It was probably the worst professional defence in Australia, but now it is the best. At the beginning of the (pre-COVID) Super Rugby season, the title of top defence in the country belonged to the Brumbies – now it is Queensland’s.
Whether it will be enough to swing the Reds across the finish line ahead of their rivals from Canberra will be decided in the final of a highly enjoyable Super Rugby AU competition this coming weekend. Nonetheless, it has been an astonishing transformation, ever since that watershed 45-12 loss to the Waratahs back in Round 6.
The Reds conceded half a dozen tries in that game, but they have only given up half that number in the following matches. They have been conceding an average of 0.75 tries and seven points per game in four matches against the Rebels (who they played twice), Force and Brumbies.
One of the more remarkable stats from that run of defensive success has been the kicking ratio. While the Reds have authored 25.5 kicks per game, their opponents have averaged only 19.25. That is quite a significant difference.
Moreover, the majority of those kicks have come from the boot of halves Tate McDermott and James O’Connor, neither of whom would claim even in their most intoxicated moments that the kicking game is their strong suit.
Since Round 6, Queensland have been able to hand over the lion’s share of possession to their opponents in the sure knowledge that they would not be able to hurt them with it.
One of the major planks in that new-found confidence has been the selection of the back five forwards, as I have outlined extensively in previous articles. The combination of Fraser McReight and Liam Wright on the flanks, plus the shift of another recent ex-flanker in Lukhan Salakaia-Loto into the second row, has paid out spectacular dividends.
The Reds have been able to blanket the width of the field while sustaining the momentum of the rush on their defensive line, and that has been at the heart of their success.
This is really the essence of the modern defensive approach. Shortage of numbers is very rarely a reason for the men on the line to stop rushing upfield, but there is a correlative premium placed on the ability of players to cover the space they leave behind them.
The start of the semi-final at Suncorp Stadium provided an excellent case in point, with the Rebels looking to run the ball out of their own 22:
On the offensive side, there are two passes behind the first line of forwards between the halfback and Matt To’omua, and then between To’omua and second receiver Billy Meakes.
On defence, despite the fact openside wing Filipo Daugunu has dropped off in anticipation of a clearing kick, there is no stopping the rush from a short-handed line:
There are essentially only two rushers – Liam Wright and Hamish Stewart – at the top of the screenshot. They will be looking to drive up and infield, and pressure Meakes and the men outside him.
It is the responsibility of two players currently in midfield or on the right side of the field – scrumhalf McDermott (1) and lock Salakaia-Loto (2) – to fill the space on the wide left.
This kind of defensive policy was a pipe-dream only ten or 15 years ago. The defenders of that era would have followed the yellow lines, pushing only a short distance upfield before drifting out towards the sideline. The scrumhalf would have trotted across the field behind the line as a sweeper.
The aerobic demands now are far greater than they were back then. All four of those key Reds defenders have to cover more ground and fulfil more difficult roles.
Why bother? Why not just amble across the park and meet the attackers on the right touchline? The principal idea is to introduce a sense of pressure into the minds and bodies of the Rebels’ primary distributors:
Significantly, the pass off Meakes’ left hand hits grass before it reaches Reece Hodge. Although the Rebels eventually pass halfway before Hodge is taken by McDermott, there is a second significant moment as the ruck forms, with Daugunu digging in hard over the tackle ball and causing a delay in the release.
Both these themes would be revived in more important contexts in the remainder of the game.
The great Boston Celtics centre Bill Russell once said “The idea is not to block every shot. The idea is to make your opponent believe you might block every shot.”
It is vital to sow those seeds of doubt:
Here is another similar example. The ball travels more or less successfully through the hands of Meakes and To’omua, and beyond the steep rushing lines of Jordan Petaia and Chris Feauai-Sautia. But by the time it arrives in the hands of Dane Haylett-Petty out on the left, he is confronted by two defenders who have run from the opposite side of the pitch to greet him (Stewart and Fraser McReight):
Like Daugunu before him, McReight is in a strong position to force a turnover at the end of the play.
It was no coincidence that the Reds’ first try of the game derived from Queensland’s unwillingness to dilute their pressure on the ball:
Petaia is attacking the space between To’omua and Meakes, Feauai-Sautia the space between Meakes and his outside support. The ball will never reach those three extra attackers out on the Rebels left:
The same themes were reiterated throughout the match:
In the first example, McReight and Petaia both choose to stand and stick and cut the outside attackers loose, but the play ends with a turnover by the Reds openside flanker.
In the second instance, the Queensland defence rightly calls a rush on the short side after recognising that the first two Rebels receivers will be tight forwards:
Nominally the Rebels have a five-to-three overlap, but because the ball has to travel through lock Matt Philip and prop Cameron Orr to exploit it, it ends up in the hands of emergency wing Moses Sorovi instead!
The two main aspects of pressure evident from that very first sequence – on Billy Meakes’ passing and at the tackle from Filipo Daugunu – both proved to be influential factors at critical moments in the game.
Meakes stuffed up an overlap close to the Reds goalline because he believed that, to borrow Bill Russell’s phrase, ‘his shot might be blocked’:
Daugunu was the game’s outstanding on-ball exponent, surpassing the efforts of Liam Wright, Richard Hardwick and even McReight. He had two turnovers off the wing, and another in the scramble after a long Rebels break down the middle of the field:
Those are no lightweights trying to remove the Reds left winger, either – Philip and Hodge in the first instance, Marika Koroibete and Meakes in the second, Jermaine Ainsley and Hodge in the third.
The one remaining objective of the Reds’ Australia-leading defence is now to travel to Canberra and bring a championship back home to Ballymore. It all seems a long, long way from that dark night at the Sydney Cricket Ground on August 8.
The way in which the Reds defend is a graphic illustration of how the modern game has changed, as professional standards of aerobic conditioning have steadily improved. They deliver constant frontal pressure on the major distributors, either by sticking the man or by attacking space between the passer and his target, in the knowledge that their halfback and back five forwards can cover most of the spaces they leave behind.
Even if the ball does manage somehow to get to the edge, they have one of the best on-ball exponents in the Australian game in Filipo Daugunu, ready to pick off any inaccuracies at the tackle area. Don’t even mention Liam Wright or Fraser McReight.
It is largely as a result of that defensive improvement that as many as nine Queenslanders may find themselves selected in Dave Rennie’s first Wallabies team on October 11 – Brandon Paenga-Amosa and Taniela Tupou in the front row with Lukhan Salakaia-Loto behind them, Liam Wright and Harry Wilson in the back row, and Tate McDermott, James O’Connor, Jordan Petaia and Filipo Daugunu in the backline.
That lot may even be able to convince a few All Blacks that they can block the shots, and manage the Kiwi attack successfully.