The Roar
The Roar



Coach's Corner Issue 17: Do the Wallabies have what it takes in the second row?

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17th June, 2021
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Thanks to all who contributed a question once again. Answers will concentrate on the Wallaby possibilities in various departments of the Wallabies team leading into the July series with France.

Not happy with the locks, apart from Matt Philip and was almost expecting Izack Rodda to be named regardless. Lopeti Timani needs to show some of what he had and LSL has been poor all season.

– stillmissit

I really hope Rodda is selected for the Rugby Championship, quarantine made Rodda only practical for the third French Test. Agree about the locks though.

– PeterK

Watching the Reds versus the Blues last week, I love the Reds locks, but size-wise they seemed dwarfed. What is the best balance? An athlete like Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, and a Rory Arnold or Will Skelton? Can Matt Philip be that rock? Do any of the newbies like Darcy Swain have the size?

– Grev

On overseas-based players, do you think Arnold is a chance to be selected for the Rugby Championship?

– PeterK

I heard today that Philip scored in his last game to win the game, which somehow freed him to return sooner rather than later?

– Ken Catchpole’s Other Leg

I’ve built some comparative tables to help answer these questions. They include performance in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman by the home-based second rows, and in the Top 14 regular season by those based overseas. In possession:

Mins played Carry intervals (mins) Gain-line dominance [decisive outcomes] Average lineout wins per game (own throw)
Rory Arnold 671 11.6 17% [+6] 5.6
Will Skelton 1143 9 26% [+5] 0.3
Izack Rodda 1657 12.8 9% [+2] 3
Matt Philip 912 8.2 12% [+9] 3.1
Lukhan Salakaia-Loto 350 7.9 24% [+6] 4.8
Darcy Swain 254 50.8 0 [+0] 8.4
Sitaleki Timani 295 8.4 0 [+1] 2.4

And on defence:

Mins played Tackle intervals (mins) Tackle completion Passive tackle rate Average lineout steals per game
Rory Arnold 671 8.3 88% 5% 0.71
Will Skelton 1143 13.2 91% 3% 0
Izack Rodda 1657 9.9 88% 25% 0.78
Matt Philip 912 10.1 87% 20% 1.03
Lukhan Salakaia-Loto 350 8 85% 24% 0.68
Darcy Swain 254 9.4 87% 27% 0.93
Sitaleki Timani 295 9.2 94% 10% 0.54

Because of the massive difference in the number of minutes played in the two competitions (Izack Rodda has roughly eight times more playing time than Darcy Swain), I’ve expressed as many of the stats as possible as percentages, rather than pure numbers.

A recent article illustrated how the big players respond to a stiffer level of challenge immediately. It was true of Harry Wilson in the Queensland back row and it is certainly true of Lukhan Salakaia-Loto in the tier of the scrum ahead of him.

Compared to his stats from Super Rugby AU, Salakaia-Loto’s work rate on both sides of the ball has shot up by almost four percentage points (one involvement every eight minutes, instead of one every 12), and tackle completions have improved by 8 per cent. He has also won three defensive lineouts, as opposed to none in SR AU.


On attack, Salakaia-Loto is also one of two second-row ball-carriers who can bend the line with sheer power. Will Skelton is predictably in top spot in that aspect of the game. For the upcoming series against France, the combination of Salakaia-Loto and Matt Philip offers superior ball carrying in the starting line-up, but Dave Rennie could certainly do with big Will on the bench.

Defensively, there is a clear difference between Rory Arnold, Sitaleki Timani and Skelton and all of the others. Those three deliver the most aggressive tackles and seldom ‘soak’ at the point of collision. At lineout time, the likely July starting combination of Philip and Salakaia-Loto looks well-equipped to win ball on both sides of the throw.

The best all-round performer remains Rory Arnold of Toulouse, and it must surely be worth the effort to get both him and Skelton back for the Rugby Championship. The presence of Arnold, Skelton, Philip and Salakaia-Loto in the same squad would be a truly world-class point of difference for the Wallabies.

There is every sign that Matt Philip will be bringing some inside knowledge of his Top 14 opponents back with him from Pau, in addition to the new lessons he has accrued in his time in the south-west of France.

“Top 14 is quite a physical competition, I’m going to say it’s more physical than Super Rugby,” he said recently.

“So from that point of view I had to learn a few more techniques, adjust my tackling technique a little bit to suit versing some really big bodies over there, compared to what we do here.

“And definitely around my scrum and lineout, I definitely picked up a few things there which I’m excited to try out and see how they go over here. The Top 14 is rugby but it’s very different to Super Rugby.”

Like Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and Harry Wilson, Philip is another who has shown himself capable of rising to meet a higher challenge under the greatest pressure. With Stade Paloise needing to beat their opponents, Montpellier, by a big margin in order to avoid dropping into a relegation battle, Philip stepped up to the plate.


He made four decisive contributions in the final 12 minutes of the game: two maul turnovers forced; a try-saving tackle on the Pau goal-line; and a last-gasp try scored in the final act of the match which ultimately kept his club in the top tier of French rugby.

Two turnovers came from stops on the driving maul, one occurring with Montpellier poised to score:

matt philip maul defence

The driving lineout is one of the most pervasive platforms for attack in the Top 14, and in the first example Philip fractures the blocking wall just when it is necessary. This will be one of the gems of knowledge he brings back with him from his travels on the opposite side of the world.

Philip is a dyed-in-the-wool tight forward who can run and make intelligent decisions on attack and defence, and therein lies his extra value. Hence his superior batting average in the ‘Decisive outcomes’ column, which measures clean breaks and try assists.

On defence, he has tremendous running power and can cover space all the way to a back on the edge:


matt philip defensive position

Why is it important that Philip keeps running, and closes the gap to the Paloise left wing? Because he denies one of the options for the three Montpellier attackers and forces the pass outside.

That defensive motor led to another important impact with only six minutes of the match remaining:

As the ball bounces back inside, Philip is the only Pau forward in the picture, willing (and very able) to make a vital tackle.

It was only natural justice that Matt Philip’s rare combination of rugby brain and aerobic engine should get its reward on the last play of the game:

matt philip attacking position


Philip spots the opportunity for the cross-kick, and his running power gets him to where he needs to go in order to provide support and dot down in the 83rd minute of a gruelling Top 14 slog. It was a fitting, fluttering adieu to Matt Philip’s short French sojourn.

Matt Philip of the Wallabies

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Contrary to many here I expect Matt To’omua to be a standout at 12, what’s your view?

– stillmissit

Based on form To’omua us lucky to be in the 38.

– Bobby

Understand Bobby, but he is a 12 playing 10 and will stand up in internationals.

– stillmissit

I look at it this way: on 2021 Super Rugby form, the only certain starter in the Wallaby centres is Hunter Paisami. Unless Dave Rennie wants Paisami at 12, then To’omua is one of only a small number qualified to play there, and on past Wallabies performance, he is the next best candidate.

– RedRob

If not To’omua, then who plays in the centres with Paisami? To’omua has been in awful form for the Rebels, especially since playing at 12 for the Rebels in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.


A deep dive into the Wallaby combination at 10, 12 and 13 is a story for another Friday. However, the query can be addressed in the first instance by asking another question in return: does a modern coach look first at the combination of 12 and 13, or the mix at 10 and 12?

Twenty years ago, the coach would probably have looked at the centre combination first. Maybe he would have picked a classical combination of a hard-running 12 and a more elusive outside breaker at 13. Scott Gibbs and Jeremy Guscott, anybody?

Since then, the emphasis has changed, and the two centre positions have become interchangeable. The real selection debate occurs at 10 and 12. Do we want two playmakers in those positions, or one ten and one centre? The British and Irish Lions of 2017 took a measurable step forward when they swapped from picking a flyhalf-plus-centre in the first Test (Owen Farrell and Ben Te’o), to two halves in tandem in the second and third Tests (Johnny Sexton at 10, with Farrell moving to 12).

Dave Rennie – like Warren Gatland in 2017 – prefers two players with excellent flyhalf skill-sets. The mix between James O’Connor and Matt To’omua in distribution and the kicking game worked well in 2020. Until Hunter Paisami can prove himself as a true triple threat, To’omua will remain the most reliable set of eyes seeing the field outside O’Connor.

Matt Toomua

Matt To’omua. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Next Friday I will take a look at the options in the halves, with the back-row already having enjoyed extensive coverage in recent columns.