiyaravoro:

The next phase is shown on the reel at 2:38-2:54. Again the scenario favours the Tahs far more then it would have done if they had simply kept ball in hand. Naiyaravoro is able to get the ball away in the tackle with Rona and Holloway (two natural ball-handlers in wide-open spaces) in support, and Billy Meakes and Richard Hardwick struggling to get across to plug the leak on the far side-line in defence.

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One cautionary note should be sounded about the pros and cons of the high kicking game. The high kick represents turnover ball for both sides – get it wrong and the opposition can return the ball with interest against your own disorganised defence.

Foley launches the kick fatally too far ahead of Folau and Maddocks is able to catch the ball and pick his way through the Waratahs’ kick-chase on the return.

Summary
Gibson may finally have stepped out of the shadow of Cheika’s 2014 Super Rugby-winning Waratahs by implementing a plan so antipathetic to Cheika’s thinking about the game.

The Tahs kicked the ball, and then they kicked it some more. With the world’s best aerial athlete, Israel Folau, chasing in off the right wing and Dane Haylett-Petty off the field for Melbourne, they had an excellent chance to turn the ball over, either in the air or at the ensuing ruck. Instead of trying to run through a brick wall, NSW went over the top of it first, and only then shifted the ball wide.

Will Michael Cheika finally accept the importance of the kicking game consistently in his game-planning? Will he see the importance of matching Ireland in that area in order to come away from the June series with a win? Will he consider moving Folau to the wing (maybe with Haylett-Petty returning to fullback) to emulate the Waratahs’ success with the tactic at international level?

These are all big questions which the Australian coaching panel will soon have to answer.