The Bledisloe game on Saturday night came as quite a surprise, not so much because of the score, but because of the subtleties that have found their way into the Wallabies’ game.
Whose is the deft hand behind these subtle changes?
Australia started the year with a clear intention to play an expansive, ‘flat line’ attack, combined with their 1-3-3-1 structure.
Unfortunately, this strategy backfired against the rush defence of the Springboks.
Against New Zealand, the Wallabies adopted a ‘medium line’ attack that allowed their forward runners to build up good speed and even accomplish some footwork at the gain line. It also allowed the flyhalf to make play.
The other change was width. The pair of three-man pods worked much closer together in the middle of the field and played a large part of their game directly off Nic White. Their straight running lines were also a big change.
The team deliberately kept their attack tight for extended periods, best illustrated by an attacking lineout on the All Blacks’ 22m in the first half. They opted for a driving maul, followed by a midfield hit up by Samu Kerevi, a blindside play to the forwards off White, a pick and go by White, followed by a few more pick and gos, which saw the red card of Scott Barrett.
Similarly, White kept play tight by running around the fringes of the ruck, running the tight forward play like a second flyhalf from the base of the ruck. White even ran from the back of attacking lineouts to make ‘set up’ plays.
Australia also set their ‘tight play’ towards the middle of the field. Two examples are Christian Lealiifano throwing a deliberate inside pass to Michael Hooper next to the ruck in order to continue to the ‘tight play’ in the middle of the field, and choosing the inside option to keep play in the middle of the field after making a clean break.
Playing tight and in the middle of the filed is the best way to counter a rush defence. By playing it tight around the rucks, you are able to keep possession for longer periods, hence the possession stats, especially in the first half.
It is also the perfect way to counter the All Blacks’ wide defence, which only commits two players to a ruck, including the tackler.
By keeping the play in the middle of the field, you also split the defence, thus making the rush less effective.
The most interesting part of this new ‘tight middle’ play was the variety used. Other teams have just used hit-ups from 9 or pick and gos, but the Wallabies got the 9 and 10 in on the action and even adjusted their 1-3-3-1 structure.
The Wallabies’ new attack relies on breakdown efficiency. Playing tight and in the middle of the field, they only have two cleaners (or are meant to) at any one ruck.
Their breakdown efficiency was exposed against South Africa and they were lucky that the Kiwis were ordinary at the breakdown.
They will want to work overtime on these skills leading into the World Cup, otherwise they will encounter problems against teams who compete heavily or have genuine poachers.
The other question is will they forego the power running of Isi Naisarani and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, which forms a big part of their new attack, to accommodate David Pocock.
Or will they replace Hooper with Pocock and with that the captaincy?
On a side note, Salakaia-Loto had a much better game but he is still not capable of the breakdown efficiency required (although, he is looking more and more like a world-class lock).
Samu Kerevi’s selection at 12 instead of a ‘second flyhalf’ played a big role, allowing the attack to be set up on front-foot ball, which gave the forwards a chance to set up their tighter pod play in the middle of the field.
Kerevi’s selection was an automatic, given his Super Rugby form, but the selection of Tevita Kuridrani outside him was frustrating.
James O’Connor at 13 was a welcome change, as he is an outside centre with vision and playmaking ability instead of an unsophisticated battering ram (although, whether he is the best 13 for the job is up for debate).
This is a direct reversal of the accepted doctrine in Australian rugby of having a second five-eighth and a crash outside centre.
O’Connor presented more questions to the wide defence, as the All Blacks would usually manage the space and usher a less sophisticated runner like Kuridrani or Israel Folau to the sideline, whereas O’Connor can create play through passing and kicking.
The Aussies have now joined every other team on the planet, and in particular northern hemisphere teams, in their centre selections.
White’s recall was also indicative of their mode of attack, as he is best suited to this type of attack given his experience in the northern hemisphere tradition of orchestrating forwards and kicking from the base of the ruck.
The little things
Seeing Reece Hodge taking the kicks for touch was a refreshing change, which allowed for ground gains.
It was also good to see a bit of creativity by having the pods of three forwards running solid screens for the kicker in behind them.
While Kerevi took the majority of the hit-ups, especially from set piece, he was proving a decoy at times for O’Connor to receive the ball instead and use his footwork to make the gain line.
The first set piece play of the match saw Marika Koroibete sprint to the far side of the field to take a ball from Hodge on the wing, then kick it along the touchline to ask New Zealand to either make a hasty exit or to be tackled into touch. This forced the ‘back three swivel’ to come all the way up, leaving a gap in behind, ripe for a kick down the line.
Koroibete also defended on the end of the defence from set pieces at times in order to cover the speed of Beauden Barrett. On these occasions, the Wallabies 10, 12 and 13 defended close together, forcing their opponents to move the ball wide if they wanted to attack the space – something they always do.
While this was a good way to cover Barret, it forced Kurtley Beale to ‘swivel’ into the front line of defence, leaving only Hodge at the back as cover.
The most disappointing aspect of the Wallabies’ game was their defence, which has remained exactly the same.
They are stocking in close, leaving the ‘fool’s gold’ out wide, then adopting a passive drift to cover that space.
They were lucky that the All Blacks were poor in the attacking department.
As opposed to the Springboks, who played a hard-running, forward-oriented game, New Zealand – like the Pumas the week before – tried to run around it. This was an elementary mistake and one I am surprised the All Blacks’ coaching staff let slip.
The tourists were too impatient in building their attack and tried to go around the defence too early.
It would be of concern to the Aussie brains trust that New Zealand managed to break down their passive drift defence with 14 men in the second half by running a wide-wide attack. In theory, this is not supposed to happen.
On a side note, the selection of Ardie Savea at 6 was poor. Along with the selection of Matt Todd on the bench, it showed a clear intention to run around the defence instead of through it. It also weakened their lineout.
Savea’s repeated carrying capacity may have worked in Super Rugby, but it won’t at Test level. Steve Hansen should have selected a bigger 6.
Barrett’s red card exacerbated this problem when the team started playing touch footy in the second half, in an attempt to find space and score points.
Given this new passive drift defence, the Wallabies are clearly lacking a genuine poacher, or at least someone who can slow the ball down – although this job should fall on the shoulders of every player in the team.
Their defence is tailor made for a genuine pilferer and you would think that they can’t wait for the return of Pocock – which, again, raises questions about the back-row selection.
A better ruck merchant (or a better ground game in general) is also required if they want this defence to work against teams who will challenge their defence, like the Springboks did.
There have been subtle changes in attack and selections, allowing the Wallabies to keep possession for much longer. This is definitely not the work of Michael Cheika.
As to who the deft hand behind the subtle changes are, we can only guess. My mind travels back to a Fox Sports interview with director of rugby Scott Johnson, who said words to the effect of: “The teams who will go the furthest in the World Cup will be the teams who can keep possession of the ball.”
Let’s just hope that there are further subtle changes from the deft hand, especially to the team’s defence, to give Australia the best chance of being a genuine contender in Japan.