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It is a year of comings and goings in the Australian midfield.
On Saturday evening, Kyle Godwin waved goodbye to the Brumbies with his best-ever performance for the club. He is off to Connacht in Ireland on a multi-year contract as he enters the prime of his playing career at 25 years old.
If the rumours are to be believed, Matt Toomua is moving the other way and on his way back to Australia. Although Toomua is contracted by English Premiership club Leicester Tigers until the end of the 2019-2020 season, the media jungle drums are signalling a return to the Melbourne Rebels sooner rather than later.
There is no question of the immediate value Toomua would add to the Wallabies as a back-up to both incumbents, Bernard Foley at 10 and Kurtley Beale at 12.
As Foley himself commented, “Matt is a quality player, we’ve seen that when he came on the scene at such a young age, an 18-year-old, he was thrust into Super Rugby.
“I think if he does come back his time overseas will put him in good stead, his ability to read the game, control the game.”
The more intriguing aspect of Toomua’s return would be the potential it offers for a wholesale changing of the midfield guard before the 2019 World Cup.
With Reece Hodge enjoying a breakout game at number 10 for the Rebels against the Highlanders on the last weekend of the regular season and Godwin scoring a spectacular individual try for the Brumbies, all of a sudden there appear to be far more options than there once were for Wallaby coach Michael Cheika.
In the contest between two midfields filled by recent or current Wallaby internationals, the Brumbies (with no current international starters) beat out the Waratahs (with two) with something to spare:
|Midfield||Run metres||Clean breaks||Tackles completed|
|Waratahs (Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale & Curtis Rona)||80||1||19/33 (57%)|
|Brumbies (Christian Lealiifano, Kyle Godwin & Tevita Kuridrani)||161||9||35/39 (90%)|
This most basic of statistical comparisons is brutal, and the fallout from it will be another test of how much Michael Cheika is really listening to the dynamic flow of evidence in selection.
But with the railway attendant frantically waving his flag for “all change!” as midfielders cross between the two hemispheres, at Sydney Football Stadium it was one of the ‘remainers’ who really shook up the existing Wallaby pecking order.
The ‘K-train’, Tevita Kuridrani, steamed into all and sundry and won all of his battles, both with and without the ball on Saturday night. It will be a major surprise if he has not put an end to the pretensions of Curtis Rona (as well as Samu Kerevi) to his outside centre position in the process.
Despite finishing a lowly tenth overall in the final Super Rugby table, the Brumbies were ranked fourth in defence (as measured by tries conceded), with only the three highest-ranked Kiwi teams (the Crusaders, Hurricanes and Chiefs) ahead of them.
One of the keys in the Saturday evening encounter was the ability of the Brumbies’ wide defence to contain the Waratahs’ attack, particularly on right-to-left movements. Two international-class distributors in Foley and Beale, supported by two lethal finishers outside them in Israel Folau and Taqele Naiyaravoro meant that ‘the Tank’ led all try scorers with 15 during the regular season.
The Brumbies first try announced the major themes to follow (at 0:20 on the following reel):
This is a typical Waratah attacking set-up, with a couple of forwards providing interference in the first line screen, and the ball played out behind through Beale with three attackers (Rona, number 7 Will Miller, and Naiyaravoro) outside him:
The Tahs have a temporary four-to-two overlap as Beale receives the ball, with only Kuridrani and Henry Speight ahead of him. Joe Powell is struggling to make up ground on Kuridrani’s inside, and Tom Banks is positioned about ten metres off the line beyond Speight.
It is Kuridrani’s decision-making which turns this situation from a ‘loss’ into a ‘win’ for the defending side. Instead of pushing up on to Beale and forcing his hand, he backs off and draws him up a blind alley:
At the critical moment, Kuridrani has reconnected with Powell and given Speight a clear target (Rona) by reducing Beale’s passing options to just one. At the same time, Tevita is still free to fold in behind Speight and cover the attackers outside him.
Curtis Rona obviously felt the need to honour the overlap regardless of the new situation, and the result is an intercept try by Banks at the other end of the field. The score represented a conclusive victory for Kuridrani’s defence over the attack of Beale and Rona.
In the course of the game as a whole, Kuridrani forced four turnovers of possession on right-to-left movements in or near the Brumbies’ red zone:
It is Kuridrani’s reading of the play, and his ability to win the contact despite moving sideways towards it, that really matters. In this instance, Beale gives the pass early to Folau rather than taking it up to the line himself, and the Tahs still have a three on two in the five-metre corridor when Folau gets the ball.
The sheer impact of Kuridrani’s high tackle stops any further progress and forces a fumble from the Tahs’ fullback when he goes to offload:
Things got worse for the Tahs when Beale was not there to deliver one of the first two passes:
As the above examples show, the Tahs like to insert one of their back-rowers into the channel between the five and 15m lines in order to add an extra man and cover the wide breakdown.
When that back-rower found himself confronted by Kuridrani, there was only one winner in contact. First Ned Hanigan…
…then Will Miller were firmly rejected and turned over:
Tevita Kuridrani was the king of the wide channels on defence. Rather more surprisingly, the contrast between the K-train and Beale and Rona was just as sharp when Kuridrani had the ball, and the Tahs’ centres were defending.
When the Waratahs midfield had to defend a similar wide play from the Brumbies, with a deep second receiver set behind a screen of forwards, Rona and Beale were split far too easily for comfort:
A very modest coming together between one of the screening forwards (Folau Fainga’a) and Beale is enough to knock the NSW number 12 down and create the gap for Kuridrani:
The lack of physicality in wide defence proved to be a real problem for the Tahs:
Compared to Kuridrani, Beale commits far further upfield as the main wide backline defender. Then he gets brushed off twice – first by a Brumby back-rower (David Pocock), and second by Henry Speight on the fold.
Things did not improve greatly when Curtis Rona was the main defensive organiser:
Rona should be communicating with the forwards inside him, pulling Hanigan across the field from the bunch that has developed near the breakdown to improve the defensive splits:
The coup de grace occurred at 4:40 on the highlight reel, with Kuridrani skipping around the challenge of Naiyaravoro and fending off Rona before putting in a chip kick for Lausii Taliauli to collect and score.
It was a suitably comprehensive final flourish to a performance which should have secured Kuridrani’s place in the Wallabies team to play New Zealand in Sydney, while raising some serious questions about the two spots inside him.
Before the last-round encounter between the Waratahs and the Brumbies, midfield selection for the Wallabies looked cut and dry. Foley and Beale at 10 and 12, just make a choice between Curtis Rona and Tevita Kuridrani outside them for the first round of the Rugby Championship on August 18.
Or so you would have thought. The conclusiveness of the Brumbies’ midfield domination, both with and without the ball, may provoke a re-evaluation by Michael Cheika and his coaches – and that reassessment would only be reinforced by the return of Matt Toomua to Australian shores, if the rumours are true.
Kuridrani won his battle with Rona for the 13 spot hands-down, and in the process muddied the waters at outside-half and inside centre.
As in the June series against Ireland, Bernard Foley was a marginal figure and the case for Kurtley Beale shifting to 10 (with Toomua at 12) was further strengthened. Kyle Godwin would also be a live challenger for that inside-centre berth and is moving to Ireland at the wrong moment, at least from the vantage point of his Wallaby career.
That arrangement would mean less need for moving parts defensively (with Toomua eminently capable of defending in either the 10 or 12 channel) and an improved kicking game with European nous.
If Toomua is coming back to sit on the pine, it may represent another lost opportunity to experiment beyond the sky blue midfield combinations in which Wallaby selection seems so heavily invested.