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The return of David Pocock, a solution or compounding the problem? Part II

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Roar Pro
15th November, 2018
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I posted the first part of this article on the third of May this year, before a ball was kicked in Southern Hemisphere international rugby, having watched David Pocock play against the Highlanders in Dunedin and then the following week against Los Pumas.

The key thrust was, as good as he is as an individual player – and this addendum will not dispute that – does the way David Pocock play make it almost impossible to fit him into a balanced and effective loose forward trio?

The article highlighted that, for an openside flanker, he does almost all of his work at or behind the gain line and used two video clips, one of Pocock and one of Dillon Hunt to highlight the stylistic differences of how the seven role can be played.

The Wallabies, of course, already have a seven who works almost solely in front of the gain line, but I have observed in subsequent posts that the ‘Pooper’ combination, rather than being accretive, actually cannibalises the net output of the two players. There will be further analysis to follow on this.

To be honest, I was prepared to leave it there, until a series of statistically skewed opinion pieces began to run ad nauseum on the expert side of The Roar’s rugby page which were, in my view, little more than an unsupported attack on the current Wallaby captain.

Such views should not be allowed to go unchallenged and nor should shoddy use of statistics be allowed to go un-highlighted, even by we amateurs.

Why do I care, or even bother to write in response? It’s not my team after all.

Anyone who has been on this site for any length of time will know it is my view that the rugby media has a role to play in educating the rugby public, assisting the viewer with the enjoyment of the sport by accurately reflecting what happens on the park.

Blatant cheerleading, obfuscation and diversion does nothing in promotion of the code, nor does it add to any positive debate.

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So, after that rather lengthy introduction, let’s examine the claims that David Pocock is the best individual for both captain and openside flanker for Australia.

The Pocock claims for captain

These claims seem to rest solely on a record of four wins from seven with the armband on, let’s examine this in detail and play with some stats.

Let’s consider the following;
1) Three of these four wins were against an extremely poor Wales side in consecutive weeks.
2) Pocock has only beaten 40 per cent of the sides he has captained against, Hooper has defeated 89 per cent of the nations he has captained against.
3) David Pocock has a 100 per cent losing captaincy record against New Zealand, Scotland and Argentina, the last two of these being catastrophic losses at home. Michael Hooper only has a 100 per cent losing captaincy record against only Scotland.
4) Michael Hooper’s winning percentage as captain is 45 per cent, however, when he captains a side with David Pocock in it, his win rate falls to a horrendous 25 per cent, quite the correlation for mine.

Seems some people are looking for solutions to Australia’s win rate in all the wrong places. This stat is the blaring warning siren on the hill.

Remove the Pocock anchor from Hooper’s record and he is magically up above 50 per cent as a winning captain.

David Pocock’s second poorest serving record is under George Smith – now isn’t that interesting.?

Wonder if that ‘too hard to fit into a balanced loose forward trio’ statement is getting any traction yet?

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Why would you even consider promoting a guy who does not captain his Super Rugby team?

Why would you promote as captain an individual who has such a poor attendance rate having played 75 of 148 tests available since debut?

Michael Hooper

Michael Hooper of the Wallabies. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Hooper has played in 88 of 101 games available since debut. Hooper’s playing percentage is above both Richie McCaw’s and Kieran Read’s.

Finally in section one, many years ago, I studied GARCH theory at the University of Sussex. Amongst other things, if the memory isn’t too hazy, it proposes that when applying analysis, a greater weighting should be given to the most recent events.

David Pocock’s most recent efforts as both captain and open-side were against Argentina on the Gold Coast this year. Not sure any of the following would be considered facts in dispute.

The first-ever loss to an Argentinian side at home, the slowest and clunkiest performance from an Australian loose forward trio in living memory with almost no involvement on the opposition side of the advantage line, the captain on the day managed to get involved in multiple off the ball niggles with the opposition and established zero rapport with referee John Lacey.

Perhaps the two happiest people, when David Pocock was selected at seven for this game, were David Lord and Nico Sanchez.

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One, because his continuing calls for his elevation could be tested, the other because he was going to get an armchair unpressured ride around the park for eighty minutes, and so he did.

Quite interesting to look at a question from another perspective, if one can be bothered to take a deep breath and change your field of vision isn’t it.

And now the seriously contentious part that may well put the The Roar’s servers to the test.

Why David Pocock should not be selected as open-side flanker for Australia

This is all about balance and not about shoehorning your best players into a system or a side that is simply not set up for it.

With his primary action areas being at or behind the gain line, added to the fact that Australia has no metre-eating, ball-linking, back-tackling, lineout-jumping individuals available for selection in the six and eighth – plus an expansive game played centred around Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale, Israel Folau and Marika Koroibete that needs speed and support from the open side, it is difficult to see how Pocock’s natural game is a natural fit for this side.

I believe he is now a six, a short six yes, but a six nonetheless and the match evidence this year appears to support it.

He would be considerably more effective if restricted to the requirements of just that role.

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His tight tackle work is impressive and high volume, and defensive ruck efforts, when selected well, are impactful. He has also seriously improved his in close carrying.

All of that points to a narrowly defined blindside role.

1) Offensive Rucks
In my view, this is the Wallabies single largest and mainly uncommented on issue in the loose forward trio.

In order to support playing ‘the Australian way’, the seven needs genuine pace to be both a support runner and offensive ruck cleaner. There also needs to be at least one other member of your forward pack or loose trio who is going to make the offensive rucks.

In the second Test versus Ireland, it took an hour before Pocock or Caleb Timu hit a single offensive ruck with any value. The following clip shows the field day Ireland had at the breakdown as Hooper was at least getting to offensive rucks but was cutting something of a lonesome furrow as a forward.

Any doubt as to the requirement of a side to play in front of the gain line should re-watch the Australia home game against Argentina this year. Please watch with a responsible adult as some scenes may be disturbing to sensitive viewers.

2) Going hard at the ball on the floor all the time is completely flawed.
Surely nothing warms the cockles more than the sight of a brave defender, clamped over the ball, surviving waves of clean outs to nick the ball or, more likely in today’s game, to win the penalty, as the game commentators reach new levels of laudatory exaltation and the home crowd roars its collective approval.

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Great fun, and David Pocock is the undisputed champion of the art (with apologies to Malcolm Marx).

But when it comes to being a core skill of the modern openside flanker it is simply a distraction, a nice thing to have.

If said turnovers or penalties are being won at the cost of multiple failed attempts that keep you out of the defensive line, then it is a net negative.

Those with highest turnovers for New Zealand in recent years include TJ Perenara, Sonny Bill Williams, Waisake Naholo, Brodie Retallick and Read by the way.

After Bledisloe 2, Spiro Zavros of this parish noticed that, while the All Blacks were busy running in twelve tries over the previous two weeks, David Pocock seemed to be conspicuous by his absence in the defensive line, suggesting much of his time is spent on the ground after having failed to turn over the ball at the ruck.

Enter Highlander’s Happy Helpers, dispatched, replete with pencils, hard hats and torches into the abyss that is rugby statistics and video archives to answer to test this observation.

Is there genuine value in going hard at the ball in the ruck as an ongoing team strategy?

The definitions
A successful turnover is a clean steal, a penalty won or a tackle that dislodges the ball and your team regains possession.

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A failed attempt is one where you do not win the ball, you do not slow the ball down and, by your actions at the ruck, you are not taking a defensive position in the line.

The dataset: the three Bledisloe Cups games of 2018.

David Pocock’s outcomes: One clean steal, three penalties won, one penalty conceded and a whopping 24 occasions when staying out of the ruck and taking up a defensive role could have been a better idea. It appears Spiro was onto something.

Sam Cane’s outcomes (he only played two games): One clean steal, two penalties won, no penalties conceded and a single failed attempt to turn the ball over when he could have been better off posting up in defence.

Sam Cane of the Chiefs breaks the Reds defence

Sam Cane of the Chiefs breaks a tackle. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The number of times Cane would arrive at a ruck, only to assess it as over and then post up in defence bolstering the line was illuminating.

Can anyone recall the last time Australia generated a try from a jackal turnover?

It’s simply not going to happen when the halfback defends way behind the line and the two ballplayers are hidden miles from the action when the opposition has the ball.

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Again, skill sets are encouraged that don’t fit the team set up.

3) Pooper cannibalises Hooper
While rummaging around in the data cave the following also came to light; data from Hooper’s debut to after Bledisloe 2 this year.

When Pooper is selected, the following are the impacts on Michael Hooper versus Hooper being selected alone.

– He has fewer carries
– Runs fewer metres
– Throws fewer passes
– Makes more tackles
– Misses more tackles

The differences are consistent over time, and in some cases, quite divergent.

My conclusion, they simply get in each other’s way with their roles defined as they are today. This may well be a coaching point.

I heard a Michael Chieka interview prior to the Ireland series and, when questioned on Pooper, he stated; ‘David will pop up where he sees fit’ (or words to this effect).

This is not a game strategy.

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It’s not fair on the player, nor those that need to play with him. Case in point was Caleb Timu, who simply couldn’t find his role in the game in his two Tests vs Ireland.

4) The acceleration requirements of the modern seven, plus the ability to accurately assess situations as they unfold are critical requirements.
When the calls are made for “the best openside” in Australia to be restored to his rightful position, perhaps reflection on the following clip should be pondered for just a few seconds.

There were pretty basic errors for a potential openside flanker in the following five examples.

– A bulk standard inside-out open side set piece tackle miss, despite getting a running start from the 15-metre line
– Not getting off the side of a scrum to make a near channel tackle on the halfback (have put in a needless penalty conceded in front of the posts also for good measure).
– Poor decision to leave a goal-line defensive position at a ruck which was already over, leaving the post defence to his halfback.
– After the Barrett break, Pocock is one of two blindside defenders against two All Black attackers, he needs to stay put, but he bites at the ruck and it costs Australia 35 metres. At the next ruck he posts up correctly, but the damage is done and, with the line going backwards, New Zealand string phases together until the gap opens for the try of the year.
– The last clip starts a second or two late, but Robertson takes the ball into the tackle, Coleman and then Pocock join ineffectually and, despite being outnumbered, Retallick nicks the ball and the All Blacks go the length to score.

Also, note the position of the New Zealand halfbacks when the turnovers occur.

The most disturbing thing for all Wallaby supporters is that in four of these video clip errors tries were conceded, two of them in games which were ultimately close losses.

In addition, this season we have also seen some very un-Pocock like actions, and I would speculate they stem from a lack of acceleration to an incident, or a lack of defined role as the frustration for these.

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Early tackle on TJ Peranara, a high shot on Aphiwe Dyantyi after arriving late for a charge down, an offside high shot on Beauden Barrett and a blatant kick at Tomas Lavanini on the ground.

These simply don’t fit the way the a guy this good plays, or has played in the past.

Perhaps we’ll leave further speculation as to why we are seeing these manifest, to others.

It appears that, while Michael Hooper may not the best international rugby captain running around, there is no compelling case to replace him based on, well, any actual evidence at all.

Pooper is its current form is cactus; it is affecting results. It does not fit the structure of the rest of the side, and the imbalance evidently impacts any chance of turning the current form book around.

But it would appear the Australian coaching team have more than enough reasons to keep Hooper in both roles and perhaps, just perhaps, they are seeing what has been presented here.

Please note I did not think a comparison of the offensive threat required of a seven even need be discussed as this is somewhat self-evident for an article already too long.

Will note, however, does anyone think Australia would have led 21-0 in Dunedin last year had Michael Hooper not been playing on the openside?

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