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Coach's Corner Issue 7: What position for Petaia?

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Expert
8th April, 2021
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Thanks once again to all who contributed questions to the latest round of Coach’s Corner.

Why has Jordan Petaia had such a slow start to the year, when compared to his performances for the Reds and Wallabies last year?

– Chunks

Jordan Petaia unloaded a kick from his 22 on the weekend which seemed to cross the line at the 60m mark. He looked very comfortable doing it. If he was moved to 15 (even though Campbell has done nothing wrong and runs good lines himself), do you think this would open up the hard-to-manage running game we all know he has?

– TC

Jordan Petaia’s best position represents probably the single biggest Gordian Knot in Australian rugby in 2021. Should he play number 13, on the wing, or, as Tim Horan has suggested, at fullback?

The problem is the Reds have some good players competing for game time in all these spots – Hunter Paisami and Hamish Stewart in the centres, and Filipo Daugunu, Jock Campbell and Suliasi Vunuvalu in the back three – so time spent experimenting with Petaia also means time lost with at least one of that group.

I do not feel the positional uncertainty has left Jordan Petaia in a happy place:

His body language after a kicking error lacks energy and animation. At the very least, it communicates a sense of restlessness and loss of confidence.

Jordan Petaia needs a role in which he can be on the ball at least 10 to 15 times per game, guaranteed. He needs to be involved, and influencing matters with ball in hand as much as possible to play himself out of the rut. Somewhere, somehow, he needs to be the centre of attention.

Jordan Petaia of the Reds

Jordan Petaia. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

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Players in front of the ball feature quite a lot in the modern game. Can you show some examples of where it is done well, done poorly, done legally and where someone has got away with it?

– Exile in Oz

This question is an interesting technical issue in itself, and one which taps into the improvement in the Waratahs’ performance against the Brumbies.

Play ahead of the ball is unavoidable in many areas of rugby. All points of contact – scrum, lineout drive and breakdown – inevitably involve blocking of opponents, or forms of legal obstruction. Backline plays with decoys, shielding the receiver underneath the high ball, the box-kick ‘caterpillar’… the list goes on.

The Waratahs recognised the strength of the Brumbies’ driving lineout and used a variety of methods against it with some success. The most intriguing from the legal viewpoint was their use of a ‘back-off’ maul defence:

waratahs stand-off maul defence

At the throw, the defending forwards back off from contact instead of engaging, which means that no legal maul can be formed. There is clearly confusion about what can and can’t be done, on both sides.

If the ball stays with the lineout receiver (Cadeyrn Neville) the Brumbies can advance, but if they go forward after moving the ball to the back they will either be penalised for obstruction or the opposition will be free to sack the ball-carrier, as was the case in this match between Exeter and Glasgow:

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The Brumbies keep the ball in Neville’s hands, forcing a commitment from the defence:

A second example occurred only a few minutes later:

In this case, the ball does move to the back after the Waratahs engage, and the fringe defender is penalised for sacking the ball-carrier after the offside line has been created.

In the context of the game, the Waratahs came out with a fair amount of credit for the variety of their lineout defence: mixing counter-jumps against the throw; back-off defence; and more orthodox attempts to stop the drive.

In the context of the laws, there is still clearly a sizeable grey area surrounding the ‘latch’ of attacking players before contact with the opposition, and for the referee to discern where the ball is in a maul and when an offside line has been created.

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Can you do an analysis of the modern role/expectations of a prop, comparing Harry Johnson-Holmes with Taniela Tupou?

– Big Sur

Who would you start at tighthead prop and why: Allan Alaalatoa or Taniela Tupou?

– Bobby

I compared the two leading tighthead props in Australia last year in August and then again in September.

The comparison indicated Alaalatoa had a higher work rate and generated more involvements in the open, and played within the unit disciplines of Brumbies’ set-piece. Tupou was more explosive and made bigger impacts in both areas.

My conclusion remains the same as it was then: shift Allan Alaalatoa back to loosehead prop and start Taniela Tupou on the other side of the front row. Have either James Slipper or Angus Bell on the bench alongside Pone Fa’amausili.

The comparison between Harry Johnson-Holmes and Tupou, based on their key 2021 stats, follows a familiar pattern:

Retention rate (overall) In opposition 22 Penalties conceded at tighthead
Harry Johnson-Holmes 81% 63% 8
Taniela Tupou 100% 100% 5

This is a clear win for Tupou, and it also reflects the poor development policies at New South Wales, where Johnson-Holmes has been shifted from one side of the scrum and back again without being able to learn a single position thoroughly.

Runs Metres per run Defenders beaten/breaks made
Harry Johnson-Holmes 40 1.2m 1/1
Taniela Tupou 21 3.4m 5/3
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Harry runs one-off from the number 9, Taniela will frequently align outside ten, and make more breaks because of his explosive athletic qualities. Defence is probably the only area in which Johnson-Holmes’ sheer quantity of involvements gives him an edge over Tupou.

Tackles Tackle success Tackle dominance Involvement ranking within team
Harry Johnson-Holmes 42 84% 0 Third
Taniela Tupou 16 73% 1 Outside the top ten tacklers!
Taniela Tupou makes a break

Taniela Tupou (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Ronan O’Gara currently is chief coach at La Rochelle. With high coaching ambitions after an outstanding playing career which saw him win 128 Irish caps and tour three times with the British and Irish Lions, O’Gara has coached at Racing 92, and was an assistant coach with the Canterbury Crusaders prior to taking the reins at Stade Rochelais.

The question: Where will Ronan O’Gara’s current trajectory take him to when the 2027 Rugby World Cup comes around?

– Mzilikazi

I would guess the short answer to that question is “back to Ireland”, Mz. Coaches who take the risk of going abroad, and especially of gaining experience in the opposite hemisphere, are really in a school of accelerated development. Graham Henry, Steve Hansen, Wayne Smith and Warren Gatland were the pioneers. They brought back a deep knowledge of the players, systems and most importantly the mindset and attitudes within UK rugby culture.

The first three in particular returned to New Zealand with an understanding of the game that was impossible to beat. The flow from north to south has been far more conservative. Stuart Lancaster gained a huge amount from his sabbatical year in Australia and New Zealand, and Steve Tandy volunteered for service with the Waratahs before returning to the UK as the current Scotland defence coach.

The knowledge base that O’Gara has built up with the Crusaders and in France would make him an invaluable asset in the Ireland national set-up in years to come.

Crusaders assistant coach Ronan O'Gara.

Ronan O’Gara during his time with the Crusaders. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

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I would like to specifically know if Tate McDermott’s delivery is any better this year and if Nic White or Joe Powell currently possess the best pass from the ruck.

– Bourkos

I’m wondering about halfbacks, and how they are going under the new rules. Who is thriving and who is struggling?

– Ankle-tapped Waterboy

I’ve written a number of articles about Nic White, both when he was a player at Exeter in the UK, and on his return to Australia.

One of White’s great strengths is the clarity of his approach to running and passing situations. When he wants to pass, he stays low in his stance and delivers either directly off the deck, or with a very short ‘lift’, no more than ankle-height before distributing:

After a positive run by Rob Valetini, White knows the space will be out wide so he does not waste time lifting the ball off the ground or running sideways with it before delivering the pass.

When he wants to run, he stands up and engages a defender at ruck-side before releasing the ball:

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In comparison, Reds scrumhalf Tate McDermott drops more easily into that no man’s land between running and passing:

On all three passes, McDermott is lifting the ball – and sometimes taking steps in the direction of the receiver – before passing, and he isn’t engaging the defenders at ruck-side. That simplifies life for the defence.

McDermott is built as a run-before-pass scrumhalf, and is at his most dangerous when he lifts the ball and takes on the forwards near the breakdown. His short run on second phase leaves three Brumbies forwards struggling on the wrong side of the next play, and that creates a long Queensland break down the right.

Tate McDermott of the Reds passes

Tate McDermott. (Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

Thanks for all the questions, as usual I will carry forward the unanswered ones to future weeks.