The Wallabies and their kicking game

Peter Taylor Roar Rookie

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    Ever since Michael Cheika took the reigns at the Waratahs in 2013 he has strived to build a clear rugby identity for his teams and players.

    Cheika is a man who loves a mantra, and one that has been echoing around rugby grounds across Australia since Cheika’s arrival has been ‘running rugby’.

    Running rugby, in a nutshell, means that Cheika always wants his teams to look to attack – wherever they are on the field.

    The view is that historically Australian rugby teams and players have been geared towards a fast tempo ball-in-hand game that uses speed, agility and power to run over, around, and through opponents.

    This is in contrast to the more traditional approach that uses kicking as a main tactical option to gain territory and apply pressure.

    Initially, this running rugby mantra seemed to be a shot in the arm for Australian rugby and it came at a time where the Wallabies and Australian Super Rugby franchises had a tendency to kick quality ball away for no good reason.

    This injection of new energy and focus lead to the Waratahs epic 2014 title run and the Wallabies making it to the 2015 World Cup final.

    Since then, however, the effectiveness of the running rugby mantra has worn off. Most opposing teams had got the message about the Wallabies chosen style of play.

    This, because it was trumpeted by Cheika so often, and with so many core players leaving the Wallabies to retire, or get their fat end of career paychecks in Europe, Cheika was left in quite a predicament.

    Cheika had to quickly uncover new talent, skill them up to international level and train them in the Wallabies style of play. In the meantime, his opponents were quickly figuring out how to exploit the flaws in running rugby.

    The flaws were almost too easy for teams to adjust and when kicking the ball is so obviously shunned by a team then defence becomes a lot easier.

    You don’t have to worry too much about covering the space in behind the defence for short kicks, so you can task your defensive line with putting pressure on the halves and cutting off passing options.

    Couple this with giving your back row the mandate to cause havoc at the ruck and it becomes almost impossible for a team to efficiently run exit plays or get the quick ball and space needed for running rugby to be effective.

    This is what happened after the 2015 World Cup, opponents wised up (particularly the All Blacks, England, Scotland and Ireland) and Cheika blooded the new Wallabies who were trying to find the right talent to fill the obvious gaps.

    Michael Cheika, Wallabies head coach stares in bemusement

    (AAP Image/ David Rowland)

    The Wallabies win rate dropped from 83.3% in 2015 to just 40% in 2016. This 40% win rate was even worse than the 42.9% achieved in 2014, a year which saw Ewan McKenzie’s shock resignation after a heartbreaking capitulation to the All Blacks in Brisbane which left the Wallabies establishment is disarray.

    Sure, you can point to the Wallabies playing the two form sides in the world (England and New Zealand) six times in 2016 as the reason for this abysmal win rate, but there are no excuses at international level, especially when you want to be the best.

    By the end of 2016 the message to Cheika was clear: adapt or die.

    In 2017 Cheika looked to the United States for answers and attended a top leadership course at Stanford University as well as a string of conferences at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas (yes, it’s not just a music festival).

    He has since used his learning’s and ideas to help guide his role at the Wallabies, even directly crediting the Stanford University course with changing his entire approach to team selection.

    He recently wrote in a Players Voice article, “[The Stanford University course] got me thinking that maybe I had to change the way I looked at selections.

    “Maybe my own subconscious bias was influencing how I picked teams. So we changed the way we looked at selection.

    “We introduced new criteria based on three categories: purely objective data that no one can argue with; partially objective factors like how we want things to be done and scored and analysed; and then fully subjective data, gut-feel stuff, questions like, ‘What was that guy’s attitude like?’

    “We layer those three across all the players when we’re selecting a squad or a team.”

    While it’s all well and good to gain additional coaching skills and sort your selection policies, it must translate into actions on the rugby field.

    The weekend win against Ireland proves that Cheika has been trying to adapt his running rugby game plan into one that isn’t so one dimensional.

    With Dane Haylett-Petty and particularly Israel Folau in the team, the Wallabies have a clear advantage in the air over every team in world rugby – something that hasn’t been properly exploited by the Wallabies in Cheika’s tenure.

    The end of last year saw the Wallabies starting to shift away from their ball-in-hand-centric approach and open up to the idea that having Folau on your team means that the air is yours, you just have to have the skills to exploit it.

    Unfortunately, this is where the real issue lies for the Wallabies.

    The Wallabies tactical kicking game has left a lot to be desired in recent times. Errant box kicks, kick into touch on the full, and kicks straight down the throat of galloping fullbacks have been an overly consistent theme in the last five years for the Wallabies.

    On Saturday night the Wallabies decided to wheel out the kicking game and made their intentions clear from the opening minutes, kicking two midfield bombs to Folau.

    One in an advantage situation which had no chasers behind it and another in general play which lead to an Ireland offside call and the first three points of the night for the Wallabies.

    This was the story of the kicking game all night for the Wallabies. Some good kicks exposing the defence and others that simply missed the mark.

    Of the 15 tactical kicks the Wallabies used during Saturday’s game against the Irish, only five brought favourable results, which is well down on the success rate Cheika would be after when giving away so much quality ball.

    This is where fine tuning of the Wallabies style of play can be done in the lead up to the World Cup.

    The kicking game (even though it pains me to say it) is a valuable part of test level rugby. In order to be able to create the space and opportunities necessary for a running style of game to prosper you have to put the defence in two minds.

    One of the best ways to do that is to turn the defence around with a kick every now and then, and with a target like Folau – why wouldn’t you? The problem then just becomes about the execution of the kick, communication between players and the effort put into the kick chase.

    The Wallabies communication and effort has shown vast improvements since their post World Cup slump and they now just have to work on their kick execution.

    But seeing as they have effectively iced their out-of-hand kicking game for the last few years their skills are well down on where they would want them.

    Cheika’s willingness to be open to new ideas and adapt (take note Eddie Jones) has helped the Wallabies build a strong culture and squad in the lead up to the 2019 World Cup, but ironically, their hopes of playing running rugby may just hinge on reacquainting themselves with the long-forgotten art of the kick.

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    The Crowd Says (34)

    • June 16th 2018 @ 2:53am
      KenoathCarnt said | June 16th 2018 @ 2:53am | ! Report

      Wallabies have had a useless kicking game for a while and it is quite frustrating watching teams gain major advantage from it. Announce Tom Banks!

    • June 16th 2018 @ 8:05am
      waxhead said | June 16th 2018 @ 8:05am | ! Report

      Good article Peter 🙂
      And I totally agree.
      As an ex Randwick player myself we ran the ball mostly but never shunned a kicking game.
      We used it for exits and occasional attacking bombs and for the wingers to field.
      When done it still had to be done well.

      At Test level you have to do everything at A+ quality and you have to have a plan B and C to suit differing conditions and opponents. And you need to fully use the attacking potential of Folau and DPH in the air

      With players like Foley and Phipps Chieka has consistently picked players with very ordinary kicking skills.
      Neither has improved their open field kicking in past 3 yrs either – they are still poor.
      While Foley has other excellent skills to compensate Phipps does not – but Chieka still picks him.

      Australia has not/does not have another 10 better than Foley but there’s 5 halfbacks way better than Phipps.
      This is obvious to almost all except Chieka with his alleged “objective selection criteria”.
      Let’s see if there’s any improvement in the kicking game tonight.

      • Roar Rookie

        June 16th 2018 @ 8:22am
        KiwiHaydn said | June 16th 2018 @ 8:22am | ! Report

        That’s where the ‘subjective’ bit comes in. Phipps is a gut feel pick 😜

        • June 16th 2018 @ 8:39am
          waxhead said | June 16th 2018 @ 8:39am | ! Report

          yeah and the gut feel is only cos Phipps is a Waratah player.
          Blatant Waratah bias has been a consistent and very damaging feature of Chieka’s coaching/selecting imo.

      • Roar Rookie

        June 16th 2018 @ 11:06am
        Peter Taylor said | June 16th 2018 @ 11:06am | ! Report

        Thanks Waxhead. You are spot on about needing to be able to execute skills to suit your conditions and having a range of options.

        As for Phipps I do take your point, there are a range of half backs out there for Cheika to choose from but he is basically just banking on Genia never getting injured.

        I feel Phipps is just there to bring energy and experience towards the end of games so Genia can get a rest.

        There haven’t been too many Aussie halfbacks really making the position their own this season but i still think a dark horse like Ruru may be preferable.

        • June 16th 2018 @ 1:33pm
          Rhys Bosley said | June 16th 2018 @ 1:33pm | ! Report

          I agree Peter, none of the other halfbacks have really done enough to take the reserve spot from Phipps and I reckon he is as good as a finisher, he has an excellent running game which he utilises both in attack and cover defence when things open up. He is also has well established partnerships with Foley and Beale through the Tahs, which is something none of the others can bring.

    • June 16th 2018 @ 9:32am
      Rhys Bosley said | June 16th 2018 @ 9:32am | ! Report

      Good article, I am glad that Cheika has finally allowed the Wallabies to play a kicking game and hope he persists, it is the only way the Wallabies will get better. Fans need to understand that it takes time too and be a bit patient, there will undoubtedly be some stuff ups leading to lost possession, but it is an essential feature of winning test rugby matches which must be mastered.

      • Roar Rookie

        June 16th 2018 @ 11:20am
        Peter Taylor said | June 16th 2018 @ 11:20am | ! Report

        Thanks Rhys. I think the keyword for the Wallabies kicking game is balance. It will take a while for the Wallabies to know when to use the kick and when not to. Their skills will sharpen in time but Foley particularly needs to get better with his kicking game.

        • June 16th 2018 @ 12:42pm
          Rhys Bosley said | June 16th 2018 @ 12:42pm | ! Report

          Agreed about balance Peter, on that I think the Wallabies have room for improvement in the types of kicks they select. If the team is getting bogged down in attack there is nothing wrong with a kick along the ground to the sideline for territory, especially when you have the World’s best ruck monkey and World’s best kick returner in your squad, to get the ball back or take advantage of an opposition kick respectively. Same goes for pinging a corner with a long range kick and forcing a return kick on an awkward angle, Beale became an expert at that in England and should be encouraged to take those opportunities when they arise.

          Good to see Cheika getting started in that respect though, it gives me hope.

        • June 16th 2018 @ 2:12pm
          Frank said | June 16th 2018 @ 2:12pm | ! Report

          Sorry to be blunt but shouldn’t they have gained that experience and the skills (with help of coaching) by the time they’d reached the national team? They are not a development squad

          • June 16th 2018 @ 2:42pm
            Rhys Bosley said | June 16th 2018 @ 2:42pm | ! Report

            Yes Frank, but poor kicking skills is a widespread problem in Australian Rugby. I put a lot of it down to fans who don’t understand the difference between Union and League, whinging if players kick the ball. Hence there is pressure on coaches to only let their teams play ball in hand and the skills have degraded. That is what Cheika has to work with and correcting the situation will take some time.

    • June 16th 2018 @ 9:36am
      Mapu said | June 16th 2018 @ 9:36am | ! Report

      Not sure what it will mean to the game but not going to be so wet tonight.

    • June 16th 2018 @ 9:41am
      bigbaz said | June 16th 2018 @ 9:41am | ! Report

      There has been very little to criticize in the last two team selections , maybe he has learnt. Kicking , as well as the lineouts are a work in progress , at least he is , at long last , addressing the problem.

      • June 16th 2018 @ 9:46am
        bigbaz said | June 16th 2018 @ 9:46am | ! Report

        ps loved the article Peter

      • Roar Rookie

        June 16th 2018 @ 2:03pm
        Peter Taylor said | June 16th 2018 @ 2:03pm | ! Report

        Thanks Bigbaz. Good to see Cheika back the same team two weeks in a row and the lineout is indeed still in progress.

        The lineout is such a key indicator for a hookers confidence and it seemed a little like the occasion got the better of Brandon Paenga-Amosa at times. Deserves another crack this week.

    • June 16th 2018 @ 11:08am
      enoughisenough said | June 16th 2018 @ 11:08am | ! Report

      The trouble is that Cheika’s selection biases have caused irrepairable damage to the Wallabies, and weakened them in a number of critical positions across the pitch. Now after all these years, and a 40% success rate he acknowledges what everyone could see for years, and pays some lip service to trying to right the wrongs. The pity is, Cheika was left to his own devices for so long, and that so much talent moved on when they saw how unfair the selection process was.

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