Small incremental changes are happening at the Waratahs under Rob Penney.
You can see Penney’s Crusaders background in the way the Waratahs are starting to attack, and you can also see his northern hemisphere experience in the way they are starting to defend. Basic skills are still letting the Waratahs down though, but these are slowly improving with more time spent under Penney.
Let’s hope that the fans and administrators give Penney the time he needs to turn these incremental gains into a wholesale revolution.
Changes in attack
The Waratahs, under Penney, are still using the 1-3-3-1 attacking structure. Although this is the same structure that they used in previous years, there are some slight differences showing under Penney’s coaching.
The first is that the ball is regularly being moved to the side of the field. This can at times look like aimless passing for the sake of going wide without making any forward momentum. What they are trying to do is to set up a ruck on either side of the field so their attacking structure can be set up across the entire width of the field.
Once this is achieved, they can then start to cycle the ball through their attacking structure. This is nothing revolutionary but in years gone past this movement of the ball has not been such a feature of the Waratahs’ game and they were more inclined to try and set up their attacking structure in a rush from wherever they found possession.
This newfound width is a very Kiwi trait, which requires a bit of patience and trust in the attacking structure. The idea is that the structure will stretch the defence and naturally create mismatches and space, especially after a few cycles, which is where the ball should then be moved to.
A second difference is that the Waratahs are now mostly skipping the first pod of three forwards when they bring the ball back in-field. Again, nothing revolutionary, but in years gone past they have religiously hit this first pod of forwards, which stunted their attack and gave the defence ample time to realign.
A third difference is a change in their counterattack. As opposed to years gone past, the Waratahs are making a concerted effort to move the ball at least two passes way from the turnover area, which is a classic Crusaders trait. They have strung together some promising counter attacks, but their basic skills have let them down.
Their support play on counter attack is definitely improving under Penney and like Kiwi teams, a lot of their counter attacks are being run down either side of the field. On a side note, Jack Maddocks has picked up this directive loud and clear as he is making a very concerted effort to shift the ball away from the spot where he catches the ball when under pressure (this is opposed to most Waratahs fullbacks in years gone past who would’ve panicked and kicked or taken contact).
A fourth difference is the fearlessness with which they are playing. There is an obvious increase of offloads in contact (or attempts thereof). Their basic skills are again letting them down here, but they are definitely striving to make this a permanent part of their game.
They are also making more attempts at using their attacking structure to run the ball out of their own 22, albeit only when they have the scoreboard lead (more on this later). It is clear that the Waratahs are being encouraged to play fearless rugby by Penney and that they are being allowed to make mistakes, especially in their offloads, to achieve the greater goal.
Perhaps the most heartening feature is the heads-up plays that are occurring, which indicates players are being encouraged to think for themselves and go off script sometimes. A nice example of this was Will Harrison’s impromptu cross-field kick to James Ramm from a scrum penalty, which resulted in a fine try.
Fifthly, the movement of the ball within the pods is improving. Running lines from the other two forwards in the pod are much better and the passing by the lead forward is becoming much more fluid and not a rigid and telegraphed as years gone past. The pods are also increasingly moving around the field and not just sticking in their lanes as in the past – it is good to see some variation in their width too.
Surprisingly, the Waratahs are still resorting to tight forward play in the middle of the field when they enter the opposition 22. You have to wonder what influenced Penney’s decision making here. My thoughts are that he has clearly seen the lack of skill set (and unfamiliarity with his way of using the 1-3-3-1) and decided not to waste good ball through simple mistakes in the opposition 22 (probably the same reason as not trying to run the ball out their own 22 when behind on the scoreboard). I suspect this too will gradually change under Penney’s coaching.
Small fixes on attack
As mentioned before, basic passing and catching skills are really hurting the Waratahs’ attack. The skills shortage is highlighted when players like Michael Hooper regularly make bad passes in the wide channels or fail to sum up the situation in front of them by giving their outside player bad ball.
Poor rucking on attack has added to the hurt. This sometimes takes the form of players leaving their feet at the ruck, but it also takes the more alarming form of basic poor decision making. As an example, the Waratahs had an attacking lineout just inside the opposition 22 and the first phase ensued after a run by the hooker. I counted four forwards over the top of tackled hooker plus another unnecessarily cleaning out an opposition player some ten metres past the ruck. This left the next pod of forwards undermanned and it led to a penalty being given away.
It is also obvious that the Waratahs are not properly conditioned to play the style of game that Penney wants them to play. The forwards’ off-the-ball work on attack is not good enough, especially as the game wears on. Their inability to get back into position quickly on attack is giving the defence too much to time to reset.
But these are all small problems that can be fixed with time. Once these small problems get fixed, the Waratahs’ attack will improve out of sight.
Changes in defence
The Waratahs have adopted the classic rush defence under Penney’s coaching. There were some teething problems at first, but the improvements have been encouraging.
A hallmark of this defence can be seen in the defensive lineout set-ups. In opposition territory, the Waratahs contest hard for the ball at the lineout. Once the lineout moves into their territory, they drop a man to bolster their back line defence. This back line is then compressed with the open winger standing on the 15-metre line, leaving the entirety of the 15-metre channel unmanned.
Hallmarks of this type of defence can also be seen on their general play defence – they compress their defensive line, do not really commit players to the ruck, tackle in twos and leave the respective wide channels unmanned.
This defence is coupled with a swivelling back three whereby the open winger joins the compressed defensive line, the fullback hovers to plug the gap in the wide channel if the ball is moved that way and the blind winger tracks across to cover the fullback’s spot (if the fullback is called upon to join the line and plug the gap out wide).
Small fixes on defence
While the Waratahs’ outside backs are managing the space at the end of the compressed defensive line much better, this still remains a work on. Wingers in this type of defensive system need to make really important decisions and young Mark Nawaqanitawase has been caught out a few times.
A lot of players are also still ruck watching in general play instead of looking up to see how the attacking players are setting up but there was a big improvement in the Brumbies game.
The issue of poor ruck work also keeps popping its head up on defence – players leaving their feet, players joining from the side and players unnecessarily over-committing to rucks.
And as with the attack, the Waratahs are lacking conditioning. They are just too slow to realign on defence, especially as the game wears on. I saw one example of poor off-the-ball work in defence due to fatigue, which led to a massive seam opening up right in the middle of the field (the exact place where it is not supposed to open up in a rush defence) but luckily for the Waratahs the Reds passed the ball forward and couldn’t capitalise on the gap.
But these are all small problems that can be fixed with time. The Waratahs’ defence has progressed a lot and they were pretty good against the Brumbies. With time, and the elimination of silly errors, their defence will turn into a feature of their game.
Another trait that has developed in the Waratahs under Penney is tactical kicking. They kick long and wait for the return kick. They keep doing this until the opposition back three have been forced to run forward and offside or been pulled out of position, at which point a touch finder or a recoverable kick is put through. The distance that Maddocks can get on his boot has been instrumental to this and it has become a major weapon in the Waratahs’ arsenal.
The Waratahs’ tactical kicking game has improved a lot, and like Kiwi teams, they utilise tactical kicking to enhance their attack. In years gone past, their kicking game was generally substandard, and it was not thought through much further than two moves ahead.
An interesting development over the rest of the year, and leading into next year, will be any changes Penney makes to the player roster. He would not have had any control over his player roster when he came in as coach and I suspect, had he done so, he would’ve done an overhaul to suit his way of playing.
I strongly suspect that there have been some players (mostly Wallabies) who clearly go against instructions at times. One example is Ned Hanigan deciding to contest a defensive lineout on the Waratahs’ own five-metre line (clearly going against the defensive game plan), which led to a knock on, a Reds scrum and a yellow card to Angus Bell.
Another example is Rob Simmons deciding to hit the ball up in the first pod when the ball came back inside from the side of the field (despite Will Harrison being ready behind him to spread the ball), doing it again, making no ground and giving the defence ample time to set.
Rob Penney is making slow but very meaningful progress at the Waratahs. The start of a Crusaders-like attack is there to be seen and the same with a classic northern hemisphere rush defence.
Basic skills are letting the Waratahs down in both attack and defence, but these are improving week by week and they can be fixed with time. It is also good to see the start of attacking tactical kicking making its way into the Waratahs’ arsenal.
It will be interesting to see if Penney makes changes to his player roster over the next 12 months and if he moves some Wallabies players along.
The initial signs showing in the Waratahs’ play under Penney are very encouraging and I hope that fans and administrators give him the time and patience to complete the revolution.