“Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time, it’s enemy action!” So says the eponymous villain in Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, later to become one of the best James Bond movies in its 53-year lifespan.
The same can now reasonably be applied to Australian victories over New Zealand sides in this year’s Super Rugby competition.
Three different Australian teams have now beaten three opponents from the other side of the Tasman.
Following on from the Waratahs’ home win over the Highlanders and the Rebels’ away victory at Eden Park just before the June international break, on Saturday it was the turn of the Brumbies to overturn the odds and defeat the Hurricanes 24-12 at Canberra Stadium.
The Ponies’ win may well turn out to represent something of a watershed for Australian franchises. Although their 2018 win ratio is still relatively meagre, at three wins in 14 attempts, all of those victories occurred in Rounds 14 to 17, and the game in the Nation’s Captial created a hairline crack in another glass ceiling.
It was the first time an Australian franchise had beaten one of the elite teams in the New Zealand conference (and one of the top two in the entire tournament) – the Canes and the Crusaders.
There is also mounting evidence that this is neither happenstance nor coincidence, but concerted enemy action. A consensus is building in Australia on how best to go about the forbidding business of beating teams from the Land of the Long White Cloud.
Between them, the Rebels and Brumbies built an average of 44 more rucks and made 40 more passes per game than their Kiwi counterparts, while restricting them to three tries in total.
They controlled the ball for over two-thirds of the game and limited the supply of those unstructured opportunities on which the Canes, in particular, thrive. Suddenly the Melbourne massacre at the end of March seems like a distant memory.
The Brumbies defended well, as we have come to expect – but the main point is that they did not have to spend much time doing it. For most of the time, they had the ball themselves.
It is worth taking the trouble to break down the shape and scope of the Brumbies’ offence.
|Play||Total||Breaks/tries||Penalties for||Penalties/turnovers against|
|0-1 passes||79 (72%)||4/2||7 (+1 yellow card)||5|
|2+ passes||31 (28%)||4/2||2||11|
Phases where there were either no passes (pick plays or carries directly into contact), or one pass made dominated. Over the course of the game, the benefits of creating line-breaks and try-scoring opportunities – which were greater when the point of attack was moved wider – were outweighed by the ability to generate a positive flow of penalties, and limit turnovers.
The Brumbies also changed tack effectively in the halftime break. In the first half, the ratio of two-plus-pass plays was far higher (38 per cent) and the majority of turnovers occurred on those phases – eight in total.
Those numbers dropped to 20 per cent and three, respectively, in the second period.
The Brumbies’ wide attack was never accurate enough to disturb the Hurricanes’ rush defence and tended to create more opportunities for the men in gold than it did for the home team. Right from the opening kick-off, the ball was moved across the width of the field and Andrew Muirhead lost it in contact.
New Zealand sides are geared towards turning the ball over from wide attacks by the opposition, and in the following instance the ball was returned all the way to the Brumbies’ five-metre line before the fire was stamped out.
At the same time, the passing skills of the Ponies’ inside backs were not up to the standard required to beat the fastest defensive line in Super Rugby.
The more the Brumbies tightened their focus and went to work on the Hurricane defenders nearest to the ruck, the better things got for them.
Simply latching on and loading up at first receiver, or picking from the base doesn’t crack the nut. You have to come up with some ideas to manipulate the defence and pull it out of position.
The Brumbies’ first idea was to have their scrum-half, Joe Powell, draw the Hurricanes’ first defender – or ‘guard’ – at the side of the breakdown and then exploit the space outside him.
Unlike Nick Phipps for the Wallabies last week, Powell did enough to pull Reed Prinsep up towards him and create a hole for Ben Alexander, coming late off his shoulder, to run through on to TJ Perenara.
It was only a few metres, but it created a positive situation on the next phase.
That allowed the men from Canberra to target the zone between the last forward (hooker Ricky Riccitelli) and the first back (Jordie Barrett) with one of their biggest ball-carriers, second row Rory Arnold.
Arnold made progress through that defensive seam, the momentum built, and the Canes conceded a penalty under pressure at the breakdown on the next play.
It was not the only time when Powell and Arnold connected effectively near the ruck.
With No.8 Gareth Evans caught on the wrong side of the breakdown, Powell took the gap through Guard and offloaded to Arnold.
Arnold had a whale of a game, with one break, one try (here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fro7lfVJ1l8 at 3:20 on the reel), ten lineout wins and 13 runs for 53 metres.
He must be a real chance to replace Izack Rodda in the starting line-up for the Wallabies’ first match against the All Blacks in Sydney on August 18.
In this example, Tevita Kuridrani made the initial dent off the lineout and Arnold was there to link up with Powell again and hit that sensitive seam between the last forward (Toby Smith) and first back (Ngani Laumape).
Isi Naisarani will be kicking himself for failing to ground the ball against the post on the pick play that followed.
Use of the back three coming from a masked position behind the ruck was also a constant refrain throughout the game.
The ball was moved to Christian Lealiifano at first receiver, but the idea was not to shift the ball any further out with the second pass.
Instead, the aim was to use Tom Banks running on the inside of his first receiver, with all the defenders’ eyes drawn outwards and away from the real target area.
It was not ‘happenstance’ that one of the best moves of the game originated in the same zone. It was well-conceived ‘enemy action’ that only looked like a coincidence!
The referee had already awarded a penalty when the ball spurted out of the ruck, Prinsep shot out from Guard, and Andrew Muirhead was able to exploit the space to run straight past Perenara and set up a chance for Powell.
There was anything coincidental about the improvement in Australia’s Super Rugby franchises, and particularly their performances against New Zealand rivals.
When Perenara made one of his trademark bursts off the end of a lineout to score a cheap intercept try early against the Brumbies, it looked like the home team’s planning might have gone awry.
That turned out to be far from the case. The Brumbies kept the ball well, keeping it away from the lethal Canes’ counter-attack, while admitting their own offensive limitations at the halftime break.
In the process, players like Powell, Kuridrani and Banks in the backs, and Rory Arnold in the forwards, all advanced their Wallaby claims for the Rugby Championship.
Arnold had a monumental game on the carry and at the lineout, and underlined the advantage (highlighted by Devin Toner in the Ireland series) of fielding an ultra-tall ‘lighthouse’ as a lineout banker. This is a bonus the best Wallabies sides have enjoyed historically, in the form of John Eales and, before him, Steve Cutler.
More importantly, the Australian sides are – slowly but steadily – working out a tactical formula to beat their counterparts from Aoteroa. That process began in the second and third matches of the Bledisloe series in 2017, and now it is beginning to be replicated at Super Rugby level.
All the signs are the first game of the 2018 Rugby Championship in Sydney will be the most intense contest since 2015, and that there will be no repeat of the blow-outs of the previous two years.
The Wallabies do not have to rely on ‘happenstance’ or ‘coincidence’ for that, and Steve Hansen had better come armed for concerted ‘enemy action’ on the day.