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Opinion

How Dave Rennie’s words came back to haunt him at Eden Park

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20th October, 2020
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Days after the weekend’s beating, Dave Rennie has a headache of his own making. He probably wishes his words were less prophetic, rather than more so. He is at risk of becoming a Cassandra in a foreign land.

Before the first Bledisloe match at the Cake Tin, the new Wallabies head honcho expostulated on the need for good defence.

“The teams that have beaten the All Blacks in the past have limited them to less than 15 or 16 points. That’s our challenge,” he said.

“The sides that have beaten them have defended really well so you can’t get away from that.

“We’ve put a lot of time into our defence but it’s got to be constant.

“The ability of the ABs is to score in a heartbeat, or score twice in five minutes, we are well aware of the threats there.

“We need to be able to apply pressure through our defence. The sides who have had success against them have defended really well so we’re aware that’s an important part for us.”

Australia duly limited New Zealand to 16 points and drew the game in Wellington. In his post-match press conference, Rennie was just as prescient about what needed to improve for the second game at Eden Park:

“We’re miles away from where we need to be. We let ourselves down.

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“We found a lot of space in behind them [the All Blacks], we had a lot of ball but the quality of our cleanout just wasn’t good enough and it’s an area we need to be better next week. We gave away 14 penalties and a big chunk of those were post-tackle.”

Dave Rennie

Dave Rennie. (Andrew Phan/supplied by Rugby Australia)

In the event, this was precisely the area in which the Wallabies lost the second game of the series, and the likely passage of events was predicted by the opening quarter of the match. Australia gave up 11 turnovers in total at the ruck, and four of those came inside the first ten minutes of the match.

It is quite possible to change tactics during the course of a game, but it is very difficult to shift the initial mind-set which decides the outcome of the clashes in contact. It was here that the Wallabies came off second-best in Auckland.

The All Blacks set out their stall by stealing four balls that the Wallabies took into contact in the first ten minutes. The first incident, with only 40 seconds gone, contained the germ of virtually everything else that was to follow:

The short ball to Hunter Paisami is a good one which takes him past the tackle of the first defender. There are several points of interest in the contest afterwards:

wallabies vs all blacks breakdown

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Firstly, the tackler – Anton Lienert-Brown (#1) – stays in position for long enough to force both of the main cleanout supports (Wallaby second-rowers Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and Matt Philip) to run around to the wrong side of the tackle in order to remove the threat to the ball. It’s a fine judgment and there is a risk of “not rolling away” being called by referee Angus Gardner.

Secondly, at the point of contact (in the yellow rectangle) Salakaia-Loto is too high to be able to remove the base (legs) of the jackalling defender, Shannon Frizell.

Thirdly, Gardner adopts a laissez-faire attitude to Frizell playing the ball off the ground after winning the ball.

All three aspects – Wallaby body-height at cleanout, the greater willingness of the All Blacks to push the envelope post-tackle, and Gardner’s opt-out in policing the more technical aspects at the ruck – proved to be of significant importance as the game unfolded.

Frizell won his second turnover on the deck only four short minutes later:

In this instance, Patrick Tuipolutu makes a dominant hit on Matt To’omua and gets in the way on the first Australian support player, James Slipper, who is taking the shortest route to the tackle site. Although Philip makes good contact with Frizell, he is a split second too late as the second man.

This set the tone for All Black domination of the breakdown in the first quarter:

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The cleanout on Ardie Savea is late and high in the first example, in a position where the Wallabies were poised to make a kill.

The second instance illustrates even more of the same salient points. The first Wallaby support covers the tackled player, but Gardner allows the defender (Lienert-Brown) to reach of the top of a formed ruck and win the ball while not supporting his own bodyweight:

wallabies vs all blacks breakdown

The moment is symbolic of the game as a whole. The All Black defender reads the referee better and takes full advantage of the leeway he will allow, much better than the Australian cleanout player, Michael Hooper.

Anton Lienert-Brown pushed the refereeing envelope to the limit very successfully throughout the game at the point of contact, and his influence also rubbed off positively on his centre partner Jack Goodhue:

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In the first example, Lienert-Brown cleans out Hooper at a right angle to the tackle site rather than working back through the gate; in the second, he seals off the ball comprehensively from the attentions of Slipper in the build-up to the second Kiwi try:

wallabies vs all blacks breakdown

Both actions would have attracted an automatic penalty in the first few rounds of Super Rugby Aotearoa, but were ignored by Gardner in Super Rugby Australia mode. The All Blacks in general, and Lienert-Brown in particular, knew their man and read the referee far better than the Wallabies:

It may look quite innocent, but there is nothing accidental about Goodhue’s action after the tackle – rolling out east-west, but in the direction which will cause the Wallabies cleanout and scrumhalf the maximum inconvenience as they approach the ball.

The New Zealand midfield looked all the better for the introduction of that grit, and attention to the small details of the menial tasks – the ones which nobody remembers after the game.

Ironically, it was just the kind of ruthless application which Rennie had demanded from his own charges, but which too often went missing from the cleanout work:

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With two powerful back-five forwards opposed by just one defender (Ardie Savea), this is a situation where the threat should be dumped on his back decisively, but Savea survives for long enough to allow the defenders around to hover menacingly above Nic White when he goes to play the ball at the base. Body height is a problem, both here…

wallabies vs all blacks breakdown

… and in Jordan Petaia’s attempted removal of Goodhue:

In this case, as in others, Gardner spreads his arms wide, and simply allows the contest to develop without obvious rules.

The body height issue also recurred with forwards scanning for the counter-ruck:

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Both Hooper and Slipper are removed from their posts much too easily for Dave Rennie’s peace of mind. If the game at the Cake Tin gave a glimpse of Wallaby potential, events at Eden Park have brought an uncomfortable reminder of the work required in order to realise it.

Summary
Despite Dave Rennie’s siren call to arms after the game in Wellington, breakdown improvement was the exclusive preserve of the All Blacks at Eden Park.

The New Zealand coaching staff will be pleased with the contributions of their new centre partnership in this area, with both Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue showing a combative instinct and desire to play to the limit of the law as it was applied by Angus Gardner.

Michael Hooper of the Wallabies waits for a TMO decision

Michael Hooper. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Despite their familiarity with the refereeing attitudes prevalent at the breakdown in Super Rugby Australia, the Wallabies looked much less willing to explore those limits than the Kiwis. They were far too polite for their own good, and New Zealand took up all the space they allowed in and around the ruck.

Body height in contact is as persistent a problem now as it was under Michael Cheika. More ruthlessness is necessary if Australia are to fulfil Rennie’s happier prophecies to come.