With the third and final Bledisloe Cup encounter for 2018 drawing ever closer, in partnership with Sage, premium partner of the Invictus Games, we look at how a greater sense of accountability in the forwards can help Australia match it with the All Blacks.
I can remember the first time I watched the Wallabies live, as clear and crisp as a West Country autumn day.
It was late October in the heart of Exeter city centre as I walked towards the County Stadium, where the match between the South and South-West Division and Australia was due to be held.
There were four of us then, a group of rugby-playing university students kicking up pillows of dry russet leaves and expectation into the air, with whoops of pleasure – our breath freezing in wreaths immediately as it gushed out into the cold air.
The County Stadium itself was a flat patch of grass circled by an old dog track, now more often used for the heavy bikes of Speedway. We stood on the grass bank opposite the main stand, hoping that the mugs of tea and hot pies would hold at bay those tendrils of ice curling up from the soles of our feet.
Out on the field, the Wallabies were busy practising moves in their shirts of warm gold. At one end, there was ‘Topo’ Rodriguez scrumming one-on-one against Stan Pilecki – big Stan, complete with handlebar moustache. We could hear Stan gasp and wheeze as Topo took the scrum to impossibly low heights.
“He’d better careful, fags are gonna fall out of his pocket anytime now…” said a wag in the crowd as Pilecki went to ground under the pressure. We all laughed, but the atmosphere gradually changed as the rest of the Wallaby warm-up unfolded.
There was a constant hum of talk and urgent encouragement as maneuvers were pulled off at speed and with a sleight of hand that made us gasp, sending up more smoke signals into the blue sky.
Brendan Moon, Andrew Slack and Michael Lynagh – even the ones we didn’t know like Philip Cox and Ian Williams – ran and handled with a slickness and shape we hadn’t seen before. The ball popped and pinged from hand to hand like corn on a stove. There was no need even for the master magician, Mark Ella.
Then out came the pads and it was time for full-on defence – the ‘Oof!’ of the hits as shoulders dug in and pad-holders rose like tall crags into the spare sky; 15 tacklers moving forward as one man, the rising tide of noise as another hit went in and a crescent of spray flew off the head of an ‘attacker’.
I looked around and a solemnity had consumed the watchers on the hill. We were transfixed by something approaching religious awe. That Wallaby side was, in retrospect, our first glimpse of a professionalism well ahead of its time.
What I took away from that afternoon at the County Ground was the communication skills of the Australian players, and the way in which they all (maybe bar Stan) so effortlessly translated thought into action. They were quite simply the smartest side I have ever witnessed.
That responsible intelligence was also the hallmark of the sides coached by Bob Dwyer and later, Rod Macqueen. You might, if you were lucky, be able to beat the Australians physically – but you never beat them in the top three inches. They were always one step ahead of the game, and it was only the physical capacity of their personnel to carry out the plan that varied.
With the third Bledisloe Cup match of 2018 approaching fast, Michael Cheika urgently needs to rediscover a similar sense of accountability in his Wallaby team. In terms of forward play, he has to identify their primary directive, and make sure he finds ways to let them achieve their aim out on the field.
If we ask the question: “What is the most basic function of the forwards in a Michael Cheika team?”, the answer would be “dominating the advantage line when carrying the ball”.
His forward selections are seldom based on set-piece know-how, how to run a lineout or push in a scrum. They are based on the ability to either carry the ball in possession or defend effectively without it.
In the attacking system Cheika employs, with two pods of three forwards in the middle of the field and two back-rowers out on the edge, you live or die by the success of your ball carrying in those two central pods. For most of the time, you will not be in a physical mismatch, and what you do will determine whether there’s any space for the backs further out.
The game against South Africa in Port Elizabeth proved that truth. The Wallaby forwards either took the ball up straight ahead into probably the most unforgiving frontal defence in world rugby, or they shifted it straight on into the second line of attack immediately.
They got no change from either tactic, and they showed no finesse in what New Zealand calls ‘offsetting the tackler’ before contact. Being a responsible, accountable and intelligent ball-carrier means you do something to take the tackler out of his strongest position before the collision occurs, so that you take contact on your own terms or move the ball away from the point of contact with advantage.
On the last occasion Australia defeated New Zealand (October 21, 2017 in Brisbane), the Wallabies had a core group of forwards who showed that they could do this very well indeed.
Second-rower Rob Simmons is often criticised for a perceived lack of physicality, but he has a smart attitude to taking contact on the carry:
Faced by two of New Zealand’s strongest tacklers (Sam Cane and Sonny Bill Williams), Simmons takes a short step inside so that he can hit the seam between them – so that neither can get a strong shoulder on him (or the ball) as he goes through.
Now let’s look at the result. A penalty for offside has been awarded and the ball is in scrumhalf Will Genia’s hands in under two seconds, so that he is able to launch the Wallabies backline before the All Blacks defence has fully reorganised:
The New Zealand defence has been forced to defend passively by the speed of ruck delivery Simmons provided, and that means an easy 15-metre gain on the following phase.
Different forwards manage contact in the way that suits their strengths best. Jack Dempsey, for example, uses footwork to offset the tackler, here beating Nepo Laulala and forcing Dane Coles to drag him down from the side:
Sean McMahon possesses a tremendous second effort which enabled him to make progress after the first contact:
It looks like Scott Barrett has lined up McMahon bang to rights behind the advantage line – but McMahon manages to bounce out of the initial hit, make a few precious metres and set up a positive ruck.
Look at the degree of difference this makes to the wide attack on the next phase:
A bit of deft ball-handling in the middle by Simmons enables Bernard Foley to double around him and exploit the space on the far side – another effortless 30-metre gain with momentum building further off the next quick ruck to follow.
The agility of the ball-carrier enables him to find space in traffic. In the next instance, it is Michael Hooper’s step off his right foot which takes him past the tackle of replacement prop Wyatt Crockett to set up the instant ruck ball from which Israel Folau scores against another retreating defensive line:
This is what Australia did time and again at Brisbane but have since forgotten, beating New Zealand with the brains of their ball-carrying rather than brawn:
First, Dempsey uses his quick feet to force Liam Squire to drag him down from the side, then Adam Coleman finds the seam between Coles and Kieran Read on the following play. That, in turn, gives Folau just enough space in which to work his magic near the left sideline and put Marika Koroibete away.
The final example is perhaps also the best tribute to the importance of intelligence, rather than just raw power, in contact:
Sean McMahon takes the ball standing still deep in his own end, and the All Black defensive line is well set. He has every reason to go to ground passively in the tackle.
But by switching towards the seam between Crockett and Sam Whitelock, he makes a silk purse out of the ball carrier’s equivalent of a sow’s ear.
His remarkable second effort does the rest, shedding tackler after tackler and bringing the home crowd to its feet. That was the rousing moment at which Australia really won the match.
The 1984 Wallabies achieved a Grand Slam of four wins against the four home unions, the first and only time an Australian side has accomplished this feat.
They did it because of the intelligence and sense of responsibility they brought to the game both on and off the field. That second game of the tour against the South and South West Division might have been drawn, but those of us who witnessed the Wallaby warm-up left the ground in doubt about the quality of the tourists.
Michael Cheika’s Australia needs to rediscover both in time for the third game of the Bledisloe Cup series against New Zealand.
The Australian coaches can bring their attacking game back to life by asking their forward ball-carriers to be more intelligent and responsible – in a word, to be more accountable. They must use more finesse when they take the ball up, and make a more definite effort to offset the tackler.
If they can make that extra half-metre or deliver a ruck ball one second earlier, it opens the gate for the likes of Beale, Foley and Folau to show their wares.
“One half-step too late or too early – you don’t quite make it. One half-second too slow or too fast and you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They are in every break of the game every minute, every second… that is what living is. The six inches in front of your face.”
The inches the Wallabies need are everywhere around them, to quote that famous Al Pacino speech from one of the great sporting movies of all time, Any Given Sunday.
But they have to be taken, because they won’t be given, and that is where a sense of accountability really begins.
If you think rugby players are tough, you should check out all the athletes at the 2018 Invictus Games. Sage are a premium partner of the Invictus Games. Visit sage.com/au/invictusgames to see how Sage support those who overcome challenges in sport and business.