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Coach's Corner Issue 3: Rebels without an attacking cause?

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11th March, 2021
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Thanks once again to all who contributed a question for today’s article. One of the major ones to arise over the past two weeks has been the inability of the Melbourne Rebels to cross the whitewash, despite having one man extra for the greater portion of their match against the Brumbies.

The Rebels have accumulated 15 penalties but no tries while going down by a total of five points to the two best sides in the competition (the Reds and Brumbies). The evident frustration in head coach Dave Wessels’ recent comments is entirely understandable.

What is less comprehensible is the Rebels’ failure to recognise and grasp attacking opportunities when they arose on the field: hence, the original questions after Round 2:

  • What did the Rebels not do in attack that led to a team and especially a backline full of Wallabies not crossing the chalk? (Tight-head)
  • Can the Rebels really have played that well while giving themselves next to no opportunities to score a try? (Numpty)
  • Why have the Rebels not been able to score any tries this year? (Purdo)

On this week’s callout after the Brumbies game, Freddieeffer went a bit further.

“Nick, plenty of observers are noting that the reason the Rebels have lost tight games is because they’re not scoring enough tries. Some are attributing that to the backs, with To’omua at ten not creating enough opportunities,” he said.

“My question is around who and what in your opinion is a ‘genuine Australian ten’? And how different, in reality, is there between 10 and 12 anyway, noting of course that there are differences in demands between Super and Test rugby, as well as whether you’re playing a dual playmaker style?”

JC Masher chimed in too, asking, “What do you think needs to change for the Force, Rebels and Waratahs to orchestrate some space so they can attack rather than continually just go side to side with very little gain?”

Let’s say firstly, that the Rebels are short of two first choices in the backline, with both Campbell Magnay and Dane Haylett-Petty missing. But with Matt To’omua and Reece Hodge as the two playmakers at 10 and 12 – both of whom have started at flyhalf for the Wallabies – you would expect good organisation in attacking play.

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Try-scoring opportunities arise after some form of break has been made, and these are the occasions when the attack needs to really switch on and prevent the defence from recovering its shape.

Let’s take a look at some of the Rebels indicators from a lineout in the first quarter against the Brumbies:

Rebels right wing Lachie Anderson blasts through Noah Lolesio’s tackle on first phase, and Joe Powell has quick ball to work with at the base. This is the picture as the pass from Powell reaches Matt To’omua at first receiver:

rebels attack vs brumbies

Brumbies right winger Andy Muirhead has been drawn well inside the 15-metre line and the most dangerous attacking striker on either side, Marika Koroibete, will find himself in a one-on-one with Tom Banks (out of shot) with 20 metres of space to work in.

Instead of giving the ball to Koroibete, Reece Hodge steps inside and takes the double hit from Len Ikitau and Rob Valetini – and we saw the folly of inviting that situation last week!

A similar scenario, albeit in a minor key, recurred on fifth phase:

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rebels attack vs brumbies

This time it is the outside centre Stacey Ili who steps back into traffic when Hodge still has some room to work with down the left 15-metre channel. It was a repeated theme:

Ili has made a long run after an interception, and this is precisely the sort of situation where the attack must look to maintain impetus and keep stretching the defence to the corners. But the only option available to To’omua on the phase after the break is a pass to prop Pone Fa’amausili up the middle of the park.

Burly Cabous Eloff makes the break upfield, To’omua splits to the right and Hodge goes to the left, but the result is the same. There is no overcall from Hodge, and a forward takes a step inside into more defensive traffic.

Let’s finish with a longer sequence which encapsulates the issue. Marika Koroibete makes a break directly from a Brumbies kick-off:

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What options are available on next phase? That’s right – a forward up the middle with both To’omua and Hodge tripping over each other other’s toes in the same playmaking space:

rebels attack vs brumbies

The third phase came back to the short-side, and the Rebels chose to shift the ball wide only after the defensive line had fully regrouped:

There isn’t yet a settled understanding between To’omua and Hodge at 10 and 12, with Hodge in particular sitting too deep behind the pod of forwards to overcall effectively.

There is also a worrying tendency to step back inside, or play short to a forward pod automatically after a breach, rather than seeking width. The Wallaby combination of James O’Connor at 10 and To’omua at 12 is a settled unit which does recognise this kind of opportunity far better.

Matt To’omua of the Rebels kicks a penalty

Matt To’omua. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images for the Melbourne Rebels)

Just Nuisance and Harry Jones had a couple of questions lapping into shore on the backwash of the recent Wales-England encounter in the Six Nations:

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  • Does England have a problem with discipline or have they just been unlucky? (Just Nuisance)
  • If you coached England would you be comfortable for Owen Farrell to be the nominated player who communicates on behalf of the team with the ref? (Just Nuisance)
  • Is Wales just really, really good at negating other teams’ strengths, or are they actually the best at something? (Harry Jones)

Let’s deal with Harry’s tongue-in-cheek query first. These two older articles illustrate where Wales’ strengths were at their best under Warren Gatland, prior to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

In the earlier article, a small Welsh back row of Justin Tipuric, Ellis Jenkins and Aaron Wainwright – none of them over 6’2 or 105 kilos – blew away much bigger Springbok opponents with their speed and intensity in contact. They were a major plank in Wales’ long run of success against the Bokke (five wins in six games) up until the 2019 World Cup, and it is why they came closest to toppling South Africa in the knockout stage of the tournament itself.

A similar back row was in harness for the Six Nations showdown against England two weeks ago, with Josh Navidi and Tipuric (both natural sevens) bookending Taulupe Faletau. The presence of those three, and evergreen Alun-Wyn Jones ahead of them, made the Wales defence the best in the world around 2018 with Shaun Edwards still coaching.

Wayne Pivac finally saw the sense in restoring the spine Gatland had spent years assembling: Ken Owens at hooker, Jones in the second row, Navidi and Tipuric on the flanks, Jonathan Davies in the centre and Liam Williams at fullback. Williams’ return was especially vital – at full bore, he is one of the two best fullbacks in the world, along with Beauden Barrett.

He can command both the air and the ground on counter-attack:

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As for England’s discipline, they do have a problem. Back in 2018, when England last finished with a losing record in the Six Nations, they averaged 10.6 penalties conceded per game.

This season, that number has climbed to 13.6 penalties, compared to 7.2 per game in 2019 when they reached the World Cup final.

Turn off the sound and look at the body language after Wales’ first try. Owen Farrell is clearly the aggressor with big arm gestures, and referee Pascal Gauzere is just as clearly on the defensive. He has to say “please” ten times before young Faz gives him the opportunity to speak.

Now compare Farrell’s excitability with Sam Warburton’s poise at the very end of the titanic 2017 series between New Zealand and the Lions:

My pick for England captain would be Maro Itoje. He was a very good captain of the England under 20s and the responsibility would help him address his own disciplinary problems.

Maro Itoje runs the ball for England

Maro Itoje. (Photo by Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

DJ asked, “The Brumbies have talked about wanting to be one of the best provincial teams in the world. On the field, do the best provincial teams have the best players, or best supporting structures and game plans that get the best out of the players that you have, or eventually both?”

I have had the privilege of immersing myself in two outstanding rugby environments: as a writer researching the Pontypool Rugby Club of the 1970s and 1980; and with Leinster as an analyst and strategist for Stuart Lancaster and Leo Cullen over the past four years. I’ll focus on what I discovered about Pontypool.

Both clubs created, or are still creating, superb cultures for players to learn and develop through the game of rugby – it’s important to see it that way around. Pontypool began as bottom of the pile in the Eastern valley north of Newport, before recruiting a coach with a vision for the club’s future in Ray Prosser in 1969.

‘Pross’ toured New Zealand with the 1959 British and Irish Lions and never forgot the bootings he took at the bottom of too many rucks to count. When he came home, he resolved that for every team he coached, the boot would be on the other foot. He wanted man-handlers, not ball-handlers, and that was the way it was at Pontypool, which quickly became the elite academy for Welsh forward play.

Under him, the club became the most ruthless scrummagers, the best-conditioned experts on contact work (at the ruck and maul) in the UK. Prosser’s coaching attracted better players from the satellite clubs in the area, and better players meant more success. Pontypool became the regional centre of excellence for rugby north of the M4.

Over 200 players would attend pre-season training at the end of the summer, hoping to claim a spot on the Pontypool roster. Over 2000 people attended Pontypool’s evening training session ahead of their game against the all-conquering 1984 Wallabies. Lions prop ‘Staff’ Jones would walk the 11 miles from Ynysybwl to Pontypool Park at the end of his shift at the coal pit to participate in that training – just to be called “Fat Arse” by Prosser. If he didn’t, he would lose his place to someone who did turn up.

There was a strong root in the community the club represented – big cup matches and tour games would attract upwards of 20,000, with supporters swaying in the branches of the trees in Pontypool Park to watch the action.

Pross brought back a simple, crystal-clear gameplan from New Zealand with him: dominate in contact, play off nine, kick for territory, and use the short-side. As a coach, he had his point of difference: in the mid-1970s, more than half of the forwards in the Wales pack were from ‘Pooler’.

A winning culture reinforces itself over time. It is rooted in the community from which it grows, then it becomes a regional hub by attracting all of the best players in the area. But it all starts with ‘coaching ahead of its time’, where players know they can come and fulfil their potential while winning silverware.

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Oblonsky’s Other Pun asked, “Is Pone Fa’amausili good enough that he could get Allan Alaalatoa to switch back to loosehead?”

This is a question in two parts. On the one hand, is there any evidence that Dave Rennie and his scrum coach, Petrus Du Plessis, are considering picking Alaalatoa at loosehead prop, his original position in Super Rugby?

Right now, the evidence on that front is lacking. They seem to regard him exclusively as a tighthead prop and are content to develop a healthy rivalry with Taniela Tupou. It is a position of strength for Australian rugby.

The second part is connected to the power and technique of Fa’amausili’s scrummaging. Let’s take a look at the two overhead scrums from the Reds game last week:

The big Rebels prop is neither very technical nor is he especially aggressive. He does not change his use of angle nor does he vary the height of the scrum. These are the signs of a tighthead prop still learning how to use the physical tools at his disposal, especially given his extreme height for a prop (6’5). There is a long road to travel before we see the best of him.

Allan Alaalatoa

Allan Alaalatoa. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

That’s all for this week folks, but keep the questions coming. I am keeping a list of the unanswered ones which I will try to address in future issues, so that nothing will be lost.

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