When I first started playing table football back in the 1970s, it was all so simple.
You had a goalie, two defenders, five in midfield, and three attacking players. Because they were all on aluminium rods, you could not tinker with the formation.
Soccer at school was similar: four at the back, three in midfield, three up front. You had your position, you stayed put.
It is different now. Gone is the straightforward dealing of the 4-3-3, or the 4-4-2; gone is the scrubby patchwork of mud, standing water and knobs of grass; gone is the honesty of a sodden leather ball.
Today is the era of the false nine and the sitting midfielder. Players interchange with bewildering freedom in the no man’s land between the three regimented lines of play, on surfaces as bright and green as a billiard table. Now, we have the ‘Christmas tree’ (4-3-2-1) or worse, the ‘diamond’ (4-1-2-1-2).
Those with longer memories may regret that rugby is travelling in the same direction. The laws sanitise the game further with every iteration, and it is becoming as difficult to pick a back from a forward as it is a wing from a centre-half in soccer.
The tentative groupings of forwards into pods early in the professional age (3-3-2 in the northern hemisphere, and 2-4-2 in the south) have evolved into ever more complex formations. Even the 1-3-3-1 common to Australian teams coached by Stephen Larkham (the Brumbies and Michael Cheika’s Wallabies) is now passe, as forwards are spread ever more thinly across the full width of the field.
More is asked of a forward in the modern game as ball-user than as a ball-winner, and the piano-shifters are increasingly happy to sit down and play their instruments: street buskers in the olde worlde of classical musicians.
In their former coach’s absence, the Brumbies have already evolved from the 1-3-3-1 to the 1-3-2-1-1, as illustrated in their Super Rugby AU game against the Force over the weekend. The work of their forwards as ball-users is more inventive than it was in the Larkham era, and the threat presented by the outside backs – starting with Len Ikitau at number 13 – is more varied than it was when Tevita Kuridrani towered and glowered above the position.
The formation begins to takes shape when there is a big openside of the field:
The Brumbies forwards are distributed as follows:
The two main distributors (circled in yellow) are Noah Lolesio and Irae Simone. There is a three-man forward pod working off Nic White, and two more tight positioned forwards beyond them in midfield. As we saw recently, the Brumbies like to have their back-rowers, and especially number eight Pete Samu, playing with the backs and finishing play out wide.
The following example at the beginning of the second period is more complex and split into two phases:
The basic structure is the same, with one forward (Cadeyrn Neville) attending the ruck, three tight forwards working off White, and Jahrome Brown and James Slipper in a ‘two’ beyond them. Samu is positioned wide left, with Rob Valetini wide right:
It is Brown’s neat pass to Slipper in contact which creates a window of opportunity on the next play:
With the forward momentum provided by the ‘two’, there is less time for the Force defence to regroup, and prop Tom Robertson is left struggling to defend on the inside of Tevita Kuridrani. Even so, a terrific offload by Len Ikitau out of his left hand is still needed to give Valetini some room to move down the right sideline.
At other times, a strong drive from the ‘three’ gave the duo, and single forwards beyond them, a chance to show their piano-playing wares:
The man on the end of the play is Brumbies outside centre Len Ikitau, and he was undoubtedly the star of the show at GIO Stadium. Ikitau has showcased a variety of positive attacking abilities in Super Rugby AU 2021, and most of them were on view against the Force.
There were instances of his quick feet, escapability in traffic:
Len Ikitau’s main threat is the step off his left foot moving towards the left sideline, but he also demonstrates a pretty slick spin move going in the opposite direction in the second example.
There was also a strong indication that Ikitau has a rugby brain as sharp as his footwork, and knows instinctively how to pick the right angle of attack. With Kuridrani off the field on a yellow card, he had worked out that an inviting transition zone between a forward and a defending back was more likely to open up in midfield.
Instead of shifting the ball wide, the Brumbies are happy with a short ball from Simone leading Ikitau through the seam between the Force number eight and 12 close to the goal-line, and the Brumbies centre has more than enough explosive strength to shoulder his way over for his second try of the game.
There is also a sense that Ikitau could be ahead of one of his main competitors for a Wallabies jersey, Queensland’s Hunter Paisami, in two key areas.
He can pass smoothly off the wrong hand with no wind-up, or ‘tick’, to tip off the defence:
He also has a left-footed kicking game, as this mid-range punt from inside the Brumbies’ half illustrated:
The Brumbies are achieving one of the more difficult feats in professional rugby. Under the stewardship of Dan McKellar, they are moving their game forward while hanging onto their bedrock strengths from previous generations of the franchise.
Their driving lineout and tenacity in all contact situations are still powerful weapons to be respected by opponents, but the offensive formations and midfield ball-players behind them can offer a more varied range of attacking threats.
The days of the more rigid 1-3-3-1 are in the past, with forwards routinely split into five, not four, attacking zones, and happy to play in combination with backs more often than in the Stephen Larkham era.
The midfield composed of Noah Lolesio at 10, Irae Simone at 12 and Len Ikitau at 13 thrives on the additional width that their forwards are so comfortable supporting. With Pete Samu at number eight and Len Ikitau at outside centre, there is not so much emphasis on battering the door down as there was in the time of Tevita Kuridrani or Ita Vaea. The men from Canberra are more content to look for different keys to turn the lock.
In 2021, it has become clear why Ikitau was emphatically not just making up the numbers in Dave Rennie’s Wallabies squad last season. He has good feet, he can offload in contact, and he can pick his angle according to what the defence gives him. In terms of his kicking game and his ability to pass equally well both ways, he may well be ahead of Hunter Paisami of the Reds. He is naturally left-sided, and that is a quality the Wallabies lack.
The one negative is Ikitau is short on sheer bulk, if the official figures are to be believed. At 1.80 metres and 90 kilos, he is about ten centimetres shorter and as many kilos lighter than Wallabies starter Jordan Petaia. But his skill-set may still be strong enough to push Petaia into the back three for the July series against France.
Forget New South Wales. The new rivalry in Australian rugby is red versus white, Brisbane versus Canberra, O’Connor-Paisami-Petaia against Lolesio-Simone-Ikitau. All with a healthy dose of Matt To’omua and his Rebels thrown in, for added spice. The pot is coming to the boil nicely for Dave Rennie.