David Pocock has roared back into Super Rugby without missing a beat – nicking the ball off any isolated runners, registering his now-to-be-expected high tackle stats, and visibly looking to add a linking-running game.
So, all good for continued contribution at Brumby level for the rest of season, before rolling this form seamlessly into an Irish series?
Well no, because all the unbalanced issues of a Pocock-based loose forward trio of the past remain.
The distant rumble of a ‘Pooper’ selection is beginning to get louder, although a quick read of its past outcomes really should make those agitators fall silent.
Post the winning debut of the Michael Hooper-Pocock combo against New Zealand in Sydney, there were three games for this selection. Here are the average stats for those three games:
Lineout percentage: 69
Total loose forward run metres: 35 metres
Team tackle percentage: 77
Lineout percentage: 98
Total loose forward run metres: 97 metres
Team tackle percentage: 90
All Blacks games should be used as the yardstick for performance, because Ireland’s loose forward trio are of genuine high quality. Besides, there is little value in generating either turnovers or penalties at the contest if your lineout and tackle numbers look like the above.
The way he plays makes it difficult to build a back three around him. This is not a criticism of his ability, merely a style observation that suggests a remedy.
For all his dominance when over the ball and high tackle-count from a huge workrate, sides have found ready ways to counter his effectiveness.
In recent weeks, we have seen the Highlanders isolate him with pace in the second half of their game, and the Jaguares did a sterling job of simply playing away from him the longer the game went on, and Pocock’s frustration on the park was clear for all to see.
He largely plays at or behind the advantage line from quite wide channels for a 7 in almost all his key actions, which allows opposing sides to shape a gameplan away from him when required.
Note his first three tackles at or near the gain line were all within one minute of each other, but then his game tended to drift back behind the advantage line and wider from the ruck.
I picked this game because of the praise the commentators heaped on his effort during the halftime summary, by which time his tackle split was 12/2. Note there is one really good over the gain-line tackle in here.
In the above clip, note Highlander Dillon Hunt does most of his work in front of the advantage line, and starting from close to the ruck, ramping up the pressure on the opposition and allowing his side to continually move forward.
If the Wallabies are going to compete with the big guns, they need to find a way to put pressure on the opposition side of the gainline.
The more you watch, the more it is clear Pocock is not running traditional 7 lines, either side of the ball, his defensive lines are more those of a blindside – even a halfback on occasion – given the amount of cover he tries to provide.
Despite his undoubted ability, it is this difference from traditional 7s which makes it hard to fit him into a structure. It’s not dissimilar to how the All Blacks look unbalanced when Ardie Savea starts.
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So, has Pocock ever been part of truly balanced loose forward trio at international level, and can that be replicated with the current players available?
Looking back through the stats, it appears the Pocock-included trio that has been least affected in the areas of lineout, loose forward run-metres and with a comparable win record was Rocky Elsom at 6, Pocock at 7 and Richard Brown at 8, back in 2010.
Many on these board have contended that if Pocock is to start at 7, or indeed Hooper in the same position, then the back row needs to also have a dominant lineout forward, a strong tight-ball runner, and a wider ball-runner all wrapped into the other two individuals, plus an enhanced offensive threat from somewhere.
If this 2010 trio is to be the future template, perhaps the Wallabies are not looking for individuals with strong specific skill sets, but rather more reliable, broad skill-based individuals like Elsom and Brown, with big engines and big hearts who can allow the 7 to play their designated role, whatever that might be.
I will close with a question: if we accept the balance of the back row is more important than the high-level specific skills in the individuals, who are today’s Elsom and Brown that will allow Pocock or Hooper to just play their natural game?