Dave Rennie, Matt Taylor and Scott Wisemantel have managed to achieve a lot with the Wallabies in a very short amount of time.
Rennie’s influence on structural attack has been very noticeable and even more so Taylor’s influence on the defence.
Wisemantel has had a more subtle influence on the Wallabies attack but it is nonetheless important in the way in which it compliments Rennie’s work.
All three coaches have a done a lot in a short amount of time and it is only time that stands between them and a well-performing Wallabies team.
Taylor’s influence on the Wallabies has been the most significant and noticeable out of the two assistant coaches. This is partly due to Rennie being an attack and skills specialist and this void having to be filled almost completely by Taylor.
But it is mostly due to Taylor introducing the rush defence to the Wallabies. This type of defence could not be any more different to the defensive systems used under Nathan Grey.
This type of defence is extremely effective, especially against teams like the All Blacks, but it requires very good skill execution and does not leave much room for error. It is a system that takes time to perfect and the Wallabies’ shortcomings in execution were exposed in the second Test.
The Wallabies are now adopting a compressed defensive line (both from set piece and in general play) that leaves the wide 15m channels open.
This shores up the defensive line itself and forces the opposition to try to get the ball wide, which is easier said than done. It takes time for the attacking side to move the ball wide, which in turn gives the defending team time to take the space and/or realign to cover the wide 15m channels.
Getting the ball wide is made more difficult by an outside back, such as the 13 or winger, targeting the wide receiver with “spot tackles”, thereby stopping the ball behind the gain line and away from support players.
Hunter Paisami has been the man tasked with making the all important outside-in “spot tackles” and he did a very good job in the first Test (although the weather was a helpful equaliser).
He did not do such a good job in the second Test though – two of his misreads in making these outside-in spot tackles lead directly to All Blacks tries. This is a big responsibility to place on the shoulders of such a young and inexperienced player, but he will get better at it with time.
The line speed of the Wallabies’ general play defence is also much improved and they are not committing more than two players to the tackle/ruck.
They are trying to commit one player to make a low tackle and a second player to: (1) assist in bringing the ball carrier to ground; (2) slow down the attacking ball or go for the pilfer; and/or (3) get back into the defensive line.
Attempting a low tackle while running up at high speed requires very good skill execution and does not allow much room for error.
The weather helped the Wallabies with this in the first Test but a dry track and much better footwork into contact by the All Blacks forwards in the second Test spotlighted the improvement in execution required by the Wallabies – something that Rennie immediately identified after the game.
Another work-on for the Wallabies is the work done off the ball by the defenders either side of the player making the low tackle. This is especially true of the players to the outside of this defender who need to make major adjustments in alignment if the “second player’ decides to join the tackle/ruck.
A pleasing aspect of the Wallabies defence is the way in which the outside backs are finally managing space out wide instead of trying to make “hard tackles”.
Once it is identified that the spot tackle by the 13 (or another outside back) is not on, the outside backs retreat and shuffle to give their inside backs and loose forward time to track across and assist in making the tackle and/or provide numbers to the breakdown.
Unfortunately, old habits crept back into the Wallabies defence in the second Test and instead of managing space, defenders attempted the “hard tackle” and missed, thus giving the All Blacks broken line attacking opportunities.
The biggest difference that fans will probably have noticed in the Wallabies defence is that all players generally just stay in position and defend there – no more “musical chairs”. Apart from simplifying things (which should be the goal of all rugby game plans), it greatly assists with the back three defence.
The wingers (like Marika Koriobete) are not asked to run all over the field anymore and they can now concentrate on their core roles in the “back three swivel” which is forms a vital part of the rush defence, especially in shoring up the wide 15m channels.
Taylor, and Rennie, have set the blueprint for their defence and the Wallabies have now joined other top tier teams in adopting the rush defence. Those teams took time to perfect it, especially with skill execution, and it will also take time for the Wallabies, but at least they are on the right track.
Rennie’s influence on the Wallabies has been most noticeable in their attacking structure. Although they are still using the 1-3-3-1 attacking structure of old, the way in which they are using it is a world apart – I have not seen any Australian team (club, Super Rugby or international) so proficient at using the 1-3-3-1.
There is a fluidity and patience to the way in which the Wallabies are utilising the 1-3-3-1 which is reminiscent of, of course, a Kiwi team. Players are willing and able to switch roles when required and this especially so for the six forwards who make up the middle two pods.
Most noticeably, players are willing to step in and clear the rucks which means the attacking ball does not get slowed down waiting for the scrumhalf to get there.
This interchanging of roles while using an attacking structure is at the core of the Kiwi game and it seems like Australia have finally got a coach who can instil that in the Wallabies.
Their patience in setting up and using the 1-3-3-1 is also very good to see and it reflects a well-coached team that knows what they are trying to do.
Whilst the Wallabies still have work to do on skill execution in attack, which again takes time, Rennie has managed a lot in a small amount of time and the curve is trending upwards.
Whilst the fluidity and interchangeability are very good, there still seems to be a bit of a disconnect when players swap roles in the forward pods, especially when backs hit the ball up.
On more than one occasion there has been poor technique and/or poor urgency at the cleanout and it looks to be the result of a hesitancy that is still lingering when random players perform roles that are supposed to be performed by others.
Moving the ball away from turnover areas is another Rennie influence and although not a ground-breaking concept, it is good to see the Wallabies actually doing it now.
It moves the ball to the part of the field where the space is most likely to be post turnover and it also allows you to set up your attacking structure across the width of the field.
Scott Wisemantel’s influence on the Wallabies’ attack is more subtle than Matt Taylor’s is on their defence. Well-thought out set piece moves have been a feature of the Wallabies attack, especially at the back of the lineout.
These moves from the back of the lineout have become a necessity due to the rush defence. Defensive lineouts generally only contain six forwards with the seventh (usually the openside) standing inside the flyhalf in an already compressed defensive line.
Attacking in midfield and further out is a low percentage play and the thinking now is that it is better to attack the disconnect between the back of the lineout and the first defender in the backline (being the 7).
This is also why we see more lineout drives from what is usually considered odd positions on the field – they are trying to draw the openside flanker back into the forwards and to the misalign the backs.
Wisemantel’s biggest influence has been on the “big picture” of how the Wallabies attack. They have two ‘go to’ plays.
Firstly, they move the ball to the far side of the field, keep attacking there and then move the ball back to the near side of the field.
Secondly, they move the ball to the far side of the field, then to the near side and then to the middle. Both plays are designed to misalign the defenders and to create space to exploit.
As an example, a favourite ploy within the first ‘go-to’ play seems to be to bring the ball back to the near side of the field behind a pod of dummy forward runners and then to put in a kick down the side of the field to exploit the space in behind the opposition winger.
These two ‘big picture’ plays are, in my opinion, classic Scott Wisemantel/Eddie Jones plays, both of whom love to attack parts of the field rather than purely letting an attacking structure take it’s natural course and to rely purely on the players seeing where the space appears.
Rennie’s teams always have a good kicking game because he relies on kicking to pull defences apart and to allow his teams to attack scattered defensive lines. The Wallabies are showing the beginnings of being much smarter about their kicking (in addition to also actually kicking) but their kicking let them down in the second Test and it was a major contributor to their loss.
The box kicks used by Nic White are a classic northern hemisphere trait which both Scott Wisemantel and Nic White would’ve bought with them.
The box kicks, and especially the box kick exits, worked very well in the first Test but the skill execution was poor in the second Test and they weren’t used often enough for my liking, especially to test Caleb Clarke in the air (Clarke spilled the only high ball that was put above him).
There is no doubt that the Wallabies have quality coaching group at the helm.
Rennie is top class when it comes to using structured and unstructured attack, Taylor has finally brought the Wallabies into alignment with the rest of the top tier teams on defence and Scott Wisemantle is bringing subtle influences to the big picture attack that nicely complements the work of Dave Rennie.
It would’ve been unrealistic to expect this coaching group to immediately turn the Wallabies into world beaters, especially given the systemic problems that Australian rugby still suffers, but they have managed to do a lot in a very short amount of time.
This coaching team knows where it wants to go and how to get there and the only thing they require is a bit of time.