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All is not lost: Four quick fixes for the Wallabies forwards

(AAP Image/Dean Lewins)
Expert
4th December, 2018
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8611 Reads

Hollywood acting legend Robert Redford was 77 years old when he made the film All Is Lost.

He played a sailor who wakes up in the middle of the ocean to find there is a hole in his yacht. He is on his own, the radio is dead and the water rising, and that is all we know.

From then on it is a story of survival, from one moment to the next. There are hardly any words spoken in the course of the movie’s one hour and 45 minutes, except for the odd profanity.

Whatever few props the film starts with are jettisoned one after the other. The boat sinks in a storm, the life-giving jar of fresh water contaminates, all charts and journals are ripped up to make a fire. The life raft itself goes up in flames.

Redford looks a mess from start to finish – cut, bruised and battered. There is no soft focus and no room for make-up. Only when he has nothing left and allows himself to sink gently under the waves does a light on the front of another boat appear. He swims to the surface and a mysterious hand grasps his own, slowly pulling him out of the water.

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At that point, the film ends. The hope at the end is as spare and unadorned as the drama itself.

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“There were no barriers of dialogue or information. My co-stars were the water and the boat, and I had to be comfortable with that,” Redford said of the movie.

“There was always that shadow around the film – what are we doing here?… I like making films which end by asking a question, and let the audience play a role in interpretation.”

So much for The Great Gatsby and The Sundance Kid – it was as if Redford himself was dumping a lifetime of career achievements over the side of his personal dinghy and letting himself be simply an old man – struggling, straining, trying to survive.

I cannot help but feel that Michael Cheika needs to do something similar in order to create his own story of survival as coach of Australia. All of his previous coaching achievements now count for little or nothing after the events of 2018, and the biggest question of his rugby career looms on the horizon.

Michael Cheika Australia Rugby Union Wallabies 2017

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

But if all seems lost after the events at Twickenham, some answers – like the hand in Redford’s movie – still lie unexpectedly close to the surface. There is still time to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

In this article, I’ll start with the forwards.

1. Why a lineout with dual opensides can work
The match at Twickenham showed that the Wallabies lineout can function with two small opensides in the back row. Australia won 12 of their 13 throws for an excellent 92 per cent return on the day.

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Adam Coleman called the lineout well, and he started the game by establishing one of the small back-rowers (Michael Hooper) at the front of it:

Hooper is not a big man, but he gets off the ground quickly and can reach some impressive heights with lifting assistance:

michael hooper lineout win

As the screenshot illustrates, England’s jumping strength (number 6 Brad Shields, number 4 Maro Itoje and number 5 Courtney Lawes) was positioned towards the back half of the lineout, so Coleman sensibly took the easy option to Hooper, marked only by prop Kyle Sinckler at the front.

He repeated the call until England began to adjust to the ‘free ball’ to Hooper:

With Shields and Itoje having moved down to mark Hooper, it has opened the space for a throw to Izack Rodda in the middle.

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The other essential component to the Wallaby lineout is injury returnee Jack Dempsey at number 6.

With Shields and Itoje again at the front, Coleman called another throw in between them and Lawes at the tail. Although he is not as tall as either of the two second-rowers, Dempsey is more explosive and gets elevation very quickly, making him hard to defend.

2. Why Jack Dempsey is needed at number 6
Although he was probably playing at no more than 85-90 per cent capacity on the end-of-year tour after such a long injury lay-off, Dempsey showed signs of unmistakable star quality at Twickenham.

He made two vital turnovers above ground by ripping the ball away from the runner before he could get to ground and set up a ruck. He took the ball away from first Courtney Lawes, then Brad Shields in the 39th minute:

Dempsey’s ability in the high tackle could prove an invaluable complement to the work of Hooper, David Pocock and (if he returns to Australian rugby) Sean McMahon on the deck.

Dempsey also adds much more speed and dynamism on defence. Midway through the second half, a potentially dangerous situation on the Australian right developed with England having an extra back:

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Matt Toomua has jumped out of the line and that left Dempsey with a lot of ground to cover on Sefa Naivalu’s inside shoulder. Dempsey not only made the tackle on Henry Slade but rolled him on his back, giving England slow ball on the next phase. Can anyone imagine Lukhan Salakaia-Loto (formerly Tui) making that play?

Unlike Salakaia-Loto, Dempsey also gives more definite value when playing as the back-rower split wide on attack:

He has the step and the speed to defeat probably England’s most reliable tackler, Sam Underhill, down the sideline.

3. Why Sekope Kepu must start at loosehead prop
In last week’s article, I suggested most of Australia’s scrum problems derived from the unexpected decision to move Sekope Kepu back to tighthead after he had spent the second half of The Rugby Championship re-acquainting himself with the left-hand side of the scrum.

Kepu’s difficulties in the set-piece masked the superb game he played in the open as a distributor:

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It’s a simple pass from the first line of attack into the second, but what makes the play tick over and grants Samu Kerevi some space on the outside is the way in which Kepu draws the opposing forwards and fixes them before releasing the ball.

This is a trick worth its weight in gold, and very few forwards have the gift for it:

Kepu sucked in both Itoje and Shields before offloading to Toomua, and that is what created the space for Kerevi and Dane Haylett-Petty to score a (disallowed) try down the right.

Kepu finally got his just reward when Israel Folau touched down just before half-time:

From the high shot in the crow’s nest, it is clear how Kepu manipulates the defence in front of him, drawing the two defenders directly opposite before delivering a flat cut-out pass off his left hand to put Folau into the hole. How many forwards can do that?

With two legitimate tightheads ready for World Cup action in the shape of Taniela Tupou and Allan Alaalatoa, it makes sense to continue the re-education of Sekope Kepu on the other side of the scrum. With his ball-playing ability in Australia’s attacking system, he must start at number 1.

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4. What is the best combination at hooker?
The latter part of the season has raised questions about Tolu Latu’s fitness to be a Wallabies starter. It’s is not a question of his playing ability, but of his discipline.

Within the disciplinary issue, it is not just a question of his tendency to over-react either – as in the game in Yokohama where he was yellow-carded. Latu doesn’t stay within essential team disciplines like defence.

Look at this lineout from the Twickenham match:

In the first screenshot, Latu has shot through the middle of the line in a vain attempt to hit England halfback Ben Youngs. This has taken him out of the defensive pattern completely and he is unable to wrap to the far side of the first ruck, where he should be part of the trio with Adam Coleman and Sekope Kepu.

In the second shot, Latu has made it back into line, but he is still offside as Youngs goes to play the ball. There was an opportunity for England to go to the same-way side on the next phase, but unfortunately for them, Elliott Daly takes the wrong option.

The best scrum Australia can produce would likely feature either Tatafu Polota-Nau or Brandon Paenga-Amosa at number 2 – even though Polota-Nau’s contribution has been affected by the constant travelling between the UK and Australia, and Paenga-Amosa has not been sighted since the Ireland series in June.

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If Tolu Latu plays at all, it would have to be off the bench in the last 20-30 minutes of the game.

Summary
Everything is in question – but all is not lost. At least, not quite yet for Michael Cheika and his Wallaby charges. But a recognition is needed that the ship is sinking, not sailing or even floating.

If Cheika can bring himself to ask the right questions of himself and the coaching and playing structures, that saving hand may yet appear miraculously from above the surface of the water. But the easy consolations and false hopes have to be tossed over the side of the boat, all of them.

The pieces of the puzzle are mostly there in the forwards. Perhaps the single most important is Jack Dempsey, still working himself back to full effectiveness but a player who can bring balance to the Wallaby back row and lineout.

Jack Dempsey

(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

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Dempsey, alongside a combination of David Pocock and Michael Hooper, can make the dual openside concept work.

In the front row, the development of Taniela Tupou and Allan Alaalatoa at tighthead means Sekope Kepu can continue his re-education on the opposite side of the scrum. With his ball-playing ability, Kepu is simply too good to leave out of the run-on side.

The two main candidates to start at hooker alongside him should be Tatafu Polota-Nau or Brandon Paenga-Amosa. If Tupou and Kepu start, set-piece efficiency is the primary quality the Wallabies need from their number 2, and they have it.

If he plays at all, Tolu Latu can use his talents off the bench – providing he learns to stay with the disciplines of the team as a whole.

Everything is in question – but all is not lost. That phrase cannot be repeated too often.