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Opinion

The great Australian openside debate: Round 2

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Expert
24th March, 2020
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Rarely does a moment pass in modern life without a live sporting event on the telly. There is always something to watch, somewhere in the world. Here in the UK, it could be overnight ping-pong or kabaddi, or Aussie rules at dawn, or a Premier League soccer centrepiece as the daylight begins to ebb away.

There is always something on – at least there was until the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which now casts its shadow over the activities of every major sporting nation on the face of the planet.

The loss of professional football or soccer is being felt particularly keenly in England. So much so that supporters like Luke Lambourne, who presides over social media operations at League Two club Leyton Orient, decided to take matters into his own hands and replace actual reality with virtual reality.

He created an online esports FIFA tournament, and within the first 48 hours his invitation had gone viral. Now he has a global competition with 128 teams on his hands, ranging from Premier League giants Manchester City, Newcastle United and West Ham to Ajax in the Netherlands, Lokomotiv Moscow in Russia and Adelaide United from Australia.

Top real-life players will be at the controls: “We’ve seen the likes of Crystal Palace putting Andros Townsend forward and Brighton putting Neal Maupay up,” Lambourne told Radio 1 Newsbeat.

“There’s also a whole host of English clubs letting their players take control so it will be good fun.”

Proceeds from the tournament will go to both the World Health Organisation and towards the financial support of the professional clubs in the English league while the live product is quarantined.

The suspension of Super Rugby in the southern hemisphere may not grant the same opportunity for a replacement to trot on to the virtual field, but it does create a mid-term space for reassessment.

All of us can inhale a deep collective breath, and take a look at how key playing issues in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina are unfolding in medias res.

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One of the big questions I addressed at the start of the season was the potential combination in the Wallabies back row, and in particular the choice at number 7.

In Australia there has been a strong, if erratic, media lobby for Queensland’s Liam Wright to replace incumbent Michael Hooper, and Wright’s best performance of the Super Rugby season (against the hapless Bulls in Round 7) brought those voices to the fore once again.

Liam Wright of the Reds

(Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

This how the primary per-game stats, which I used as markers in the original article, look in 2020, courtesy of the Fox Sports Lab. Firstly, in attack:

Run metres Line-breaks (plus assists) Tackle-busts Passes (plus offloads)
Michael Hooper 39 1 2 7
Liam Wright 21 0.4 1 4.4

Those averages per game are roughly the same, allowing for a slight improvement in Liam Wright’s line-breaking and break-assisted stats.

Here are the averages on defence:

Turnovers Tackles Tackle efficiency Discipline (pens con)
Michael Hooper 0.8 14.2 87% 1.2 (no yellow cards)
Wright 1 12.6 88% 0.7 (plus one yellow card)
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There is a modest convergence on defence, with Wright improving his tackle count at the cost of his breakdown contests, and Hooper showing greater effectiveness on-ball.

Both the improving dynamics of Wright’s openside play and the strengths and weaknesses of big back row which the Reds prefer are worth examining. Both aspects have strong underlying implications for the selection of the Wallabies unit later in the year.

The Reds like to pick two powerful ball-carriers at number 8 (Harry Wilson) and number 6 (Lukhan Salakaia-Loto). Wilson averages 12.6 carries per game in Super Rugby 2020 (top of the heap), while Salakaia-Loto is in the top four at his position with 7.4.

Energy is, however, very rarely distributed equally on attack and defence, and the large number of carries means that there is correspondingly less of a contribution on defence. Wilson and Salakaia-Loto have combined for an average of 12.7 tackles per game in 2020, the same number as Wright by himself, and one and a half tackles fewer than Michael Hooper. The piper has to be paid somewhere, sometime.

The first quarter of the game against the Bulls demonstrated this emphasis does not mesh well with an openside who prefers to play as tight to the point of contact as Wright.

Let’s start at the beginning, with the Bulls mounting their first attack of the game from a lineout.

Wright is defending in the line inside Bryce Hegarty and Hamish Stewart, and as flagged up in my original article, he tends to commit automatically to the first breakdown.

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What this means for a number 7 is that he is signing up to defend near the ruck for the next phase, and possibly even the phase after that. He cannot operate wider, as a link between the forwards and the backs in that scenario:

liam wright reds defence

By the end of the second phase, Wright is still directly behind the ruck, while a regrouping Chris Feauai-Sautia and Harry Hockings comprehensively mismanage the defence of the area he might be protecting, the zone between the last forward and the first back:

This theme became a constant refrain for the Reds in that first 20 minutes when the Bulls were riding high in the ascendant. It underwrote the South Africans’ first try of the game:

This time it is Hockings’ second-row partner, Angus Blyth, getting himself in a tangle in the transition zone out to the first back Hamish Stewart, with Wright again stuck firmly behind the breakdown:

liam wright reds defence

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The Bulls duly converted the opportunity at 0:40 on the highlight reel.

The heavy load on Wilson and Salakaia-Loto in attack means that they often struggle to make the same impact on the other side of the ball. Wilson is unable to make the cover tackle and prevent the offload in this instance; on the next score in the 13th minute (at 0:55 on the reel) Salakaia-Loto found himself defending outside Wright, Hockings and Taniela Tupou as the widest forward.

With your number 7 out of the picture, problems can develop with a big man trying to judge tackling distances accurately in space:

The themes are the same: Wright has made the previous tackle and is getting up behind the ruck and Salakaia-Loto is the last forward connecting with the first back in the wide channel (number 9 Scott Malolua).

Even when the ball is transferred to winger Rosko Speckman on the sideline, this is a scenario which the Reds’ cover defence should be able to manage comfortably:

liam wright reds cover defence

Salakaia-Loto and Jock Campbell both have the inside channels blanketed, and Hegarty is the insurance policy coming up fast from fullback, but somehow Speckman manages to evade both defenders without a hand being laid upon him to set up the try for Warrick Gelant. That is the definition of a soft try in the modern game.

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A long sequence towards the end of the first period showed how effective Liam Wright individually, and the Reds defence as a whole, can be when the right people are in the right places more consistently. This was probably the most important momentum shift in the match:

Initially, Wright makes his automatic error, ducking his head into the maul just as the ball is being released from it. This gives the Bulls a chance that all South African teams relish, the opportunity to run their big forwards at opposition backs in rolling waves of physicality.

Wright recovers from his mistake quickly. He is already back in the game on second phase, slowing the ball down at the breakdown:

Not only does he create a disruption, he crucially gets his head out of the ruck to become the first forward connecting with the Reds’ backline as the phases roll across to the Queensland right:

Here is it Wright folding across field from the inside to defend Speckman, not Lukhan Salakaia-Loto as in the previous example, and that makes all the difference to the integrity of the Queensland defence out wide.

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Appropriately, the sequence ended with a penalty after another Wright on-ball attempt in the transition zone, with Marco van Staden unable to find position and clean him out:

Another Bulls score at that juncture in the game might well have been enough to kill the Reds off.

Both Wright and Salakaia-Loto have noticeably improved their attacking play under the tutelage of offensive co-ordinator Jim McKay, as the second half of the game illustrated very well. On the highlight reel, two offloads by Wright sparked Reds tries, the first wide right and out of shot on the previous play, the second very much centre-field off an in-pass by Hegarty, to put Harry Wilson through the gap.

Lukhan Salakaia-Loto likewise played a significant role in both tries, straightening and offloading intelligently in the first instance and rounding the move off in the left corner in the second.

Summary
The Queensland Reds are the enigmas of Super Rugby: right at the top of the table for points and tries scored, near the bottom of it for points and tries conceded – only the Lions, Waratahs and Sunwolves have a worse record in 2020.

It is easy to see why this is the case when the structure and tendencies of the back-row are considered. Brad Thorn likes to pick two attacking players at 8 and 6 in Harry Wilson and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto. They excel with the ball in their hands, but their contribution without it is necessarily limited in value.

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Add a number 7 whose instinct is to play tight and stick his head into contact rather than stay out and preserve his connection with the backs, and the Reds frequently give up rather more than they get back.

It is hard to escape the impression that Queensland would be far better served by starting with the back five combination with which they finished the match – Salakaia-Loto in the second row, with Wright and Fraser McReight book-ending Wilson behind him. That is the future of the franchise.

Harry Wilson in action for the Reds

Harry Wilson. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

Dave Rennie’s Wallabies certainly cannot entertain the idea of selecting the same kind of back-row as Queensland. If they want a big ball-carrier at number 8 like Isi Naisarani or Harry Wilson, and they want Wright at 7, then Pete Samu can be the only choice at number 6.

If Michael Hooper retains his position on the openside flank (and the stats suggest he should) then Wright, Samu and possibly Lachie McCaffrey and Jack Dempsey will find themselves contesting the sole remaining slot.

There may be no more Jonah Lomu Rugby on the Play Station, or any rugby version of the Leyton Orient FIFA competition played out on a virtual pitch, but there is no harm in a hopeful glance to the future while sporting life is suspended.