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 some accountability in the Wallabies’ backline defence – and from the men planning it – can help Australia match it with the All Blacks.
We’ve all seen it, and done it. Those birthday parties when you were six or seven years old – and your parents pulled all the children into a circle before announcing ‘we’re going to play musical chairs’. Around and around we went, until the music stopped, and someone was left high-and-dry with no chair to sit on.
It is a very useful analogy for the current state of the Australian defence, in which players appear to rotate into new positions for which they are often under-qualified – until the music finally stops, and a break is made or a try is scored.
Ever since Michael Cheika took over as head coach of the Wallabies back in late 2014, his defensive assistant has been ex-Waratahs centre Nathan Grey. The system of defence Grey has evolved is unique in world rugby.
Ex-Australian fullback and winger Drew Mitchell recently made some revealing comments on the idiosyncrasies of that system, as they affected him back in 2015, and as they impact current Wallaby wingman Marika Koroibete now.
Mitchell played the same role on defence for Grey back in 2015 that Koroibete is required to play in the current side:
“I’d be on the left wing, chasing a kick into the in goal, and then we’d have a 22 (-metre restart) or a lineout that just dribbles out and I’d have to get back to the right-hand side.
“…So you expel a lot of your fitness and your cardio just trying to get into position.
“I spoke to Dan Carter after the 2015 Rugby World Cup final and he said ‘mate, we could see the metres you were covering and we were just putting high balls up on you just knowing you had nothing left’.”
The issues associated with Koroibete’s role are not confined to him, they also have a domino effect on most of the players in the Australian back-line. The malaise is general rather than local.
Like Mitchell back in 2015, Marika Koroibete is required to defend and chase on the openside wing all of the time, whether it is on the right or the left side of the field.
That means not only an extra workload for him, but positional changes for everyone else around him.
Let’s take a simple but instructive example from the start of the last Rugby Championship match against Argentina in Salta:
This is Australia’s second kick-off of the game, and although it is directed out to the right-hand side of the field, the main chaser is no.11, Koroibete. That means someone else has to pick up Koroibete’s duties on the left wing, and after an exit kick by the Pumas it becomes clear that the fill-in is no.13 Reece Hodge:
Australia have moved the ball out to the far side on the counter, and it is Hodge who gets the ball with the space opening up promisingly in front of him. The Wallabies have used Tevita Kuridrani and Samu Kerevi for exactly the same purpose in the recent past, so the question that needs to be asked is twofold: ‘Is Hodge/Kuridrani/Kerevi the player we want to exploit this scenario, can they achieve the same impact as a Rieko Ioane or an Aphiwe Dyantyi? Is the positional change worth the value of Koroibete’s chase on the other side of the field?’
The local answer is clearly ‘no’, because Hodge’s offload is intercepted and returned for a try by the Argentine fullback Emiliano Boffelli – but the wider answer should also be in the negative.
After all, both Reece Hodge and Marika Koroibete are still attempting to establish themselves as starters in the Australian side; Koroibete is a recent league convert who is still learning the game, while Hodge’s versatility could just as easily become a career curse rather than a blessing.
Hodge is trying to focus on one position and prove himself better at it than anyone else in the country, while Koroibete is still learning all the tools of his trade as a wingman in union. The changes of position do not allow that learning to happen:
Koroibete has again been shifted to play on the openside wing over on the right with Hodge on the shortside at the top of the screen. How can Hodge learn the many nuances of defending at 13 from there? How can Koroibete learn all he needs to know about defending in the backfield when he is always in the front line? Neither of them plays in a similar system with the Rebels in Super Rugby, so there is no continuity or reinforcement from that source either.
There are other knock-on effects from Koroibete’s role. At set-pieces on the (Australian) left side of the field, opponents adept at shifting the ball wide quickly, like the All Blacks, can force the Wallabies to commit all of their back three defenders to the same edge of the field.
In the first example, Dane Haylett-Petty (‘1’ just out of shot), ‘2’ Koroibete and ‘3’ Israel Folau are all defending outside the right 15-metre line. Defence of the opposite edge is left to Bernard Foley (circled), to be joined by Kurtley Beale when play shifts to their side (in the second and third screenshots).
In other words, the back-line speed is on the right and the left has to make do as best it can. It is an obvious imbalance in the defensive structure.
If Koroibete added a tangible positive value because of the change of position, it would make the switch more understandable, but that is not really the case:
Here, Koroibete is again defending on the right and far from his natural wing. He rushes up on the Pumas’ ‘hidden’ second receiver and there is no sense of connection between him and the man outside, Foley.
Why would there be? There is no familiarity, no reliable relationship grooved by shared experience in the same positions over time.
This Argentine try also points up the other flaw in the positional domino effect demanded by the Koroibete change. Scrumhalf Will Genia typically ends up defending at fullback!
One of the most basic qualifications for playing at fullback is that you provide a last line of defence that needs to be reckoned with – a Ben Smith or a Mike Brown. You can either stop a line-breaker yourself or buy enough time for someone else to do it for you.
In Salta, Will Genia could do neither:
He cannot prevent Argentine forwards or backs from going either through or around him, so the obvious conclusion is that he is not suited for the role. That is not his fault: accountability for the entire system needs to be lodged firmly on the doorstep of Nathan Grey, who has asked him to fulfil a role for which he is ill-equipped.
The question of accountability is most interesting when asked in relation to the Wallabies’ defensive set-up. It often appears that a lot of players are making individual mistakes, but most of those are forced rather than unforced.
They are forced by a system which demands that they defend in positions which are unfamiliar, for which they are often ill-suited, and with people around them with whom they have been unable to forge long-term defensive understandings.
The first Argentinian try was scored in the gap between Michael Hooper and Bernard Foley, who do not normally defend side-by-side in Grey’s system. The 7-10 defensive relationship has been the foundation stone of World Cup-winning teams like New Zealand (think McCaw-Carter) and England (think Back-Wilkinson), but in those teams, it was allowed to develop over time.
Hooper and Foley are usually defending in different positions for Australia, so that relationship has never been either ‘watered’ or grown.
Likewise, Marika Koroibete and Reece Hodge are not being afforded the chance to learn all they need to learn about one position – Hodge is being constantly moved and asked to perform different tasks (is he an outside centre or a left winger?), while Koroibete does not have the platform to learn how to kick or be an acting fullback – both key elements of a modern back-three player’s role.
The defensive system is directly responsible for natural imbalances on both sides of the ball, and the requirement for no. 9 Will Genia to play fullback such a long way from his own goal-line, a role he obviously does not relish.
I believe it is the Wallaby coaching group, and in particular Nathan Grey (who designs the defensive system) and Michael Cheika (who rubber-stamps its use) who must accept responsibility for the defensive mess in the first half at Salta.
Between them, they need to ensure that the system becomes more simplified and workable in time for Yokohama – against an opponent who has already scored 12 tries in two games against the Wallabies this season. No more musical chairs, please – either on or off the field.
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.