Like all of the high-profile rugby games in the northern hemisphere in recent weeks, the annual edition of the BBC’s iconic Strictly Come Dancing competition has kicked off without the benefit of a fully-fledged live audience.
Just like rugby without fans, the experience is distinctly odd and underwhelming. The handful who were allowed to attend Strictly’s opening night on Saturday are socially distanced and make as much positive noise as they can, but their stray cheers echo throughout the auditorium and somehow reinforce the great emptiness around them. It’s all a little like a smoky, half-lit nightclub at two in the morning.
In rugby, to get the best out of your orchestrator at number 10, you often need an audience at number 12. To get the tango to really rock, you need a perfectly matched pair.
There have been some promising signs for the Wallabies on that front in the juxtaposition of James O’Connor and Matt To’omua in the first two rounds of the Bledisloe Cup. The pair have already developed excellent synergy, and there is a strong sense of complementary attributes in their play.
Perhaps we should not be surprised. Back in 2017, England outside-half George Ford bestowed the highest praise on To’omua when he joined the Leicester Tigers:
“Matt To’omua is by far the best 12 I have played with, even after just six games [together].
“He is coming off the back of a long-term injury and is getting back into his stride but the way he has played over the last few weeks has shown what a world-class player he is.
“To have him outside of me has been great, as is his communication, distribution and another set of eyes to bring in people like Jonny May, Nick Malouf and Telusa Veainu into the game. He is a joy to play with…
“He brings in his experience and his knowledge and the way he prepares not only himself, but the people around him too, is first class. He knows exactly what he wants, where he wants people and how they can get there. He really knows his stuff.”
Ford is usually coupled with another world-class 10/12 hybrid in Owen Farrell when on England duty, so this was high praise indeed. He continued in the same effusive vein:
“He is like-minded in terms of that he wants to attack and find space. His communication is brilliant and his vision gives us an extra set of eyes close by to give me information. It’s the best I have ever experienced…
“What makes Matt such a good player and distributor is that when he gets the ball, nine times out of a ten, he makes the right decision with what to do with it.
“For a flyhalf to have someone like that outside of me, is an unbelievable help.”
In a significant stroke of misfortune for Dave Rennie, To’omua picked up a groin injury in the last game at Eden Park, which will likely keep him out for the rest of 2020.
He has been one of Australia’s key players in the new regime. With O’Connor and To’omua in harness together up until the 34th minute in Auckland, the Wallabies were keeping pace with New Zealand on the scoreboard (23-26 over the two matches). After he departed, the All Blacks scored 17 unanswered points, and the Wallaby attacking dance floor was deserted.
As is often the case in the modern game, the numbers on the backs of the jersey do not tell anywhere near the full story. Although he starts at inside centre, Matt To’omua does most of the organising in the backline, and that means he appears at first receiver rather more than half of the time:
To’omua passes to James O’Connor outside him and then lets O’Connor’s feet do the rest. Meanwhile, the nominal second five-eighth is busy directing the next two phases of attack:
To’omua gestures to his left to organise the second play, then runs around the ruck to create a nice attacking opportunity on the following phase:
There are four Australian backs and three extra forwards spread out towards the left sideline, with inviting prospects opening up against a narrow New Zealand defence on that side.
The idea of inserting To’omua at first receiver to straighten the line and preserve space outside was a consistent theme, with James O’Connor being the chief beneficiary of the extra room created.
It makes sense, because O’Connor has spent so much of his previous rugby lifetime in the back three. He knows how to connect with attackers in the 15-metre zone:
We will probably see a lot of this type of structure in seasons to come: To’omua carrying the ball in two hands and keeping the defence honest, with a powerful forward ball-carrier on his shoulder – Lukhan Salakaia-Loto in this example – and O’Connor arcing into the space around the back.
To’omua’s fundamentals are very sound: he always carries the ball in two hands to threaten the pass, and he always straightens the line to force defenders to stop for the run. Here is the sequence in full:
Some space is created on the outside by To’omua attracting the eyes three All Black defenders towards him, then delivering a simple pass.
The same was true with roles reversed and James O’Connor at first receiver and To’omua outside him:
At the critical moment, all three of Caleb Clarke, Jack Goodhue and Sam Cane are looking straight at To’omua, and that gives Filipo Daugunu a chance to work some foot magic further out:
Those sound fundamentals were also a feature of the first game at the Cake Tin:
There’s not much room in the five-metre corridor, but To’omua preserves what little there is by forcing the defender to stand square to the target. That in turn grants Daugunu an opportunity to pass inside or outside of his marker, and he chooses the inside route:
Australia were at their most potent when Matt To’omua’s excellent run/pass technique was positioned inside James O’Connor, with O’Connor reviving memories of his youthful days as a fullback and winger:
Getting the small details right leads to much bigger wins further down the line:
It may not look like much, but that ability to condense the entire opposing midfield into five metres of space and draw their eyes towards you is what creates the room for O’Connor and his outsides to play in. Once All Blacks outside centre Rieko Ioane takes a fateful step inside, he is finished as a defender on the play.
To’omua was just as influential as a ‘simple’ first receiver co-ordinating the attack in the second match at Eden Park – at least for the 34 minutes or so he stayed on the field:
Simple pass to Ned Hanigan for the initial break, simple pass and right decision to hit Taniela Tupou short on the second play, and another simple pass from the base to spot Marika Koroibete for the score. Rugby is a simple game.
It also helps that Matt To’omua cleans out so well for an ‘extra ten’:
All 6’8 and 117 kilos of Sam Whitelock? No problem.
If there are two backs essential to the way in which Dave Rennie’s Wallabies want to play the game, Matt To’omua would be one of them. He complements James O’Connor’s outside back skill-set perfectly, and takes much of the pressure off him to match the traditional expectation of a number 10. When the two of them play in tandem together, the Australian attack gets up on the dance floor and struts its stuff.
To’omua’s passing game is understated but efficient at drawing attention and preserving space for the strikers outside him, and as George Ford pointed out, he almost always makes the right decision. These are difficult attributes to replace.
There are three main contenders in the form of Noah Lolesio, Irae Simone and as an outlier, Waratahs number ten Will Harrison. Lolesio is probably closer to O’Connor in terms of skill-set, while some question-marks remain about Simone’s ability to grab a game by the scruff of its neck like To’omua.
Harrison represents probably the most intriguing choice. Despite his size, he is tough and committed on defence and in contact situations, like To’omua. He can kick well off his left foot, which would be a bonus. Like To’omua, he is happy to take on the role of game-manager and make decisions.
Whatever pick Dave Rennie makes, the dance has already started, and James O’Connor needs to find another partner, right in the middle of proceedings. That will be no easy task.