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Coach’s Corner Issue 18: Come back number 7, your time is not yet up!

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24th June, 2021
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Thanks to all who asked a question at the last call-out, or helped stretch and test it during the forum. As I’ve already looked at the number 6 and 8 positions in the Australian back-row extensively, in this column we’ll tiptoe through the thorny issue of number 7!

Do you think that the different application of the laws in Australia will affect the Test series?
– JC Masher

What can we expect to see from the French? Where are they strong and weak and do they have a certain game style they prefer to play?
– Olly

As far as French depth goes, half the squad are newbies! I assume the French aren’t taking this tour seriously and are treating it as developmental. Or is there a changing of the guard in France? Our 684 caps to their 172. Even if we don’t count the top two from each (where for Australia that is two centurions), it’s still 479 to 120. Only 15 out of the 42 were in the Six Nations squad.
– Paul D

Nobody quite knows what to expect from this French squad when it arrives in July.

The selectors have decided to omit most of the top players from the tour, so there are only three established internationals with more than 20 caps in the squad: the colossal, forbidding figure of Romain Taofifenua in the second row, and wings Teddy Thomas and Damian Penaud in the back three. There are 23 uncapped players in a squad of 42.

We can look at the top two questions in conjunction, and answer via a brief outline of the expectations at the number 7 position. Three referees from New Zealand have been appointed for the three Tests; Paul Williams for the first, James Doleman for the second and Ben O’Keefe for the third.

If the refereeing in Trans-Tasman is a form line, the officials will allow a much greater degree of leniency to the defence in and around the tackle zone than say, three referees from the English Premiership. This will suit the French, as the breakdown in Top 14 frequently descends into a chaotic brawl.

Back-rows in France tend to be big and lineout-oriented, with all of the three positions virtually interchangeable. They do not pick specialist number 7s, unlike New Zealand and Australia.

Take a look at some comparative stats from the recent Trans-Tasman and European Champions Cup competitions.

Player Mins
played
Interval
between
carries 
Gain-line/
DOs*
Interval
between
tackles
Completion % Turnovers Lineout
wins/steals
Papali’i 328 13.1 +5/+6 4.5 97 +7 6/0
Boshier 376 16.3 +2/+3 4.9 93 +8 0/0
Wright 373 12.4 +5/+2 6.5 86 +9 3/+2
Hooper** 616 8.2 +11/+4 6 90 +10 1/+1
Cros 311 14.1 +6/+1 6 87 +1 12/+1
Woki 340 15.4 +2/+4 10.6 97 +1 20/+5
Crétin 160 13.3 +0/+5 8.9 95 +3 8/+3
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* – DOs are ‘decisive outcomes’ – clean breaks or break/try assists.
** – Michael Hooper’s stats derive from his last major competition (Super Rugby AU 2020).

The second rows in France are under-utilised as lineout receivers. Taofifenua, for example, at 6’7″ and 135 kilos is exclusively used as a lifter, not a jumper.

The receiving burden falls primarily on the back row. Even the player closest to the traditional number 7 skill-set in the Six Nations team, François Cros, is 6’3, and expected to win his share of lineout ball.

None of them are specialists on the ground after a tackle. France expect to get more on-ball production out of positions like hooker (Julien Marchand, Pierre Bourgarit and Camille Chat) and centre (Virimi Vakatawa) – even though none of those players are touring Australia.

New Zealand number 7s are primarily excellent defenders with a very high work-rate in and around the tackle zone, good in support on attack, but with no lineout expectation at all.

Australian opensides tend to be all-rounders; they can defend (although the intensity around the tackle is typically not as high as it is across the Tasman) but more is expected from them on the carry.

Fraser McReight’s stats from Super Rugby AU 2021 are similar to Michael Hooper’s the season before, while the greatest Wallaby number 7 of the professional era, George Smith, was equally adept on both sides of the ball.

To clarify the issue of what Hooper said about sabbaticals. He said that his had probably been beneficial but stressed it was about each player’s individual development and had to be balanced with the need to keep experienced players in Australia to mentor younger ones.

A slightly Hooper-related question — Super Trans-Tasman highlighted the importance of accurate, fast clean-out. Assuming this will also be key against France, who are the best options in the Australian squad to carry this out?
– JC

Hooper has issued a warning that overseas sabbaticals are the only way to move Australian rugby forward. Has Hooper improved as a player? – Ray
If anything, Fraser McReight needs to find form, he was lucky to be picked over Liam Wright.
– RugbyNorths66
No doubt, Thorn did everything he could to get Wright picked over Fraser. Thankfully that didn’t influence Rennie.
– Bobby
It’s bad enough that Hoops is selected at all. But to be parachuted in after have a poor season off the bench in Japan makes my blood boil.
– Tommy
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Wallabies coach Dave Rennie has addressed the issue of sabbaticals and their value to Australian rugby. He has previously suggested that Rugby Australia can look to offset the higher salary packages on offer in Europe by either pulling Japanese Top League clubs into Antipodean tournaments, or offering sabbaticals in Japan which drop cash windfalls for the player, while offering R and R for their bodies and maintaining their eligibility for the Wallabies.

As the recently re-elected Wallaby captain commented: “It is a fine balance, we don’t want to be losing our players, we need experienced players to funnel back information and experience to younger players.

“Getting that balance right I know is something that Dave’s big on and has a really open mind to as well, and I know that the players are keen. But again, it’s up to the individual, some guys never want to leave; I never saw that happening for myself and then the opportunity presented itself and I now see it as being beneficial.”

Players do not go to Japan to ‘improve’ in yet another high-intensity environment, they go to rest bodies and minds dizzied by the perpetual treadmill of professional rugby, and press the reboot button. If they can learn something new from the likes of Steve Hansen and Kieran Read along the way, that is a great bonus.

Michael Hooper is recharging his batteries in a much less demanding performance environment in Japan. Although skillsets are good, players are not required to perform them under any pressure in the Top League. There are also breaks in play, of a length and duration which would not be acceptable in the big European and Super Rugby competitions.

Here are three involvements from Hooper’s first game off the bench for Toyota Verblitz.

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The breakdown guidelines may increase Hooper’s on-ball impact, with the greater emphasis on arriving first and showing a clear lift of the ball, rather than ‘surviving the cleanout’. Hooper has always been good at the first, but not the second part.

With three Kiwi referees appointed for the series against France, attitude and technique at the cleanout will be under the spotlight. The refereeing will tend to give preference to the defender in all 50-50 situations, so accurate support of the ball-carrier will be essential.

The following table gives a snapshot from the last two games of the 2020 Bledisloe Cup series.

Player/
position
Mins played Cleanout interval (minutes) Cleanout rating
James Slipper
(loosehead)
100 14.2 71
Angus Bell
(loosehead)
40 5 56
Allan Alaalatoa
(tighthead)
105 10.5 44
Taniela Tupou
(tighthead)
55 27.5 45
Matt Philip 160 10 63
Lachie Swinton 34 5.6 66
Michael Hooper 160 6.4 48
Reece Hodge 96 12 56
Hunter Paisami and
Irae Simone
(inside centre)
134 14.9 39

*- Cleanout stats are derived from the final two games of the 2020 Bledisloe Cup Series. They are confined to ‘first man to arrive’, or ‘impactful second man’ and do not represent passive ruck attendance. A cleanout rating of 50 represents average impact, anything above that is superior quality.

Special mention should also be made of Liam Wright, who came off the pine for 11 minutes in Brisbane, and delivered one cleanout-per-minute at a rating of 68!

The stats illustrate impact off the bench. The combination of James Slipper and Angus Bell at loosehead works especially well in this regard, in pure cleanout terms the mix at tighthead (perhaps surprisingly) less so.

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Among the forwards, Matt Philip produced the highest rating over the longest period of time (he is an 80-minute player). Lachie Swinton flashed potential quality in the short time he was on the field at Brisbane.

Michael Hooper produced the highest work rate (25 significant arrivals over two games), at an acceptable level of impact given the above-par number of involvements.

Reece Hodge provides the best cleanout value in the Australian backs, with a high involvement level and above-average impact.

There were problems at number 12 after Matt To’omua’s injury. Between them, Irae Simone and Hunter Paisami struggled to make impact at cleanout time, and this is one reason why Simone dropped out of the 2021 squad in the initial 38-man selection.

Two issues which emerged from analysis of the two games included a tendency to enter too low and seal off under pressure.

This can allow the defender to reach over the top successfully, with the benefit of lenient officiating.

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The other issue was inaccurate entries on angled cleanouts.

In all of these examples, the support players need to form more of an L-shape to persuade the referee that they are entering through the attacking gate.

Thanks once again who all who contributed a question, or helped evolve one in the debate!

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