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Coach’s Corner Issue 6: Penney for your thoughts?

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1st April, 2021
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As the crisis in New South Wales professional rugby has come to the boil with the sacking of head coach Rob Penney, there were naturally a lot of queries about how the fortunes of the Waratahs can be repaired.

The rehab phase has several different aspects.

Fiwiboy7042 asked, “How hard do you think it has become for NSW to attract a quality replacement for Penney?”, while RugbyRah added, “Who would you recommend as the two or three candidates for the Waratahs job and why?”.

Politically, the appointment of another Kiwi coach is far too sensitive after the departure of first Daryl Gibson and now Penney – not to mention the much-criticised contribution of Andrew Hore as CEO. Therefore, the choice would have to come from either within the organisation or from much further afield.

If the appointment comes from within, the outstanding candidate would appear to be Jason Gilmore, who was responsible for coaching the best Australian under 20s team in recent memory at the 2019 World Championship.

Simon Cron, who accrued positive reviews during his time under Gibson but is now with Toyota Verblitz in Japan, would also be a legitimate candidate, although he ruled himself out of the running earlier this week.

Both Cron and Gilmore are coaches whose IP needs to be nurtured within the domestic game, so they need the opportunity to progress their careers within Australia.

If the choice comes from further afield, the NSW board would have to pursue a European coach who could adjust easily to the ‘Australian way’ of playing and overall rugby outlook. A coach like Stuart Lancaster has already proven at Leinster that he can win a lot of silverware, while coaching an expansive style of play which places very high skill and fitness demands on the players.

Cookie asked, “What safeguards should be put in place to hold those responsible who have not only failed but questions of competence and negligence are raised and simply refuse to move aside all while blaming others?”

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This is a much bigger issue, and a question of culture within the organisation. I was working with Stuart Lancaster when he resigned as England head coach after the debacle at the 2015 World Cup. He alone was scapegoated for the failure, just like Martin Johnson after the disaster four years earlier.

The senior administrative figures standing behind both coaches, like the RFU’s elite performance director, Rob Andrew, shouldered no responsibility whatsoever, even though they were common denominators in both cycles.

So it becomes a question of accountability, and cultivating a refusal to reward failure in the background. The administrators and governors of NSW rugby need to become accountable, and learn to point the finger of blame at themselves.

On the playing front, there is a double question, a how and a why: how do the Waratahs retain existing talent, and why is it important to keep a veteran backbone in the squad?

Westy asked, “To fix the Waratahs in their current crisis, and imagining an open chequebook, who would you target to recruit urgently?”

“How do we fix the Tahs?” pleaded Ken Catchpole’s Other Leg.

Over the past couple of seasons, the Waratahs organisation has basically sold off its veteran backbone off to a single Premiership club in the UK, London Irish.

Irish added Sekope Kepu, Curtis Rona, Nick Phipps and latterly Rob Simmons to their roster, all of them from the Waratahs. There were another two New South Welshmen, front rowers Ollie Hoskins and Dave Porecki, already at the club. Since his return to Sydney, Porecki has been rewarded for his displays in 2021 with a spot in Dave Rennie’s extended Wallabies squad.

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With such targeted recruitment, the question arises why either an exchange scheme (with players moving both ways) or a sabbatical/loan deal (with the Tahs retaining primacy of contract) was not agreed between the two clubs?

Instead, there was a clear winner from the deal – Irish – and a clear loser – New South Wales. The Waratahs lost all of their veteran leadership, and London picked it up.

Centre/wing Curtis Rona is deriving benefit from the new setting, judging by his last performance in the English Premiership against Bath. Irish enjoy moving the ball wide on long-range counters from turnover ball, a style which suits Rona well:

The presence of a veteran group of players is essential to team welfare, and players like Phipps, Kepu, Simmons and the unwanted Karmichael Hunt would have provided the kind of leadership the Waratahs cannot do without.

Rob Penney summarised the positive influence Simmons had on the playing group thusly:

“Rob’s an outstanding human being first and foremost, just one of those people you really enjoy having around your group. His leadership and influence over our squad has been outstanding to witness – particularly given the challenges we’ve all recently faced [during Covid].”

On the field, the absence of Nick Phipps’ leadership, communication skills and defensive qualities were especially noticeable against the Reds in the last round of Super Rugby AU. Here are two examples from the first half:

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The NSW scrumhalf is Jack Grant, with no top professional experience in the bank at the age of 27. In the first instance, he picks the side where the Reds are going to run, but allows his opposite number Tate McDermott far too much leeway:

jack grant defence vs queensland

With Carlo Tizzano pinned to the side of the scrum by the wheel, Grant simply has to step forward and cut down McDermott’s space.

The second example is even a more flagrant dereliction of duty. There is no player in the defensive receiver position at the beginning of the lineout, with Grant still sited back on the five-metre line:

jack grant positioning at defensive lineout

That gives Suliasi Vunivalu an unopposed run all the way to within a couple of metres of the New South Wales posts.

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Waratahs coach Rob Penney

Sacked Tahs coach Rob Penney. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Harry Jones created a typically convoluted scenario. “Team A is down by four with 1:00 to go. Team B infringes, five metres from their own line, in the middle of the field. Team A is debating what to do. The captain wants to kick it into the corner (0:50), form a lineout (0:45), win it and form a maul (0:40), and drive it over the try line (0:30). The waterboy wants a scrum with a 3-1-3 formation in the backs. Rocky, the hooker, wants to quick tap and go, and batter down the door for a minute. Assume Team A has lost two lineouts to B and the A scrum has been pinged three times. Who’s right?”

The answer to this question devolves to the use of the tapped penalty. You cannot rely on the referee’s scrum perception, and the lineout has a lot of moving parts, all of which have to be synchronised – the throw, the jump and the lifts, the timing and structure of the drive.

Exeter Chiefs have shown the way forward by simply taking a tapped penalty in midfield, often from as far away as 8-10 metres from the goal-line. It can be taken by either their hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, or a scrumhalf (Jack Maunder or Stu Townsend).

The short-hand is here:

It is well-nigh impossible to prevent a strong ball-carrier like Cowan-Dickie from penetrating inside the five-metre line, even with no pre-binding by his support players. The one caveat is that you need confidence in your tight driving and pick and go game close to the line, but that is no problem for Exeter. They have had the highest red zone conversion rate in England over the past two seasons.

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Piru asked, “What is the point of penalising and even yellow carding defences for knocking passes away?”

This is one of the old chestnuts that just will not go away. The thrust of modern law-making (or refereeing protocols, which are arguably even more important) is to reward positive play and reduce the negative or cynical element.

That does not always mean penalising a failed attempt to intercept a pass, but it does mean the referee will try to assess intent – that of the defender either to catch the ball directly in two hands, or knock it up in the air and regather subsequently. If he or she sees a hand flapping at the ball or a downward motion of the arm, the officials are instructed to penalise the offender or even issue a yellow card in flagrant cases.

Why is this important? Let’s say defenders are allowed to knock the pass down, with a scrum to the opponent the most severe possible sanction. There would be an increase of defensive line-speed, with players shooting out of the line more frequently – maybe even flying through the air like goal-keepers to tip the ball away.

The outcome would be to deter the attacking team from using the full width of the field, because you have effectively granted the defence a significant extra weapon. Thanks, but no thanks.

Rob Simmons yellow card

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

There were also a couple of questions either directly or indirectly related to the recent improvement in the Melbourne Rebels’ attack.

“If Matt To’omua is injured, do the Rebels have someone who can play ten, or will they bring Hodge in further a have an even worse backline? Don’t get me wrong, Reece Hodge has been a good servant of Australian rugby and he has some good skills, however, distribution and game management aren’t two of them,” asked JC Masher, albeit a bit uncharitably.

“Do you think you could do a Coach’s Corner on the differing first-phase tactics of the teams off the set-piece?” Bentnuc added.

The Rebels have added width to their attacking game, with considerable profit, since I last took a look at them in Coach’s Corner Issue 3.

They have, in the process, come up with some creative solutions at set-piece involving their massive ball-carrying prop, Pone Fa’amausili:

Instead of using Fa’amausili as a mundane bookend/lifter in the five-man lineout, the Rebels are featuring him as the main ball-carrying threat in midfield, on the end of Matt To’omua’s pass from first receiver:

rebels attack vs waratahs

Pone doesn’t trundle automatically into contact (however nuclear), as he might have done earlier in the season. He pivots and delivers a pass to Reece Hodge circling around behind him. As the screenshot illustrates, the Waratahs defence has been caught in a dog-leg created by its determination to shut the door on the Rebels tighthead.

What is truly impressive – and different from the Melbourne mind-set against the Brumbies – is their desire to utilise the full width of the field, keep the ball alive with offloads, and avoid the stopping point of a ruck entirely once the break has been made.

The Rebels used the same formation from an attacking lineout in the second half:

This time, with the NSW defence hanging off, Fa’amausili keeps the ball and bullocks Carlo Tizzano out of his path after receiving the ball from Hodge. Two offloads later, he has driven deep into the sky blue 22 and the Rebels are in position A1 for the next wave of attack. Play is fluid, slick and penetrative.

Matt Toomua passes for the Rebels

Matt To’omua. (Photo by Teaukura Moetaua/Getty Images)

“Over recent years, props have played for penalties and focused more on collapsing and disrupting the opposition, rather than winning clean ball. This has been encouraged by misplaced refereeing which rewards the fictional offence of ‘dominance’. Question – I sense the worm is slowly turning – but have the current crop of props lost the art of scrummaging?” asked In Brief.

I’ve devoted two separate articles to this issue in recent months. One appeared recently here on The Roar, with particular reference to the Queensland Reds. The other was published on The Rugby Site.

I found some interesting stats during the research for the second piece.

World Cup era Avg. scrums per game Percentage of scrums ending in penalties Avg. usable balls
Amateur (1987-1995) 28 10.30% 25
Professional (2011-2019) 15 29.30% 10

By this at-a-glance measure, the number of scrums has decreased, but three times as many scrums are ending in penalties, with far less usable ball produced. The Rugby Site article goes on to describe the scenario I was highlighting from the game between the Reds and the Force, with the feeding team attempting to walk the ball around one side of the scrum, then disengage binds in order to pressurise the referee into resolving the set-piece by penalty.

Both sides are well capable of achieving this effect within the same game, as the Reds and the Force amply demonstrated. It is not achieved by one scrum having achieved physical or technical dominance over the other.

If that is the case, why reward the wheel with a penalty? Why not reward it instead with the natural advantage to the attack which comes from promoting the scrum on one side?

This advantage could be enhanced by getting rid of the antiquated law which allows the defending scrumhalf to lurk near the tunnel and follow the feeding nine around to the base, and instead require him or her to drop back to the same offside line as the rest of the defending backs.

Wallabies and England players scrum.

(Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images)

Thanks to all once again who offered up a question, they continue to be added to my ever-growing list of ‘the great unanswered’!

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