It was with much anticipation that I got up at 1am on Sunday morning to watch the Wallabies play the Springboks due to the rumours from inside the Australia camp of major overhauls to the game plan, both on attack and defence.
Michael Cheika and co had spent time with Randwick colts teams trialling new game plans and it was rumoured that Nathan Grey had a new defensive system in mind. Shaun Berne’s elevation from the Rebels as Wallabies attack coach also strongly hinted as to what style the Wallabies would adopt in their attack.
My anticipation was short-lived. I say with much disappointment and frustration that this article is necessarily short due to the lack of subject matter which to work with, namely, the new Wallabies game plan.
The 1-3-3-1 structure has been retained. This means the Wallabies are playing the same attack pattern as every other team in the World Cup apart from New Zealand. So much for something fundamentally different. I was hoping to see a slight variation here. Maybe playing a 3-3-3, with Samu Kerevi included in one of the forward pods. At least this would have suited what the type of game the Wallabies brains trust are trying to play and also their continued selections. Anything different would have been refreshing.
The disappointing part of the Wallabies execution of their 1-3-3-1 was their impatience and lack of organisation. This was in part due to their new attacking philosophy, which I will touch on in a bit. The set-up of the individual forward pods was flat, which meant they overran the breakdown almost every time and had to backtrack to secure ruck ball.
In general the ruck work from the Wallabies forwards, especially Sekope Kepe, Folau Fainga’a and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, was disappointing. Because the pods were set up so close to the gain line, the forwards had no time to build a run before meeting a very quick South African rush defence. This also inhibited them from angle running. But more on this in a bit.
The Wallabies retained their old habit of always hitting the first pod of three, which stops dead any momentum they may have had or built. This has been happening for quite a few years now, and it is alarming to see that nothing has been changed here.
Other than that, the Wallabies just passed the ball from side to side, close to gain line, reminiscent of what the Springboks used to do before Rassie Erasmus took over. There was no patience in attack and rarely did they surpass three phases before passing it wide.
It is evident that the players have been given freedom to pass and offload, but this needs to be done within a structure and after a good number of phases. A fundamental rule of the 1-3-3-1 is that you need to build and wait for space to appear or at least build in such a way which creates the space. The Wallabies had success when they played it close to the ruck on attack, and this is the best counter to a rush defence, but this was only done very briefly.
As per last season, and especially when playing against the Springboks, they again attempted to get outside the rush defence with long passes. This ploy failed last year and it failed again on Sunday morning. The Boks rush defence leaves the space out wide on purpose to pull the attack into that area of the field. It is naive of the Wallabies brains trust to think they were going have good outcomes with these plays, especially at the World Cup, where almost every team pulls play to that area of the field on defence.
The underlying cause for all these problems was the new Randwick-style flat line attack that has been introduced. This worked for Shaun Berne and the Rebels in Super Rugby until they met the first rush defence system and then the whole thing collapsed.
Randwick played this style of rugby, with success a very long time ago, way before the introduction of rush defences. It was, again, naive for the Wallabies brains trust to think this style of attack will work come the World Cup, where almost every team uses the rush defence.
Flat-line attack placed Bernard Foley and Samu Kerevi under all sorts of pressure. At this point it also has to be asked why Quade Cooper was not considered seeing he basically ran the trials of this type of attack with the Rebels the whole year and he is the only flyhalf in Australia with the passing game to pull it off, despite his other shortcomings.
It also did not allow the forwards to breach gain line properly due to lack of build-up and ability to run angles and it also compromised the forwards’ ability to secure their own rucks properly. The hasty and error-ridden offloads on the gain line were also symptomatic of this.
It is of some concern that in a World Cup year the Wallabies brains trust expect this sort of skill level under such intense pressure when the players didn’t have the skill sets to execute these plays last year when running from depth, with more time.
In perfect contrast, the Boks attack stood much deeper. Their forwards hit the line with good momentum and their angle-changing was much better than that of the Wallabies. This was the major reason for their success and gave them the ability to get front-foot ball from which to attack. Elton Jantjies never took the ball flat, in perfect contrast to Foley. The Boks deep attack also very likely affected the Wallabies defence.
It is a mystery as to what defensive system the Wallabies have adopted. At times it seemed that they have adopted a safe and secure up and out defence. At times there were one out runners rushing the Boks attack. In general the defensive line connection was poor. One thing was clear: they were not adopting a rush defence, and this may well have been a masterstroke by Rassie Erasmus.
Because the Boks stood so deep, they basically told the Wallabies defence to rush for a significant distance or to hold a more passive line. Only the Wallabies brains trust will know what the cause for the Wallabies lack of line speed was.
I am leaning towards the Wallabies not adopting the rush defence instead of it being a masterstroke by Erasmus. From the very start the Wallabies line speed was average. I can only surmise from the chop-and-change defence that they are using a passive up-and-out defence. And if this was the case, then it is the worst type of defence to couple with not competing at the breakdowns. Rush defences couple with not competing at breakdowns, passive up-and-out defences couple with competing at breakdowns.
I did not notice that one elemental part of the Nathan Grey defence had changed, and this was players defending out of position. I did notice, though, that from lineouts they have Michael Hooper defending the blindside touchline with that winger moving over towards the openside touchline.
I can see the reasoning behind this, but the Boks worked this out in the second half and a good kick by Warrick Gelant in behind Hooper resulted in a Boks lineout close to the Wallabies try line. It will only be a matter of time before other teams see this in their analysis.
After much anticipation it was disappointing and frustrating to see that the ‘new development’ in the Wallabies attack is a Randwick-style flat-line attack. Not much thought has been put into this and it was essentially copied. This flat-line attack will only serve the exacerbate the current problems in the Wallabies attack and it stood in perfect contrast to how the Boks attacked.
At least the defence stopped the musical-chairs system, but Nathan Grey could not resist at least one defender being out of place, in Michael Hooper, and this will very soon be exploited by other international teams. I can only surmise that the Wallabies are adopting a passive up-and-out defence, as it was generally a shambles – which may well have something to do with Rassie Erasmus’s deep attack, which is again short on thought, especially when coupled with a tactic of not competing at the breakdowns, such as hit and fan.
The attack was copied and the defence has reverted to passivity. In other words, it’s not worth getting up at 1am on a Sunday morning for.