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Coach’s Corner Issue 15: Where the Waratahs defence is going astray

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3rd June, 2021
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Thanks for all the questions. I am trying to answer some of the easier ones in the callout itself.

I’d love to hear about some areas for the Waratahs to fix their defence. They’ve made great strides in attack but not on the other side of the ball.

All the commentary from the coaches and players are about accountability – both on individual tackling and on staying in the systems.

Is that where the major issues lie? Or was ‘Leahry’ on to something the other week challenging the systems?

– Jeznez

If I could add to Jez’s questions… is our defence coach, Jason Gilmore, good enough for Super Rugby level?

– Machooka

A couple of weeks ago, Nick Leah wrote an interesting article attacking the methods of Rod Penney and Jason Gilmore at the Waratahs, and Dave Wessels at the Rebels. All three came in for scathing criticism, not all of it warranted.

One aspect he did identify accurately was the deficiency of the current NSW defensive system employed by Gilmore. It is quite similar to the system run by then-Glasgow Warriors’ defence coach Matt Taylor, when he was working with Dave Rennie in Scotland.

Now the pair are coaching the Wallabies at international level, but Taylor has significantly tweaked the pattern he used in the UK.

That pattern is a bend-but-don’t-break formation. It never fields fewer than two players in the backfield or more than 12 in the front line. The scrumhalf plays as a sweeper hopping from one ruck to the next in between the two lines. It is very hard to mount an effective rush from this system – the rush works best with 13 or 14 in the line – so defence on the edges tends to be soft and reactive.

That is meat and drink to attacking teams from New Zealand:

waratahs defence vs crusaders

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This is only the second phase from lineout and New South Wales are already in a parlous position when the Crusaders move the ball back towards the site of the throw.

They are trying to protect their left flank with a group of forwards with Jack Dempsey on the outside, one defender – Jack Maddocks – coming out of the backfield, and with their scrumhalf Jake Gordon stranded in midfield behind the first ruck. There is just too much space for the Crusaders to work their passing magic out wide:

Gordon is trying to cheat away from his sweeper role behind the ruck early and help out his forwards, but in the final analysis he is too far away from the target area, and so is Maddocks.

The Crusaders were able to peel off any number of easy metres down the sides of the field:

waratahs backfield defensive sweeper vs crusaders

In the final example, if Gordon was defending wide in the line outside Lalakai Foketi, the line spacings would be tighter and it would be much harder for Richie Mo’unga to find a hole.

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While there are problems with the system, it is too early – much too early – to condemn Jason Gilmore to the scrapheap. It is a learning process, and the success of the Junior Wallabies side he coached should have earned him some credit in the bank.

The Waratahs after conceding a try

(Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

The Kiwis have obviously worked hard at upper body and torso strength so they can wrestle a person to the ground quickly and effectively – you also see this is how hard it is to clean them out from a breakdown. One guy choke-tackles to the ground and the second is a jackal immediately. The choke tackle makes it difficult for the runner to long place or present the ball for his Aussie teammates so the New Zealand jackal can do his work more effectively. Aussies seem to go low – Kiwis can offload, pop, or long place easily and present lightning-quick ball for halves.

– Inside Pass

First, there is a lot of side entry being allowed, and that so often slows down fast ball.

Secondly, as you say “one guy choke tackles to the ground and the second is a jackal immediately”. That is all fine and good as long as the second player is not assisting with the tackle. If he is, he must show clear release before going for the ball. This is not being well refereed.

– Mzilikazi

Something that I noticed live in the Reds game is that it appeared they had made a real concerted effort in how the tackled player delivered the ball.

It is one forgotten area that can make or break the contest for the ball on the ground. Without having reviewed the game, it felt like the Reds ball carriers made better decisions and dynamic movements to avoid turnovers/penalties?

– Goady

Against a competent modern forward attack with well-drilled cleanouts, like the Brumbies, has attempting to pilfer or force a penalty at the breakdown become a low percentage play?

– Rhys Bosley

The breakdown remains the single biggest issue in the game. How is it being refereed in different parts of the world? How can attacks generate quick ball? How can defenders work in concert to create turnover opportunities? These are all very much issues under the spotlight.

‘Lightning-quick ball’, or LQB for short – typically ruck ball which takes under two seconds to deliver – has become the new buzzword for attacking teams. The most surprising aspect is that it is English refereeing culture which is holding the torch and leading the way to its production, maybe for the first time in the history of the game, amateur or professional.

I will take some liberties with the questions above and look at the gulf which currently exists in the refereeing of the tackle area in the English Premiership compared to the Trans-Tasman competition.

In Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, the tackle revisions have become largely an excuse to reward the defender and create more turnover ball. Here are some examples from the weekend match between the Highlanders and the Rebels:

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This is a situation of the type Inside Pass describes, with the tackle going from high to low and exposing the ball-carrier to a jackalling attempt. The referee ignores two illegalities by Highlanders prop Ethan de Groot in order to allow turnover. De Groot drags his hands back from a spot well ahead of the ball before locking on to it, and he is not supporting his own bodyweight fully throughout the process.

In the following two cases, the referee never demands a clear release by the tackler (or assist tackler) before they are permitted to attack the ball again:

It is impossible to make a quick, long placement of the ball if the tackler never releases the ball-carrier or gets out of the way of the attacking support players:

highlanders ruck vs rebels

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This last instance shows how a tackler anda jackal can work in tandem to exploit the grey area immediately after a tackle is made. Both the Highlanders’ number 7 and 13 are shaving the margins of refereeing down to the bare bone. The tackler stays on the wrong side just long enough to impede a cleanout by the first support player, Brumbies number 9 Joe Powell, and protect a jackal attempt with entry at a 45-degree angle.

Now compare those examples, with some instances from the weekend match between Harlequins and Bath in the English Premiership. There has been an explosion of LQB and high scoring in the Gallagher Premiership, and this game was no exception – it ended up 44-33 to the Quins, with 77 points and ten tries shared between the teams.

The breakdown was extremely well managed by Tom Foley and contributed to the positive tone of play mightily. English refs demand a clear release by the tackler, or a clear exit from the tackle zone before they will even consider allowing a turnover.

Foley gave six penalties in the first half alone for the tackler failing to move away from the ball with sufficient urgency:

If the tackler fails to clear the zone immediately, or the jackal enters at an angle or fails to support his bodyweight fully in all phases of the turnover, he is penalised.

There is an immediate change of behaviour by the players as a result: they are much more likely to chance their attacking arms, and here Bath scrumhalf Ben Spencer scoots away from two tapped penalties in succession, creating a try from the second.

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The following two examples illustrate just how much the new protocol has changed behaviours at the tackle area and increased the tempo of the game at the breakdown in the Premiership:

The tackler in both instances flips to his own side of the breakdown immediately with no questions asked. He knows the referee will show zero tolerance if he loiters. That means long, quick placements, LQB and a defensive line which has had less time to reset. Ultimately, it means increased speed of play and more scoring opportunities.

Tate McDermott of the Reds passes

Tate McDermott passes from the ruck. (Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

Assuming that we keep (or expand) our Super Rugby local phase next year, could we not consider a three (or two) team contingent formed from the five Australian franchises pooling resources?

The New Zealanders would be happy to have genuine competition. The enthusiasts would be happy to have an exciting local comp with lots of derbies. And certain rusted-on tragics (such as myself) would be happy to see two or three teams of Wallaby triallists genuinely go toe-to-toe with the dark forces.

It would not just be playing resources that would be shared, but coaching resources also. A genuine nationally coordinated development effort?

– Ken Catchpole’s Other Leg.

There would be an inherent disadvantage to be overcome with teams that have come together a week or two earlier up against teams that have been together all season.

– Soapit

Is it possible to keep the five-team domestic competition in situ, while condensing five teams into three for the Trans-Tasman tournament?

It is obvious that five Australian regional sides cannot match up with the same number of teams from New Zealand on a level playing field. The advantages for Dave Rennie would be clear. With three sides instead of five – the winners of Super Rugby AU as a standalone, and the Brumbies and Rebels, and Force and Waratahs pairing up, he would receive the benefit from a succession of national trials. In one composite starting XV:

Angus Bell, Feleti Kaitu’u, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Sitaleki Timani and Fergus Lee-Warner.
Lachie Swinton, Tim Anstee and Michael Hooper.
Jake Gordon and Will Harrison.
Mark Nawaqanitase, Kyle Godwin, Izaia Perese, James Ramm and Jack Maddocks.

In the other:

Allan Alaalatoa, Jordan Uelese, Cabous Eloff, Trevor Hosea and Cadeyrn Neville.
Rob Valetini, Pete Samu and Jahrome Brown.
Nic White and Noah Lolesio.
Marika Koroibete, Matt To’omua, Len Ikitau, Tom Wright and Tom Banks/Reece Hodge.

The Reds could also be supplemented by any players of national interest left on the sidelines. The potential problem is that you are creating a new level of infrastructure and there would have to be a much bigger gap between the start of the Trans-Tasman and the end of the domestic competitions. At least three to four solid weeks would be needed for the new squads to be assembled and coached. If there is the revenue to support it, it is an idea worth exploration.

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Thanks once again to all who contributed questions, or refinements to questions!

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