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Why five into four does go: Australia advances ahead of June series

The Waratah's Israel Folau celebrates a try. (Photo by Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Expert
5th June, 2018
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6590 Reads

In normal circumstances, there would be no place for a quote from a Hollywood movie in a column about rugby on The Roar. But this is an exception.

The following monologue from Hope Floats is tailored to fit the current situation in Australian rugby like a custom suit:

“Beginnings are usually scary. Endings are usually sad, but it’s what’s in the middle that counts. So, when you find yourself at a beginning, just give hope a chance to float up. And it will.”

In the movie, the Sandra Bullock character has moved back to her hometown to start life again after being publicly humiliated on a TV tell-all show. She is supposed to be getting a free makeover, but it doesn’t turn out that way. She is ambushed by live confessions of her husband’s infidelities with her best friend instead.

It’s not a great movie but it does have some relevance to the current plot in Australian rugby. The free makeover promised by Super Rugby expansion to five teams in Australia proved to be a cosmetic improvement and one which concealed a breakdown in the relationships that really counted – between the professional level of the game and its grassroots, between SANZAAR and its marketplace.

Now Australian rugby has had to retrace its steps in order to rediscover the path to progress. Although the handling of the Super Rugby reduction from five teams to four was full of contradictions and laboured in execution, the positive results are now starting to be seen on the field.

The June international break is as good a place as any to summarise the improvements that have taken place as the dust clears.

With three rounds of Super Rugby to go, Australia now has two franchises in the black with a positive win/loss ratio: 7-5-1 for the Waratahs and 7-6 for the Rebels – one more, incidentally, than South African franchises.

In 2017, the best record in the Australian Conference stood at six wins against nine losses. That number has already been surpassed, as has the total number of wins for Australian teams – 21 in 2017, 23 and counting in 2018.

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All the key performance indicators for Australian sides have improved in 2018. Producing consistently competitive performances against the sides from New Zealand would have near the top of that list:

KPIs versus NZ Australian SR 2017 Australian SR 2018
Wins versus NZ 0% (0/25) 17%(2/12)
Margins within seven points versus NZ 24% (6/25) 58%(7/12)
Average score versus NZ 17-37 (-20) 21-31(-10)

Apart from breaking the long uninterrupted spell of New Zealand victories with recent wins by first the Waratahs (home) and now the Rebels (away), the number of close games has increased by 30 per cent, while the average margin of defeat has halved from 20 to 10 points.

More recent performances by Australian sides against their trans-Tasman counterparts have also suggested that the statistical dynamic is moving very much in the right direction:

Rounds Match one Match two
Round 12 Rebels-Crusaders 10-55 L Waratahs-Blues, 21-24 L
Round 13 Crusaders-Tahs 29-31 L
Round 14 Hurricanes-Reds 34-38 L Tahs-Highlanders 41-12 W
Round 15 Chiefs-Tahs 27-39 L Reds-Highlanders 15-18 L
Round 16 Blues Rebels 20-10 W

Over the last eight games, the average score has reduced to 25-28. While New Zealand are still winning the lion’s share of those tight matches, this represents considerable grounds for encouragement, as does the improved ratio of wins in Australian-South African Super Rugby clashes – that’s grown from 33 per cent in 2017 to 50 per cent one year on.

Although the beginning was downright scary, hope has been given a chance to float up – and overall it undoubtedly has risen to the surface for the Australian sides in 2018.

There is still a long road to be travelled, but at least the appetite for confrontations between teams from Australia and New Zealand is returning, among coaches, players and spectators alike.

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Australia has always prided itself on the quality and innovation of its attacking rugby, especially from set-pieces, and there are signs that it is returning along with the new feeling of confidence.

We saw it in the construction of the Reds lineout score against the Hurricanes and in a couple of tries the Waratahs scored against the Chiefs the week after. It was further reinforced in a highly entertaining shoot-out between New South Wales and Queensland at Suncorp on Saturday.

(AAP Image/Dan Peled)

One of the best platforms for attack from set-piece in the modern game is provided by the driving lineout. There is a more realistic chance of a dynamic drive developing than in a set scrum, and more opportunity to vary the point of release at the back to exploit a weakness when it becomes obvious.

All told, seven tries were scored off lineout drive formations in the game, and both the Waratahs and the Reds were able to find weaknesses in the opposing defence from a very different philosophical start-point. They can be viewed on the reel here:

One of the Tahs’ best tries was eventually called back for a forward pass, but the nuance in its construction was outstanding:

Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

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The first idea behind a lineout drive is to draw a commitment from the opposition forwards and concentrate them in a small area. With Michael Hooper standing in the receiver position, this is what the Reds must have been expecting, and the first movement of both the Reds second-rowers and Scott Higginbotham is to push through the gaps.

In reality, the drive is a decoy. The defender the Waratahs really want to target is the Queensland tailgunner George Smith, and they do a great job of stripping away his support and isolating him, with the other defenders drawn elsewhere.

It is the movement of Michael Hooper and Nick Phipps around the front of the line which is the critical factor:

Hooper gives the ball to Damien Fitzpatrick and then arrows around the front of the line with Phipps. This not only fixes the two short-side defenders (Taniela Tupou and Brandon Paenga-Amosa), but gets JP Smith to turn his back on his primary duty – to protect the inside shoulder of his namesake.

The wide shot shows the extent to which the plan has worked, and George Smith has been exposed:

All of the Reds’ tight forwards are either planted on the short side or pointing towards it, and even the blindside winger Jordan Petaia has been drawn off in the same direction. Poor Smith is left high and dry and the channels both inside and outside him are open to attack. Only a forward pass from Fitzpatrick to Cam Clark prevented a well-earned try.

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The Tahs’ lineout drive just after half-time was built off the impact of the Clark ‘try’:

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On this occasion, the maul is allowed to form and the ball is relayed to Fitzpatrick at the back. The direction of the drive is to the open side and towards George Smith, drawing him in to defend it at 2:32 on the previous highlights reel.

Once again, the Tahs’ initial bait is entirely successful, pulling all the Reds’ forwards in the desired direction:

Even as Nick Phipps begins to break back to the shortside in the second frame, Paenga-Amosa is still pointing to the other side of the maul and unprepared to make a tackle on any player coming to his side. In the end, any one of three New South Wales backs (Phipps, Curtis Rona or Clark) could have scored the try against the over-matched Moses Sorovi.

The Reds also used the lineout drive as an attacking platform during the game, but sought to profit from offloads in contact against the Waratahs’ shorter defenders (Hooper, Fitzpatrick and Bernard Foley, none of whom are over six foot tall), and their low tackling technique around the end of the line:

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Here it is George Smith playing halfback and quickly moving the ball on to Sorovi outside him. There is nothing wrong with the Tahs’ defensive structure as the Reds’ scrumhalf maneuvers in between Hooper and Fitzpatrick, but the Reds are looking to attack tackling technique rather than the defensive pattern:

Fitzpatrick takes Sorovi low and that allows him to free up his arms and offload over the top of the tackle – Hooper is one moment too late in his attempt to clamp the ball – and the process is repeated with Petaia and Foley. Eventually, Taniela Tupou scored from close range (2:09 on the reel) to convert the break.

Towards the end of the game, the Reds scored another try from a lineout drive decoy (the finish by Petaia is at 3:53 on the reel):

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The connection between Smith and Sorovi and the orb of the attack is slightly wider than in the first example, but the intent is the same. Both Hooper and replacement back Bryce Hegarty slip down below the level of the ball as they tackle Izaia Perese, allowing him to get the pass away in contact to Duncan Paia’aua:

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There is no opportunity for the Tahs’ defense to regroup as play continues towards the far sideline, where the Reds have the numbers to convert.

Summary
There can be no further doubt that the reduction from five to four Super Rugby teams has concentrated the talent level, and therefore increased the competitiveness of the Australian franchises.

They are winning more games overall, they have broken the New Zealand jinx both home and away, and they have closed the gap on their Kiwi rivals measurably – particularly over the last five weeks of the tournament.

There are also distinct signs that Australia’s ability to create and execute potent attacking plays is beginning to climb back towards the level of previous generations.

The weekend clash between the Reds and Waratahs exploded into an orgy of offensive fireworks, in which several high-quality attacking ideas translated successfully from the coaching whiteboard on to the green grass of Suncorp stadium.

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika

(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

All of this is very good news for Wallaby head coach Michael Cheika as he prepares for the arrival of the Six Nations champions in Brisbane next weekend. The state of the defence may less encouraging, given the holes both teams were able to locate around the ends of the lineout.

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There will be question marks about both the composition of personnel on the open side of the lineout drive, and of the slow reads and reactions of some of the Reds’ tight forwards in particular.

But Australia are steadily moving in the right direction – and closer to Ireland – via the increasing self-belief of their Super Rugby teams. There will be a higher proportion of confident players – of players who know they can compete with the best – for Cheika to pick from than in 2017.

Hope is floating to the surface, even if it is living in a smaller town.