When Napoleon was threatening to overrun his defences on the battlefield of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington declared: “Night or the Prussians must come.”
At the moment of crisis, he drew every fit and able fighting man back into the centre of his position and awaited events.
At the centre of the centre was the farmhouse of Hougoumont, which had been fortified and studded with crack riflemen and men of the Guards regiments.
“No troops but the British could have held Hougoumont – and only the best of them at that,” said the Iron Duke ruefully afterwards.
The derelict farmhouse was restored back in 2015, in time for the 200th anniversary of the battle. If you go there now, you will find that nature does not disturb the silence of that memory.
The chestnut trees which frame the South Gate still bear the scars of musket and grape shot on their trunks, and the memorials to the fallen – a French infantry Brigadier and an English officer of Hussars – jut out of the long grass.
At the North Gate, two life-size figures cast in bronze continue their unending war for the heart of Wellington’s position in Vivien Mallock’s sculpture. At the moment the Coldstream Guards sealed that gate once and for all, the battle was won.
Bringing all available troops back into the centre is exactly the medicine World Cup-winning Wallabies coach Bob Dwyer has prescribed for Australia’s ailments ahead of the World Cup.
Less than three weeks ago, Dwyer suggested that Rugby Australia should dump Giteau’s law – whereby only overseas-based Wallabies with more than 60 Test caps can be considered for national selection – in time for Japan 2019, or at least ease the restrictions.
“We’re not that well off in depth that we can afford to lose top line players,” Dwyer told AAP.
“We probably need to look hard at who we can pick who is not playing in Australia, I know at the moment we’ve got the 60-Test rule.
“For me, we can change that any time we want to.”
Dwyer is right. At the moment of crisis, all the best troops have to be recalled to the centre. Right now, that means Sean McMahon and Will Skelton up front, and Nic White and Luke Morahan behind. All four would undoubtedly be worth their places in a Wallaby matchday 23, and at least two would probably start in the best run-on side.
It’s not just a matter of getting the best players back, it’s also a way of tapping into the successful cultures of which they are now part – particularly White at the Exeter Chiefs (the West Country’s home for unwanted Australians) and Skelton at Saracens.
Dwyer went on to note that Super Rugby was still not preparing Australian players for challenges they face at the level above:
“I look at all of the players who have played in the UK in recent years, or some who are still playing there, and you look at their condition now compared with their condition when they were playing in Australia.
“The perfect example is Will Skelton. He doesn’t look like the same person as he was when he played for the Waratahs. That’s no good, that’s an indictment on us.
“I think we need to have a really hard look at how our players are being prepared here and not just hand them over to the Wallabies with a week or a fortnight before the Test series starts and say, ‘over to you, they’re all yours now.'”
Over the next two articles, I will look at what Bob Dwyer means in relation to one of the backs (White) and one of the forwards (Skelton). Both are well capable of making important contributions to the Wallabies effort in 2019, if the administration of the game allows them to do it.
The cultures at England’s two most successful clubs of recent years do not allow overseas players to sit passively in their comfort zones and soak up the paycheques. Far from it. Even proven Test-calibre players are expected to develop their games further, or they will quickly find themselves down the pecking order, or out in the wilderness entirely.
Will Skelton is in competition with three England second-rowers – Maro Itoje, George Kruis and Nick Isiekwe – two of whom represented the British and Irish Lions in 2017.
Nic White has a couple of hungry young English-qualified wannabees – Stu Townsend and Jack Maunder – snapping at his heels for the starting role.
Since he has been at Exeter, White has been asked to develop his game further than ever before. Long gone are the Jake White days at the Brumbies, when White was required to do most of the kicking and play mostly came from halfback.
At the Chiefs, White has had to improve his passing technique and his aerobic conditioning, with Chiefs habitually playing off 10 and 12 in attack and regularly building 100+ rucks per game. That means a lot of running for the scrumhalf as the phases rack up into double figures consistently.
Nic White is currently the best passer (along with Joe Powell), and the best exit kicker (along with Will Genia) of any Australian halfback in the world.
Here is White putting the box-kick on a dime for his chase in the recent European Champions Cup against Gloucester:
The ball is the right length (just under 30 metres) and has enough hang-time to encourage the chasing winger to make a genuine challenge for the ball.
On attack, Exeter like to attack wide-to-wide whenever possible, and this places a premium on the scrumhalf’s passing accuracy and his ability to reach the next ruck on time to maintain momentum.
Here is the build-up to Exeter’s first try of the game:
Passing off his left hand, there are no steps taken at the base, and therefore the defence cannot develop line-speed and cut down the attacking space further outside. The ball is whipped away and hits the receiver with his hands out in front, bringing him forward onto the ball.
In the second example, White takes a couple of steps away from the ruck, but only to wind up for extra length on the delivery. After two passes at 6:38 on the game clock, the ball has moved beyond the far post and Chiefs have a six-on-three overlap out to their left, one which they convert nicely.
Nic White has always been able to break against the A and B defenders close to a breakdown, and as the weather pulled its horns in during a dank second half, he scored a virtuoso try:
A momentary gap develops between the first and second Gloucester forwards near the side of the breakdown, and White is through it immediately without thinking.
He then set up a second scoring opportunity for fellow Aussie Greg Holmes shortly afterwards:
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of White’s play – and the most educational from Michael Cheika’s point of view – is the way he is used by Exeter on defence.
With the halfback having to do so much aerobic work between rucks on a team which wants to keep hold of the ball for long periods – as both the Chiefs and Wallabies aim to do – it is important to make their defensive movements as economical as possible in order to save energy.
So White starts in the tram-lines from the lineout (Bernard Foley’s role for the Wallabies):
As phases develop, he simply shuttles between the short-side and the space behind the ruck, organising as he goes:
When the ball goes up in the air, White drops back to shield the catcher:
All of White’s movements are short and economical, no more than 15 metres in any one direction. Now compare that with the movements of Will Genia, highlighted in red on the screenshots. Genia starts at the end of the line and is required to first shoot out and pressure the first receiver. Then he often has to fill in at fullback because of the Wallabies’ defensive formation.
Genia is being asked to do far more defensive running than White, and being placed in more situations where is likely to isolated and exposed – for example as the last line of defence in the first half in Salta (see this article for the detail on that match).
Will Genia is required to work so hard on defence he cannot possibly have the high energy levels needed to follow ruck-to-ruck when the Wallabies have the ball themselves.
Against Gloucester, Nic White had all the energy he needed to cut across from one side of the scrum to the other and tackle big Cherry-and-White number 8 Ben Morgan in the second half. He was still looking spritely as the game approached the hour mark:
Bob Dwyer is unquestionably right. The Wallabies need to bring all of their best troops to the centre of the action and ‘defend the farm’ ahead of the World Cup in 2019.
If that means doing away with the 60-cap limitation on Aussies playing overseas, so be it. If it means that eminent Test-calibre players like Nic White, Sean McMahon and Luke Morahan can return and play for the national team, it will be worth the effort in terms of results.
Dwyer’s comments confirmed that he still has the keen rugby intelligence, and the stature within the game, to perform the role of the ‘conscience’ sitting on Michael Cheika’s right shoulder and questioning his decisions – a role that is sorely needed.
A halfback like Nic White would add real value as an alternate or back-up to Will Genia at the World Cup. He has improved his passing since his Brumbies days and knows how to function is a more wide-ranging, possession-based game.
He can kick well on exits and he can run against the inside defence when the opportunity arises. He is clearly a better choice than any other scrum-half currently playing in Australia.
At the same time, his role in the Chiefs’ defence shows the value of ‘joined-up thinking’ with and without the ball; the value of economy of movement, of giving a player a role he is actually able to fulfil without undue stress.
In next week’s article, we will see how Saracens have achieved a similar result with Will Skelton, and made him a far more Test-worthy second-rower than he ever was in his time at the Waratahs.
As for the 60-cap rule? Well, Rugby Australia can change that anytime they want to. It is just a matter of political will.