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Opinion

Why picking the best players does not always make the best team

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Expert
6th April, 2021
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It should all be so straightforward, shouldn’t it? As a coach, you pick the best player available in every position, and then you name them all in your team. They go out on the field and play superbly, each to his or her full potential.

In reality, it never works out that way. The best players do not always work as the best combinations in the sub-units of the team. The front row, the back row, the midfield, the back three.

The missing element is synergy. An invisible binding force which persuades one player to perform better in the company of a second individual, sometimes to the exclusion of all others.

Synergy – you cannot see it, but you can feel it.

Mark Twain referred to it as “the bonus that is achieved when things work together harmoniously”. The author of the worldwide bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey, said, “synergy is the highest activity of life. It creates new, untapped alternatives. It values and exploits the mental, emotional and psychological differences between people.”

It is the same with rugby teams. At the beginning of 2012, Stuart Lancaster’s England were searching for a midfield. There was a good young prospect at No.10 in Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi was already established at outside centre.

The missing link was at number 12, and this spot was filled by ex-Sharks inside centre Brad Barritt. Barritt’s kicking was not a strength and he was only an adequate passer of the ball, so he did not fit the profile of an all-singing, all-dancing ‘triple threat’ from that position.

But his abilities and character dovetailed nicely with young Faz and big Manu. His temperament was tough, even and dependable where theirs could be volatile. He was strong on the run. He was a natural communicator who led the defence and excelled at all the bits and pieces in contact and collision, which are so much a part of the 12’s job nowadays.

The synergy worked, and it carried England to a famous victory over the All Blacks on a cold day at Twickenham at the beginning of that December. The trio were instrumental in the side’s three tries, and they gave the team a working platform for further development.

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The situation in the Queensland midfield is even more fascinating than it was with England of yore. The Reds have three incumbent Wallabies from 2020 in the shape of James O’Connor at ten, and Hunter Paisami and Jordan Petaia in the centres.

Wallabies attack coach Scott Wisemantel has spoken publicly about Paisami developing into that type of a triple threat.

“Certain players get pigeon-holed at certain times in their lives,” Wisematel said last November.

“Hunter is aggressive and we know he can hit in defence and we know that he can run hard, so people see that – and then he gets pigeon-holed as a hard-running hitter.

“He’s actually got a lot of subtlety to his game – he can kick off both feet and has got a nice passing game, good tempo – so really we want to evolve him into a triple threat where he can run, pass, kick. That’s where we see Hunter’s future.”

Hunter Paisami of the Wallabies

Hunter Paisami. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

He also saw Paisami and Petaia as a combo, adding that, “It’s about competition… and we will pick whoever is in form, but they’re going really well as a centre pairing at the moment.”

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The problem for Wisemantel and the Wallabies is the Reds’ synergy in midfield looks better when Hamish Stewart is playing at number 12, with Hunter Paisami pushed sideways to 13 and Jordan Petaia left out in the cold on the right wing.

This is especially true on the defensive side of the ball, where the Reds average just over 15 points conceded per game with Stewart/Paisami in combination in 2021, against 24 with Paisami/Petaia in harness.

Hamish Stewart’s was not one of the 40 names announced in Dave Rennie’s first Wallabies squad of 2021 – and that makes the Reds’ choice at the sharp end of Super Rugby AU, in which they will inevitably participate as the unbeaten leaders of the competition, all the more intriguing.

It certainly appears Queensland attack coach Jim McKay has the confidence to uncork his best offensive moves when Stewart is around. Remember this from the game against the Waratahs in the very first round of the competition?

Now take a look at this reprise from the first quarter of the weekend game against the Rebels at AAMI Park:

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McKay has noticed in his preparatory work for the game that the Rebels tend to overwrap their forwards at the first ruck from lineout in midfield:

melbourne rebels defensive line

Four Melbourne forwards have run around the back of the ruck to the openside, and that is one too many.

The same themes announced in the move against the Waratahs are all repeated: Harry Wilson is the first-phase ball-carrier, aiming to set the ruck at a spot no further than ten metres from the near 15-metre line; there is a pod of forward runners faking same-way movement on second phase, with Tate McDermott taking an initial step in that direction in both instances before switching the ball across his body; and O’Connor and one other back button-hook to the short-side on second phase – Petaia in the first example, Paisami in the second.

The common denominator is Stewart, clearing out at the tackle zone over Wilson. He is doing the unsung Brad Barritt job and allowing the strike runners to do theirs. That is synergy.

There is also a big difference in the types of kicking game available to the Reds when Paisami or Stewart are playing at number 12. Paisami’s tends to be confined to attacking chips in the last third:

Stewart’s kicking game operates more strategically, from distances much further downfield:

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That kick set up the position for the Reds’ first try of the match.

But it is on defence where the value of Hamish Stewart’s presence in midfield really comes into focus. The task of a defensive leader is to recognise issues before they arise on the field:

After a long kick downfield, Matt To’omua receives the ball, and he has two other Rebels outside backs, centre Stacey Ili and wing Frank Lomani, back-tracking to join up with him on the counter:

queensland reds kick-chase

It is a potentially dangerous scenario with all three Queensland front-rowers defending on the same side of the field. Stewart defuses it by swinging outside Brandon Paenga-Amosa and ensuring he is able to cover the attacking options from the optimal spot – in this case, the kick in behind by To’omua.

One of the other primary responsibilities of the defensive leader in the backs is to play as the furthest man forward in the line, ready to make a ‘spot tackle’ when the situation allows. This is the role Wales’ Jonathan Davies, South Africa’s Jean de Villiers and the All Blacks’ Conrad Smith played with such distinction for so many years for their teams:

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Stewart spots Marika Koroibete shifting out to the right of the Melbourne attack, and shoots out of the line to shut him down before he can build up a head of steam.

Stewart also created a try out of defence by recognising that Matt To’omua’s passing targets were limited:

The Rebels have a four-to-two advantage, but unfortunately for To’omua, the two closest to him are both tight forwards.

hamish stewart defensive positioning

It’s a great spot by Stewart. He can afford to come up and square in on To’omua, and dare him to lob the pass over the top, confident in the knowledge that the fastest man in the space behind him is wearing a maroon jersey.

When Jock Campbell is finally hauled down only a few metres from the Rebels goal-line, who is there to protect the tackle ball? That’s right, it’s Hamish Stewart – still glueing the pieces of the counter together.

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At the end of the game, Paisami was not quite as effective defending in a similar scenario:

At present, it appears the Reds coaches are coming around to the idea that Hamish Stewart is the glue player they cannot do without:

Here Stewart knocks down Koroibete, gets up and gives Lukhan Salakaia-Loto a helpful nudge, then makes a dominant turnover hit on Reece Hodge with Jordan Petaia’s assistance. All in the space of ten seconds.

Hamish Stewart of the Reds passes the ball

Hamish Stewart. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

Summary
Hunter Paisami and Jordan Petaia both have more explosive points of difference, and more glamorous skill-sets than Hamish Stewart. Both will enjoy longer international careers, and Paisami may well one day emerge from his cocoon into the multi-coloured, triple threat butterfly that Scott Wisemantel foresees.

But for now, the wheels of the Reds midfield run better with the oil that Hamish Stewart supplies. He is the best defensive leader at the club in the backs, he adds more to the kicking game, and a better balance between game-breakers and expertise at the contact points comes with him quite naturally. The synergy is there.

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There is a downside, of course. Jordan Petaia cut an increasingly forlorn figure on the right wing, and looked thoroughly out of sorts by the end of the game. Stewart’s selection does nothing to advance the development of the Paisami-Petaia combination for the Wallabies.

Picking the best players is never enough in selection. You need the bonus that comes from good synergy, and the Queensland Reds have it when Hamish Stewart wears the number 12 jersey. The intangibles really do matter.