They say that it is the young who should sit at the foot of the elderly, and learn from the wisdom accumulated over the span of a lifetime. In Australian rugby right now, it may just be the other way around.
It is time for Michael Cheika and his coaches to look at the recent success of the under 20ss at the World Junior Championship, and take on board some of the reasons why they reached the final of the tournament. There is no question that they were good enough to have taken the biggest prize back home with them to Australia.
Under the stewardship of ex-Queensland Reds’ assistant coach Jason Gilmore, the Wallaby under 20s showed immediate signs of a revival in 2019. Firstly, they won the Oceania Championship, conceding only 14 points in three games and finishing the tournament on a high, with a resounding 24-0 rout of New Zealand.
At the World Championship itself, the Junior Wallabies achieved their best result since finishing third in the 2011 event behind England and New Zealand. They beat Ireland and Italy decisively in the pool stages, Argentina in the semi-final, and were edged out by a single point, 23 points to 24, in the final game against reigning champions France.
There were unmistakeable signs of a new seriousness applied to the development of the age group game. Gilmore attempted to recruit established Super Rugby players like the Reds’ Harry Hockings, Hamish Stewart, Tate McDermott and Isaac Lucas to the under 20s.
Although none of the first three was made available, Lucas was released for age group duty along with Nick Frost, a recent transfer from the Crusaders academy to the Brumbies.
Frost provides an instructive example of how Australia can embrace multiple paths of player development, including spells in cutting-edge environments in New Zealand. He cut short his three years in the Crusaders’ outstanding youth academy to return to Canberra, but was in no doubt of the value of his experience across the Tasman:
“I learned a lot about structure and about how New Zealanders play rugby. It took me a while to learn, but once I got it, it came easily. It was a very enjoyable time. It certainly suited my style as a player but now I’m excited by the prospects on offer here.”
Take a look at his spectacular individual try against Ireland – the indelible stamp of a mobile second rower in the finest Kiwi transition is staring you in the face:
In the course of his run, Frost even remembers to transfer the ball twice to the opposite arm to keep it away from potential tacklers and engage them with the fend!
Above all, Jason Gilmore understood that the aim of age-group football is to develop the most important skill of all – a mentality which expects to win and knows how to achieve it:
“We definitely want to develop the guys as young men and footy players, but we want to develop them to be successful. There’s no point coming into the program and just being happy with being in it.
“The boys will pick their kit up and that’s something to celebrate, but you’ve actually got to do something at this level as well.”
Developing the winning habit at a young age, and knowing which core skills are most relevant to that habit, is everything. This is especially important in the context of Australian Super Rugby franchises which have been struggling to succeed in recent years.
Gilmore’s charges showed a level of cohesion unusual in teams at this stage of their development. A few weeks ago, I wrote an article on The Rugby Site illustrating the ‘joined-up’ thinking behind the Junior Wallabies’ play in various parts of the field.
Right from the very beginning of the final against the French, Australia showed an excellent understanding of just how to use the twin play-maker system (Will Harrison at 10 and Lucas at 15) and manipulate the defence to advantage. That in itself should be enough to interest Michael Cheika.
At the first ruck, France already have three backs on their left (numbers 12, 13 and 11) and are trying to balance their defensive line by shifting their 10 (in the red box) over to the far side to join the right winger (in the white hat). This is the same area that Lucas (circled) will be looking to probe later in the sequence:
The ball duly travels over to the Australian left, where the France outside-half Louis Carbonel makes a tackle on Wallaby second rower Michael Wood. What happens next becomes an urgent topic of interest for Lucas, because Carbonel starts running all the way back to the openside:
As the screenshot illustrates, it does not escape Lucas’s notice that he is now opposed by forwards rather than a back. The twin playmaker system has created a mismatch on one side of the field, one he exploits on the very next phase:
Lucas runs straight into the hole between two French forwards opposite to set up a superb try for left winger Mark Nawaqanitawase in the corner.
The Junior Wallabies’ attitude to defence at the breakdown was even more impressive than their attack. Unlike the seniors, who depend so heavily on David Pocock and Michael Hooper to win turnovers after the tackle has been made, for the juniors it was a team effort.
Despite the presence of an outstanding young number 7 in Reds’ Fraser McReight, no fewer than nine different players participated in the eight Wallaby turnovers at the breakdown, and four of them were backs.
So, although defence at the breakdown began (rightly) with McReight, it did not end with him. The Australian number 7 won two jackalling turnovers by himself, and shared a choke tackle turnover with number 5 Trevor Hosea:
McReight’s win on the ground is an excellent example of how defensive teams will strive, under the new rules, to keep their best jackals away from the tackle itself:
McReight is ‘refused’, positioned slightly behind the second and third defenders so that he can swoop in and pick over the bones after the tackle has been completed.
There is a hidden danger with on-ball flankers as good David Pocock, that teams become too dependent on their skills and neglect their development in other positions on the field.
This was emphatically not the case with Jason Gilmore’s side. The outside backs, with inside centre Noah Lolesio and right winger Triston Reilly to the fore, were more than capable of pulling their own weight in this area:
In the first example, Reilly and outside centre Semisi Tupou show the appetite for contact situations which has fast become an essential part of the outside back’s arsenal in the modern game. In the second instance, Reilly wins the battle at the post-tackle battle all by himself in a dangerous situation after a French line-break has been made near the Australian 22.
Reilly’s turnovers are a reminder of just how important the presence of a Waisake Naholo or a Henry Speight can be to a defensive team’s success in the wide zones. It makes the exclusion of Speight from an otherwise sensibly-selected Wallaby squad all the more difficult to understand.
At junior level, the Wallaby forwards and backs combined effortlessly to win turnover across the full width of the field:
This time it is number 12 Lolesio who drives huge French number 8 Jordan Joseph off his cleanout, enabling hooker Lachlan Lonergan to pick up the ball behind him and move it away on the counter.
The success of the Junior Wallabies at the recent 2019 World Championship is a tremendous filip to Australian rugby as a whole. The new seriousness with which Jason Gilmore approached the task of recruiting and coaching the group has helped re-establish age-group rugby as an essential stepping stone to success at senior level.
Of the French 2018 Under 20s World Championship-winning squad, the likes of Romain N’tamack, Lucas Tauzin and Guillaume Marchand have all achieved senior success at Stade Toulousain immediately, winning the Bouclier de Brennus with their club in the 2018-19 Top 14 season.
Demba Bamba has started for the full national side at tighthead prop at the tender age of 21, while outstanding number 8 Jordan Joseph is already being projected as a future captain of his country. Right there, you have the core group of France’s future as a Test nation.
Players like Nick Frost, Harry Wilson, Fraser McReight, Michael McDonald, Isaac Lucas and Lolesio and Tupou in the centres can do the same for Australia, because they are acquiring winning habits in their early stages of their development.
Frost trained in probably the finest youth development program in the world, and has given himself a chance to fulfil ex-Wallaby coach Matt Williams’ prophecy that he is “the most talented 20-year-old lock since John Eales”. Lucas has already cut his Super Rugby teeth with the Reds this season. That continuity between age group and senior rugby needs to not only continue, but amplify in future.
The under 20s head coaching role also represents a terrific opportunity for young coaches to learn the ropes: to learn how to assemble and organise different departments of the team within a single vision, and achieve coherence across all areas of the field.
It is an opportunity Gilmore has taken with both hands, and in the process highlighted those areas where the senior team also needs to bring additional focus: the accurate use of the twin playmaker system, the consistency of game-planning up and down the field; a collective, rather than ‘personality’-oriented attitude towards defence at the breakdown.
If it is a stimulating time to be an Australian rugby fan, that is largely because those operating at junior, grassroots level have opened a window for supporters to breathe in some fresh air.
Now, it is up to Michael Cheika and his fellow coaches and selectors to push open the door.