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Breaking down the Wallabies' back-row conundrum

Michael Hooper might polarise fans, but his talent is undeniable. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Expert
30th April, 2019
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6313 Reads

The look on Chris Robshaw’s after the match review said it all. ‘Robbo’ had just had his first taste of The Michael Hooper Experience back in November 2013, and he had not enjoyed it.

The problem was Hooper’s speed and dynamism. At England’s first lineout, Robshaw was a few metres behind Hooper to the first midfield ruck. By the second ruck, Hooper had already recycled himself and was leading a counter-ruck to win the turnover, and Robbo was labouring even further adrift.

Robshaw went on to become an excellent 6-7 ‘tweener’ and captain for England, but on that Twickenham afternoon he would be the first to admit was outplayed by the Australian.

The recent Six Nations tournament has proven the value of a dual openside back row. The teams with the largest and heaviest back rows (Italy and France) finished in the bottom half of the table. Those with more traditional selections (England and Ireland), with a ball-carrying number 8, a big all-purpose number 6 and an orthodox openside flanker, finished runners-up to Wales.

Warren Gatland’s starting side fielded two openside flankers throughout in the shape of Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric. Whatever they lost at the set piece, in the form of the lowest-rated lineout in the competition, they more than made up for in defence around the field. Wales only conceded 65 points and seven tries in their five games, 35 points fewer than Ireland and 36 fewer than England.

Gatland has indeed become something a dual openside aficionado late in his coaching career. He reversed the course of the 2017 series between the British and Irish Lions and New Zealand by making two crucial selection decisions.

Warren Gatland British and Irish Lions Rugby Union 2017

(AAP Image/David Rowland)

He added a second playmaker at 12 outside Johnny Sexton (Owen Farrell) and replaced a specialist number 6 (Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony) with a second number 7 in Sam Warburton.

Although the Lions lineout did little more than survive for the last two Tests, they only conceded one try over the course of those games.

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If the rumour mill is to be believed, Steve Hansen and company are already looking at ways to include both Ardie Savea and Sam Cane in the All Blacks back row for the World Cup later this year.

In Super Rugby, the Waratahs are also flag-bearers for an undersized but highly productive back-row unit. Their starting unit in 2018 often included both Hooper and fellow openside Will Miller, and one year later it features Hooper at 5’11 and 100 kilos, and Michael Wells and Jack Dempsey, both 6’3 and tipping the scales at just 108 kilos.

They were considerably smaller than the Rebels trio they faced a week and a half ago, which included Wallaby aspirants Isi Naisarani and Luke Jones, but that was nothing to the size differential against the Sharks in the last round.

The monstrous Sharks back row of number 8 Dan du Preez (6’5, 115 kg), his similarly sized brother Jean-Luc on the blindside, and openside Philip van der Walt – a mere stripling at 6’4 and 110 kilos – dwarfed their opposite numbers.

Let it be said that there are no rights and wrongs to back row selection at the elite level. It is all about what works within the team’s philosophy and playing framework. As with every position on the field, complete packages are rare, so selection has to be tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of the material on offer.

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If the emphasis falls on defensive strength across the whole width of the field, you may be better off with two opensides, and that is the route the 2019 Waratahs have chosen.

The game against Rebels began with a classic Hooper double involvement on defence:

First Hooper knocks down Reece Hodge, then he reloads in time to lead the counter-ruck on the very next phase, which results in a turnover to the Tahs. Increased work-rate and double actions on defence are very much part of the package in the dual openside construction.

There are also two players who can potentially lead the kick-chase, capable of either tackling backs after the catch has been made or supporting the man if the ball is regathered:

The first example (versus the Rebels) shows Hooper using his speed to close Quade Cooper down quickly on the sideline and bundle him into touch, the second (from the game against the Sharks) features him in close support – closer than any of the Sharks back rowers – after the ball is fumbled by the opposition fullback.

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Hooper has always been able to run with the backs towards a far touchline, which explains why Nathan Grey’s defensive structures so often feature him in the 10 channel, instead of its natural defender Bernard Foley:

Here he is running inside Foley, and squeezing a fumble out of Sharks’ right winger Sibusiso Nkosi.

Hooper is squat and powerful enough to make frontal stops on much bigger men, and his battle with the Sharks’ enormous inside centre Andre Esterhuizen (with number 8 size, at 6’5 and 111 kilos) was one for the connoisseur throughout the game:

Esterhuizen has some time to work up a decent head of steam, but Hooper and Karmichael Hunt combine to stop him in his tracks and send him back whence he came.

Teams who pick two opensides tend to double their ability to disrupt or steal the ball at the tackle area, either with both working in concert together on the same side, or on opposites sides of a breakdown in midfield, as the combination of David Pocock and Hooper have proved so often for Australia:

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Rebels loosehead Matt Gibbon can’t remove Hooper one-on-one, and that is the kiss of death to another Melbourne move.

Hooper has even added some exotic touches to the small man’s game, such as the ability to win opposition lineout ball:

michael hooper steals a lineout

That steal is likely to remain a real collector’s item!

The are some drawbacks to the dual openside system, of course. It entails an acceptance that the primary playing emphasis is going to be containment of the opposition, and the smart use of the kicking game because heavy ball-carriers are in shorter supply, and the guarantee of lineout ball necessary to launch them has been compromised.

Faith in the ability to limit the opponent’s scoring potential replaces the trust in attacking scope. Wales came out on the positive side of the equation with an average score of 23-13. The 2019 Waratahs thus far have been on the receiving end, with an average score of 22-23 across their nine games.

Teams employing dual opensides or a small back row need to take steps to avoid straightforward mismatches between their big men and their opponent’s. This is what happened for the Sharks’ first try of the game on Saturday evening:

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Hooper makes another good stop on Esterhuizen at 0:40 on the reel, but Michael Wells cannot prevent Dan du Preez from brushing past him two phases later.

The problems of the small man in contact derive chiefly from situations where he is required to be a primary ball-carrier on ‘hard’ phases where size and power do matter:

In this instance, Hooper is being used for a big man’s carry on a bounceback phase coming back in from the touchline. He is held up long enough for Sekope Kepu to miss his cleanout target, and for Anuru Rangi to fold over the tackle ball unchallenged.

The issues for a small back rower carrying against much bigger men with great leverage in contact were illustrated on several occasions in the match against the Sharks:

Big men thrive on choke tackles where they can hold the ball-carrier up. On first phase, Hooper runs into Curwin Bosch and the lesser-spotted du Preez and struggles to release the ball quickly.

On second phase, Kurtley Beale is picked clean off the ground by Esterhuizen, then Hooper is smothered by another choke tackle to complete the turnover:

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This was not the only sequence in which the differential in size and power on attack became a critical factor:

It’s the du Preez double act again, this time Jean-Luc and his somewhat under-nourished brother Robert hurling Hooper back towards his own goalline ‘tae think again’.

It is hard indeed to attack fluidly when you cannot breach the gain-line on your own terms.

Summary
The Wallabies selectors have reached a crossroads in the selection of their back row with just under five months until the start of the World Cup.

Do they stick with the ‘Pooper’ and a dual openside construction, or do they return to a more orthodox arrangement with more size and power at numbers 6 and 8?

Wales have demonstrated recently that there are pluses and minuses to both selection pathways. If you have a strong kicking game and want to emphasize the quality of your defence, the two openside theory may suit you admirably well.

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If Australia want to continue playing Michael Hooper and David Pocock side by side, they will certainly need far more improvement from their defence and kickers to make it work.

On the other hand, if you place more of a premium on your lineout and attacking game, you need more potent ball-carriers in the back five forwards.

It is a challenging and fascinating dilemma for more than one top-tier nation at the World Cup in Japan. But I think I know who Chris Robshaw would pick at number 7 for Australia, whatever the philosophy.