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Coach’s Corner Issue 21: Have the Wallabies found a winning formula?

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22nd July, 2021
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Thanks to all who contributed a question, or helped refine one in the debate at the call-out stage.

Who are your starting no.6 and no.8 for game one against New Zealand, given this series? All candidates put in big shifts but there was potentially some missing ruck presence in Games 1 and 2.
– Numpty.

Would love if you could compare the involvements of [Lachie] Swinton and [Rob] Valetini in Tests 3 and 2, in terms of the breakdown. I thought they were both very strong in different ways, but wanted to see if there was a noticeable difference in this area.
– Oblonsky’s Other Pun

I would widen the question to cover which Wallaby forwards were doing the most in cleaning out, quantity and quality. It seems to me AAA, and Philip have fallen down in this area from what they previously did, and did not pick up if LSL has improved or declined.
– PeterK

There are some valid comparisons to be made in the contributions of Lachie Swinton and Rob Valetini within the last Test, with Valetini coming off the pine for the last 26 minutes and Swinton playing the first 54.

Firstly, let’s point out that France had significantly weakened their presence at the defensive breakdown. They selected an outside centre, Pierre-Louis Barassi, ahead of Jonathan Danty, and Danty had dominated the ruck exchanges in the first two Tests. His absence made Australia’s task in contact a lot easier.

At the same time, the selection of Isi Naisarani at number 8 and Lachie Swinton at number 6, running off short arcs by scrum-half Tate McDermott, did make Australia look a lot more comfortable in possession than at any other time in the series.

Here is a basic comparison of the activity from the blindside flanker position.

Player Min. Interval
between
cleanouts
Interval
between
carries
Cleanout
rating
Dominant
carries
Neutral Negative
carries
Lachie Swinton 54 6 4.2 65 3 10 0
Rob Valetini 26 3.7 2.9 61 1 4 2

Work rate was above average from both Swinton and Valetini. You would expect the finisher to pack more impact into his shorter time on the field.

Swinton does edge out Valetini, at cleanout and on the carry. Both he and Naisarani worked well off the prompts by McDermott around the ruck.

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This in turn enabled Australia to ‘juice’ the perks of moving forward into contact situations on their own terms.

Swinton drives, and Allan Alaalatoa stays on his block long enough to create a path for the pick-and-go by Michael Hooper. The guy they are muscling out is the mountainous Romain Taofinfenua.

This last item is something of a specialty on the Dave Rennie menu. He wants support players to stay on their blocks, or take out defenders who are often only loosely connected to the ruck itself.

It’s on the outer edge of legality, but I suspect that the Wallaby head coach likes what he sees in this area from both Swinton and second rower Darcy Swain.

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The problem for Valetini is that he has been unable to reproduce the same impact on the carry that he enjoyed in Super Rugby. He has been good when entering contact in a low, dynamic position.

He has been much less effective when trying to take on an opponent high:

Valetini engages France second rower Taofifenua in an upper body wrestle, and there is only ever going to be one winner of that contest.

The [Cameron] Woki try reaching over the ruck – was it legitimate? It’s not clear if he makes contact with the ruck, but doesn’t that bring his own players still in the ruck to accidental offside?
– Simon Colman

Interestingly the French prop is positioned in the middle of the Wallabies defensive line; so, in front of the ball. He is looking back at Cameron Woki, the #7, who is about to play the ball. They appear to meet eyes. The French #1 moves away from his position across to his right behind the Wallaby line and as he does so the #7 launches over the ruck into the space left by the #1 to score. Both touch judges and the ref are right there watching. It looked like a set play to me; but it also looked illegal but perhaps I’m wrong about that.
– Nakanaka

I don’t see anything wrong at all with the try. If you look at the actions of the France loose-head prop Enzo Forletta, he is well away from the scene of the action before Cameron Woki ever goes to pick the ball up.

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The Wallaby forwards on the goal-line however, may be offside, with their hands well in front of the whitewash at the moment Woki picks up.

Nothing wrong with that, from an attacking point of view.

Can you please explain why the Wallabies keep persisting with the “box-kick”? I have rarely seen it ever yield an advantage for them. It is so hard at Test level for the forwards to win and retain possession, for it to then be “box kicked” away. Love to understand why you think they keep doing this.
– Bobcat

The idea behind the box-kick is to give the kicking side a chance at winning back possession at the point of receipt. If they can cause an error by the opponent, or regather the ball themselves, there is an opportunity to attack an unstructured defence on the next play.

This example comes from the recent game between South Africa ‘A’ and the touring British & Irish Lions.

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The Lions scrum-half Conor Murray chases his own kick to win back the ball, and the tourists immediately spin it wide. They are better organized in the outside channels, with three outside backs and a running number 8 versus a second row, and an inside centre who have both covered all the way across from the other side of the field!

You do not even have to win the ball back cleanly from the box-kick.

Tom Banks fumbles, and France are able to match up their full-back with two Australian forwards on the next play.

G’day Nick, a lot of my generation watch rugby and can’t follow the defensive patterns that, invariably, leave a winger unmarked. In the old days of drift defence outside your 22 and man-on-man inside the 22, the winger stayed on his winger so there were no kick-pass tries etc, but perhaps a lot more scored a channel or two closer in. Can you enlighten us enthusiastic old(er) timers as to what they are doing at different parts of the field?
– Banjo Kelly

The game has changed radically Banjo – even since the start of professionalism in 1995! In terms of defensive attitudes, they have become a lot harder and more aggressive.

Defence in the outside channels by the last two defenders (typically backs) reflects the change in attitude. As a wide defender you can do one of two things: track the attacker opposite you, or track the passer. With the speed of the modern game, you cannot do both effectively.

If you track the attacker, sooner or later you end up in a drift out towards touch. If you track the passer, you are preparing to make a big tackle or interception.

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The best defensive coaches don’t like the idea of drifting, play-in and play-out. It doesn’t bring any pressure on the ball, and the opposition can keep it for long periods in peace and quiet. They prefer to condense the defence and actively look to create passing errors, fumbles and interceptions.

Australia’s approach to getting the ball beyond Damian Penaud on the France right wing was of interest from start to finish in the recent series. Let’s take a look at the positives and negatives of the modern way.

Penaud does not care about the two attackers beyond him (Rob Valetini and Marika Koroibete). At the moment Tom Banks looks to deliver, he is square to the passer and looking to attack the space between the distributor and the receiver.

Now compare that with one of Australia’s successes in the next Test.

Penaud’s attitude is exactly the same, but this time the pass beats the man and space is created for Hunter Paisami down the left. About 25 years ago, this move would probably have been converted into a try – but that is not the case in 2021.

The French centre Arthur Vincent gets back in cover to knock down Paisami on the 22, and France are back in shape soon afterwards. In fact, the sequence ended with a French turnover win at the breakdown two phases later.

The top defence coaches, like Shaun Edwards, will happily trade that line-break for the pressure they can bring on the ball, every day of the week.

Make sure to look in again for the next Coach’s Corner in two weeks’ time!

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