Good rugby analysts, like the proverbial elephant, need a long memory – and photographic recall for detail. That’s how they discover relationships between what they see now and what has gone before; as well as improvements from one game, and one season, to another.
A promising bloom of good form has recently blessed the efforts of Australian Super Rugby franchises against their deadly rivals from across the Tasman.
A significant part of that form is the amount of relevant information they are remembering.
It is enabling them to compete, and in the case of the Waratahs against the Highlanders, overcome previous unconquerable opponents. The 40-match drought has at last come to an end.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has talked about the need to go ‘bone deep’ in their analysis of France, who will be touring the country in June. That means excavating a past the vast majority of spectators will have long forgotten.
I suspect this is exactly the journey both the Reds and the Waratahs undertook in their preparation for their games against (respectively) the Hurricanes and Highlanders last weekend.
Just over one year ago, I wrote an article detailing the profound impact of the Hurricanes’ halfback TJ Perenara on the same fixture. One major aspect discussed in the article was his outstanding ability to read the attacking intentions of the opponent:
“Perhaps the single most impressive aspect of Perenara’s game is his ability to read and anticipate the play a couple of steps ahead of time, both with ball in support, and without it in defence.”
That ability enabled him to make an interception and run away to score when defending around the end of the lineout:
From a short lineout won by Rob Simmons, the Reds ran a rather obvious in-pass play telegraphed from first receiver Jake McIntyre back to right wing Chris Kuridrani. The first defender around the end of the line, and ‘highest’ defender upfield was the Canes’ redoubtable halfback and captain.
Instead of sitting off and preparing to tackle Kuridrani, Perenara went all-in, breaking in the gap between the two Reds players and on to the intended pass. The result was an intercept which TJ ran all the way back for a score at the other end of the field.
Now let’s cycle forward just over 13 months and look at how Queensland responded:
Instead of just giving up on attacks around the tail of the lineout, the Reds’ staff designed a play to flip on its head Perenara’s ability to read play, and act on it aggressively – turning his strength into a weakness.
Let’s take a look at the scoring sequence and break down the key moments.
The first requirement is to drag TJ upfield and give him the smell of an opportunity he thinks may still be there from 2017:
The bait is there in the shape of No.14 Filipo Daugunu, who looks as though he may offer the same in-pass threat off first receiver as Kuridrani the season before.
As soon as a bit of instinctive memory rises to the surface from 2017 and Perenara bites down on the threat, the Reds’ true intent is unveiled.
Instead of the ball going inside to Daugunu, it goes flat – very flat – outside to Samu Kerevi, and we can see what TJ’s early jump has done to the defensive structure:
The halfback is fatally too far ahead of the defender inside, Jeffrey Toomaga-Allen, and outside him, Reed Prinsep.
Kerevi’s angle takes him past Perenara and his power and momentum takes him through the arm tackle of Prinsep:
Another task of the good analyst is to assess improvements over and above the core positional requirements. Who is helping to redefine the position where he plays?
Michael Cheika is fortunate that, in the shape of the Reds’ Taniela Tupou, he has a new-generation tight-head prop to take the place of the old. Tupou’s sensational second-half run and try-assist (at 2:54 on the reel) recalled Kepu’s spectacular 60-metre run against the Chiefs last year:
Those are two tight-head props who are able to play in the outside channels, and either score or assist in scores in that zone. I cannot think of any other No.3 on the planet who would be able to do what Kepu and Tupou do. Food for thought.
But close though they came, Brad Thorn’s men didn’t beat the Hurricanes.
It was the Waratahs who finally broke the Kiwi curse.
One of my first articles for The Roar chose as its topic the formula the Highlanders had worked out to beat Michael Cheika’s Tahs.
The key part of the summary read:
With Michael Cheika, Nathan Grey and Mario Ledesma all directly involved in the Waratahs’ coaching set-up in 2015, there was and is every chance that the Highlanders’ formula for beating the Tahs may become someone else’s formula for beating the Wallabies.”
The three main themes of the plan were:
- Kick for position to keep the Waratahs in their ‘exit strategy’
- High kicking game in midfield to pressure the Tahs’ backfield
- Pressure on the NSW lineout throw
Daryl Gibson’s 2018 version took all three points and turned them upside down.
Under Rob Simmons’ leadership, the Waratahs’ lineout won 100 per cent of its own ball and three of the Highlanders’ ten throws.
From a Simmons lineout steal, in the 18th minute, Jake Gordon’s well-weighted box-kick led to the key moment of the game:
The most obvious plus for NSW is that the receiver, Tevita Nabura, kicks the first chaser, Cam Clark, in the face and was sent off permanently for his troubles. But the Tahs win all the mini-contests going in the sequence too.
When Clark gets the boot, he has already done his primary job – denying Nabura access to the side-line and forcing him infield:
‘Infield’ means back into towards two of the best NSW on-ballers, Michael Hooper and Tom Robertson, who are converging from the middle of the field:
Hooper cleverly attracts the first cleanout player (Elliott Dixon) in support, leaving Robertson with a free shot at the ball on the ground. So from one good kick by Gordon, the Waratahs harvested a red card on one of their opponents, a penalty, and an attacking position on the Highlanders’ goal-line – not bad for ten seconds worth of accurate work in the kicking game!
The kicking game not only pressured the Highlanders’ backfield successfully, it also kept the Landers in exit situations with their one man deficit:
Here the ball is moved wide to Kurtley Beale, and he puts in a superbly-placed kick down the outside channel, leaving Waisake Naholo no option but to take the ball into touch only metres from his own goal-line.
The Tahs won the lineout and scored from the subsequent drive, only to be pulled back by the referee for a technical foul.
The Australian franchises are finally showing signs of life against their New Zealand counterparts. The Crusaders only barely clawed back the Waratahs 29-0 head-start in Christchurch in Round 13, the Reds never lost touch with the Canes in Wellington in a tight 38-34 loss, and the Tahs finally tipped over the Highlanders in Sydney to break the spell.
Hopefully the pattern of tense, equally-contested games will continue in the Chiefs-Waratahs and Reds-Highlanders matches this upcoming weekend. SANZAAR badly needs more of them in order to support its case for an improved broadcasting deal after the current agreement comes to an end in 2019.
At the heart of Australian success last weekend was excellent preparation. The Reds remembered the damage TJ Perenara had inflicted on them in 2017 from defensive set-pieces, and their coaches came up with a plan to tempt TJ to overplay his hand. It worked.
In Sydney, the Waratahs overturned the strategy the Highlanders have adopted for winning matches between the two teams since 2015. Their Rob Simmons-led lineout is one of the strongest in the tournament, despite the selection of dual opensides in Will Miller and Michael Hooper. This is the same model Michael Cheika will probably utilise for the Wallaby Test series in June.
The Landers have tortured NSW backfields for years, but on Saturday the situation was turned around completely and it was the Tahs’ own kicking game that dished out the pain.
Meanwhile, Taniela Tupou is fast emerging as an x-factor tight-head prop, just like the man he will probably understudy against Ireland, Sekope Kepu. Their ability to run, pass and offload in the wide-attacking zones will have the Wallaby coaches licking their lips about how best to utilise their range of talents.
The future of SANZAAR as a whole may be in question, but at least the Australian Super Rugby franchises are standing up to be counted, and a few green shoots of growth in the four-team structure are pushing above ground.
It’s a start, and if they can win three of their four games in Round 15, that progress will be confirmed.