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Power plays in the south: How discipline and decision-making cost the Wallabies in Melbourne

Peter O'Mahony of Ireland takes the ball from a line out. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)
Expert
19th June, 2018
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6172 Reads

Aggression, aggression – and then add a bit more aggression for good measure. It has been the Eddie Jones power-play ever since he took over the reins as England head coach after the 2015 World Cup.

On and off the field, he has cultivated a ‘no one likes us and we don’t care’ mentality.

After the defeat at Murrayfield that kick-started England’s current death-spiral, back in February, Jones demanded his side be even more “brutal and aggressive” against their next opponents, France. Every setback creates an even more pugnacious reaction.

Jones likes to play with antagonism and hostility, frequently goading opposing coaches and players before big games, unsettling the opposition to gain a psychological advantage. Some opponents – not least Michael Cheika’s Australia in the 2016 June series – look beaten even before the opening whistle.

That mentality paid off handsomely during the team’s record-equalling 18-match winning run. Jones even appointed Dylan Hartley as his captain in a classic poacher-turned-gamekeeper scenario, and the move worked out outstandingly well.

How things have changed in 2018. After five consecutive Test defeats, the question is whether it is the need for antagonism that is now playing with Jones.

He seems unable to function without friction, and that dynamic is built into the culture he has created. After the second loss to South Africa in Bloemfontein, Jones objected to Radio Five Live reporter Chris Jones’ “aggressive” line of questioning.

The reporter’s tone was pushy and persistent rather than hostile, but the England coach snapped back.

Chris Jones: For you personally Eddie, it’s the first time with this England team that you’ve been under this kind of pressure, how confident are you that you can turn it around come the Autumn?

Eddie Jones: Oh 100 per cent confident … 100 per cent as you are aggressive.

I’m just asking you questions Eddie after a series defeat …

Just your nature, it’s very aggressive mate.

That’s not the plan Eddie, I’m just trying to ask the questions the fans might want to hear at home.

Oh that’s fine, I’m happy to answer that aggressive questioning.

Which one was aggressive especially?

Just your manner in how you’re talking to me.

You can hear the full interview at the beginning of the BBC program here.

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It was not the first time Jones has become testy under interrogation, and the virus spread to some of his players after the match.

The normally mild-mannered scrum-half Ben Youngs scuttled off from an interview after only 11 seconds, later apologising to the Sky Sports reporter on Twitter.

Joe Marler and Mike Brown allegedly became embroiled in a fracas with an England supporter in the tunnel after the game.

On the field, Hartley’s replacement as captain, Owen Farrell, struggled to open a productive channel of communication with referee Romain Poite. Harangues are not the right way to approach M.Poite, who already had some history with Jones’ England in the ‘ruck-less’ controversy surrounding their 2017 game against Italy.

The ironic climax arrived as Mako Vunipola was penalised for foul play just after ‘Faz’ had announced to the referee “we’re trying to play rugby here!” Far more finesse was required.

Discipline has to be at the centre of any playing culture, and England do not have it either on or off the field at the present time. On the field, they have conceded an average of four penalties more than their opponents per game over their five-match losing run, and yellow cards in a ratio of 4:1 in the same period. Put pressure on England, and they will get more aggressive – too aggressive for their own good.

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The lack of discipline is also connected with an inability to make clear-headed decisions at key moments in the game. As Jones himself said afterwards, “For some reason we’re just not handling the key moments well. As soon as something small happens we just don’t seem to react well to it at the moment.”

For an outsider looking in, the relationship between the two is as clear as daylight – and was also on display in the Wallabies’ match against Ireland in Melbourne on Saturday evening.

Ireland placed both Australia’s discipline and decision-making under relentless pressure in the second Test.

They began by improving the fixable items. Their ability to retain the ball at the breakdown was greatly improved from Brisbane (a rise of 1.6 per cent in the retention rate), and they shut Israel Folau out of the game in the air.

David Pocock’s massive influence on the contact area at Brisbane was reduced, but not eliminated entirely (he still had two important steals), and the reintroduction of an outstanding cleanout operator in the form of Ireland tight-head prop Tadhg Furlong helped greatly in that respect:

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Ireland did not direct even one of their own high kicks anywhere near Folau, and in defence they denied him access to the cross-field bombs which had proved so successful in the first Test. Australia kicked three times from restarts, and four times in general play for Folau to win the ball back – he did not win one.

From restarts, Bernard Foley tried to kick flat to the Ireland right, but his restarts were mopped up by either Devin Toner or Dan Leavy:

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On Australia’s cross-field exits, the process was slightly more complicated. Ireland had worked out that Folau’s preferred angle of approach was from the receiver’s blind-side – similar to an outside linebacker blitz in American football, most effective when it comes from behind the quarterback:

The key defender was Peter O’Mahony, retiring on the outside shoulder of the catcher in order to (legitimately) block Folau’s pathway to the ball. Ireland were able to get into this critical space time and again, to give their receiver a free shot at the ball under no particular pressure:

The receiver (number 11 Keith Earls) was protected by two players who have forced Israel Folau to take the long way around the ‘block’ – just like a good offensive left tackle in gridiron!

Ireland’s control of the breakdown, and their ability to defend Folau in the air were important features of the two crucial ten minute yellow card periods (one for each side) which occurred in the first half. They defended Folau twice under high kicks and made key cleanouts on Pocock to maintain possession, first by returnee Dan Leavy…

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… secondly by James Ryan and Jack McGrath during the Wallaby power play:

On Australia’s yellow card (with Marika Koroibete going off for a tip tackle) between the sixth and 16th minutes, Ireland controlled the ball for eight minutes and 30 seconds and racked up 13 unanswered points. On Ireland’s (Cian Healy sent off for offside at the Wallabies’ driving lineout try) between the 26th and 36th minutes, Australia only controlled the ball for one minute and 15 seconds and didn’t score at all.

Australia had already scored a superbly-worked try by Kurtley Beale when Koroibete was given ten minutes in the bin for the tip on Rob Kearney (0:45 on the reel):

The construction of the Ireland try from the five-metre lineout which followed is worth examining from the viewpoint of decision-making. Before the lineout is formed, the three key actors in the drama (Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Andrew Conway) can be seen hatching a plot together:

The plan is clearly to target the short-side wing Koroibete has just vacated, but the attack is handled with subtlety and finesse:

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At first Sexton and Conway are aligned either behind the maul (Conway) or slightly open-side (Sexton) until the Wallabies reveal who will be defending the short-side – #2 Brandon Paenga-Amosa and #9 Will Genia. They then shift once the drive has gained momentum in the opposite direction. The only other defender who can prevent the try – Dane Haylett-Petty, coming all the way over from the far wing at 1:12 on the reel – arrives fractionally too late as the perfect timing of the shift beats him:

The momentum of the Wallabies’ own power play was disrupted by failures of discipline, such as the penalty against Caleb Timu for a tackle on James Ryan without the ball:

Timu could already have been off the field for a deliberate knock-on a few minutes earlier.

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Timu is reaching for the ball with one hand, with no realistic chance of making an interception. Fortunately for Australia, referee Paul Williams was lenient on this particular offence, as in a later incident in the second half with Foley:

Even more crucially, Australia’s one-man advantage coincided exactly with the retirement of their best decision-maker, Genia, from the field with an injury which will keep him out of the deciding Test in Sydney.

With the kicking outlet to Folau denied them and Ireland keeping the ball when they had it, Australia were stuck in their own exit zone and only broke out via a penalty with just over three minutes remaining on Healy’s card. What followed next was highly instructive:

Foley had the ball on halfway and his captain, Michael Hooper, appeared to be pointing to the corner. Australia had already established they could deliver the goods with the close-range drive from lineout, having scored their second try of the game against eight forward defenders. With Healy still on the naughty chair, what would be the odds of another score against a pack reduced to seven?

Instead, Foley inexplicably ignored Hooper and tapped the penalty to himself:

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With the rest of the Australian forwards clearly expecting the obvious, Hooper was isolated and Peter O’Mahony won perhaps the most important of his three turnovers on the deck during the game.

This would not have happened if Genia had remained on the pitch, and it exposed a fault-line in the decision-making group which Nick Phipps will struggle to fill in the third Test.

Summary
The trials of Eddie Jones and his England team in South Africa have shown both how essential and interlinked the attributes of discipline and decision-making are – on and off the field.

Jones encourages his side to take aggression to the limit (and sometimes beyond it) while lacking the composure under media pressure that he requires of his charges. The evidence is visible everywhere in the responses of his players.

The penalties are duly being paid, both on the field and outside it – in the relationships between the national team representatives and the club owners, the media and even their own supporters. Apologies are being made but they do not change the real character of the situation.

Australia’s leadership and decision-making group was looking solid until Will Genia was forced to leave the field in the 27th minute, at the outset of Australia’s power play. With Genia’s departure, decision-making process fragmented in the Foley-Hooper penalty towards the end of that ten-minute period.

Ireland’s aerial solution to Israel Folau, and their increasing control of the contact points are worrying developments for the Wallabies. Good ball-control always generates penalties as the defence struggles to maintain concentration, and becomes ever more desperate to get the ball back over long strings of phases. Australia were lucky that Paul Williams chose to take a lenient view of the knock-ons by Caleb Timu and Bernarad Foley.

Australia have shown they have the weapons to hurt Ireland if they can spend enough time with the ball in their hands. The question now is: what new ideas can Michael Cheika conjure to get the ball back off the men in emerald green and give his team that chance?

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The ball is firmly in his court as the best series of the summer reaches a titanic climax in Sydney next weekend.