It is a new era. The Wallaby selection panel of one is now three, and dictatorship has been replaced by something a lot more democratic.
At least, that is the way it appears on the surface, with the addition of two more heads. Director of rugby Scott Johnson and Michael O’Connor will now be sitting on Michael Cheika’s shoulder like Jiminy Cricket, keeping the Wallaby head coach on the straight and narrow.
Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle said after O’Connor’s appointment that the idea was “to create a very open and challenging selection environment in an important year for the Wallabies.”
Meanwhile, O’Connor says that he will pull no punches in the selection meetings.
“One thing I will be is I will be very upfront. If I have got an opinion, I won’t sit on it. There will be a different perspective I put on the table and I’m sure Johnno will do the same. The most important thing is we have a healthy discussion and debate about combinations.”
O’Connor has already noted Quade Cooper’s strong start to the 2019 Super Rugby season, though not without qualification.
“There are still areas in his game he needs to work on and if he can improve those, well then he’ll be in the reckoning. I would be very surprised if Michael (Cheika) didn’t agree with that. At Test level, though, you can’t be throwing blind passes. You can’t be taking risks at the line.”
The contest between Cooper and Bernard Foley may prove to be the acid test of just how much influence Johnson and O’Connor wield in selection, given Cheika’s consistent reluctance to drop the Waratahs number 10 in seasons past.
Michael O’Connor’s comment about throwing blind passes and taking risks at the line also highlights what may become one of the main planks of debate among the new trio as the World Cup approaches.
The Wallabies under Cheika have struggled to find the right balance between risk and reward in the passing game, and particularly in the use of the offload in contact.
Not all of the people chosen to play in the wider areas of the field, whether in the back three or the back row, have been as adept at passing in or before contact as they need to be.
Anyone who has followed the Melbourne Rebels will also be well aware of Marika Koroibete’s difficulties with both the execution and timing of the offload. As an ex-rugby league winger, offloading in the tackle was never a skill he was required to develop.
There are a set of rules which need to be followed in respect of passing in contact. A few years ago, I was commissioned to write a study to find out what those rules might be.
Following the rules has not been the Rebels’ strong suit on their mini-tour of South Africa over the past fortnight. They conceded penalties at a ratio of 4:1 against over their two games against the Lions and the Sharks, and there were also a number of red flags in their judgment about where and when to offload.
As Dave Wessels’ side features Quade Cooper in the pivotal number 10 role, the question for the Rebels now may become a major issue for the Wallabies at the World Cup.
One of the basic conclusions of my study was the offloading game works best in the zones from the 15-metre lines out towards touch. The ratio of success in those areas (where the defence is generally at its thinnest) is dramatically higher than it is between the 15s.
The Rebels offloaded 19 times in their match against the Sharks, but only two came beyond the 15-metre lines. The ratio of success was three clean breaks generated to ten turnovers. Needless to say, these are not the kind of figures you look for in the risk-reward trade-off.
There were plenty of revealing examples from the Sharks game where the Rebels tried to pass in contact both when the offload was on and when it wasn’t, and when it was much better to simply keep the ball and settle for a ruck.
This is the clearest example of a situation where the risk clearly outweighs the potential reward. Rebels second rower Matt Philip has taken the ball into contact, but instead of keeping it and fighting for extra yardage, he turns and delivers a dubious offload to Michael Ruru.
The position is in the Rebels half, in between the two 15s, and there is no significant disorganisation in the Sharks defensive line when the ball comes out to Billy Meakes. If anything, it is the Rebels attacking line that needs the extra time to regroup.
It nearly always invites disaster, or at least a negative outcome, when you try to offload in front of the defence, even when you are close to the opposition 22-metre line:
In the first example, Quade Cooper receives an offload from Jack Maddocks in the middle of the field, but the Sharks defence has not been broken when he goes to throw a risky cut-out pass to Reece Hodge, out of shot and unmarked on the right.
Left winger Makazole Mapimpi is still a factor on the play, looking in towards the passer and ready to jump into the space between distributor and receiver.
The same rule – don’t try to beat an opponent with the offload when he is standing in front of you – applied when Ross Haylett-Petty went to offload over the top of Mapimpi late on in the game. At the end of the play, Mapimpi has his head in his hands – he knew he had a chance to return the interception all the way for a seven-point score.
Even half-breaks have to respect both the density and integrity of the defence in between the two 15s:
In the first instance, centre Billy Meakes offloads to Luke Jones after making the half-break, but at the critical moment there are six Sharks in the picture and only Reece Hodge outside Jones for Melbourne:
In the second instance, Jack Maddocks gets in behind the defence, but Sharks number 9 Louis Schreuder is in between the passer (Maddocks) and the receiver (Meakes), so the passing lane is still blocked at the critical moment:
When offloading in midfield, there needs to be clear daylight between the attackers and defenders before the pass in contact becomes viable. Otherwise, it is better to keep the ball and build the pressure.
Now let’s take a look at a couple of examples when the Rebels picked the right moment to offload.
When Angus Cottrell turns to offload in the first example, the break has already travelled a long way and there is clear daylight between him and the home defenders, an unimpeded path to the support player.
The second instance contains both the best and the worst of the offloading world. There is the blind offload by Richard Hardwick at the start of the sequence, rescued by a well-judged one from Meakes to Jones a few seconds later:
Here there is clear daylight after the half-break, and the Rebels support outnumbers the Sharks’ cover defenders, so Meakes has made a good decision.
Let’s finish with a longer and more complex example which wraps up the midfield offload rules neatly:
Here, Quade delivers a beautifully weighted short pass to coax Meakes over the advantage line, and there is no need to look for the ambitious offload in contact after the half-break has been made.
Move the action forward 20 seconds, and we find the Rebels making another offload where the risk factor outweighs the reward:
Cooper offloads at the back of a ruck, but the disorganisation of the attack outweighs that of the defence, and Lukhanyo Am gleefully picks up the pieces for the Sharks.
Fortunately for the Rebels, the break on first phase had already drawn a penalty for a high tackle on the support player as Meakes went through the line:
The lesson is clear – if you keep the ball in 50/50 situations, you build pressure on the defence and force them to make the mistakes. And, as Napoleon Bonaparte memorably said, ‘never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake’:
Here Reece Hodge breaches the ad-line after another sympathetic pass from Cooper, and a penalty is duly extracted from the Sharks’ breakdown defence under pressure. Rugby is a simple game after all.
Even Rebels sometimes have to respect the rules – the rules of when and where to offload. One of the main tasks facing the new three-man Wallabies selection panel is tweaking the balance between risk and reward on attack via selection.
Although Michael O’Connor has said unequivocally that “you can’t be throwing blind passes. You can’t be taking risks at the line”, it is not a matter of taking no risks at all.
It is more a matter of knowing the rules related to passing in contact, and when and in what situations the risk is worth embracing.
That balance has been slightly off on the Rebels’ mini-tour of South Africa, and it is one reason why Melbourne has been on the wrong end of the penalty count, and unable to sustain pressure on their opponents with ball in hand.
With Quade Cooper organising the attacking play for the Rebels, and quite possibly for the Wallabies later in 2019, the whens and wheres of embracing risk will become a central issue.
All Australian rugby supporters will be hoping that ‘Jiminy Cricket’ will prove to be a subtle Cheika-whisperer, and capable of whispering the right counsel in the head coach’s ear.