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Are the Wallabies emerging from the middle of the pack?

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10th August, 2021
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The title for this article was a close call. “Are the Wallabies emerging in the middle of the park?” would have worked equally well.

The Wallabies are currently lurking in the middle of the pack, at sixth in the World Rugby rankings, and they are searching for the right combination in their midfield looking forward to the next World Cup in 2023.

New Zealand are always either first or second in those rankings, but their midfield combination is no more settled than Australia’s. Like his successor at the Chiefs (Dave Rennie), Ian Foster is still looking for the perfect alchemy to take the All Blacks through to the World Cup in France.

The series between South Africa and the British and Irish Lions underlined the importance of finding the right mix. The choices in those three positions (at 10, 12 and 13) determine what you can do in the game as a whole.

The Lions changed their combination for every Test, and they ultimately lost a series they had more than enough resources to win. The Springboks started the same three players all the way through, and they got the winning done.

It symbolises the advantage South Africa currently hold over every other top-tier team in the international world. They know exactly what they are trying to do and if their gameplan is limited, it is also as limpid as the still water in a lagoon. It is utterly, crystal clear. The Boks build their confidence and their resilience around that fact.

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The Lions series finished by featuring two behemoths of the modern game at inside centre – Damian De Allende (probably South Africa’s best back of the series) and Irish Kiwi Bundee Aki.

Both Australia and New Zealand struggled with two similar leviathans in their summer series: Jonathan Danty for France against the Wallabies, and Levani Botia for Fiji versus the All Blacks.

All of these players could probably cope with the demands of playing number 7 as comfortably as they fulfil their roles at number 12. In fact, Botia has played for club and country in both positions.

New Zealand and Australia are looking for something different – that wee bit of extra X-factor. In an article back in April, I looked at how Dave Rennie and his attack coach Scott Wisemantel are trying to develop Queensland centre Hunter Paisami into a triple threat who can run, kick and pass in the mould of All Black great Ma’a Nonu.

Wisemantel said, “He’s actually got a lot of subtlety to his game – he can kick off both feet and has got a nice passing game, good tempo – so really we want to evolve him into a triple threat where he can run, pass, kick. That’s where we see Hunter’s future.”

When talking about David Havili’s selection, Ian Foster’s comments sound very similar.

“You’re really looking at people who can really have an edge in a position that’s going to contribute to your game. So, versatility’s not really a factor in [selecting] our backline.

“We’ve got a number of players who are versatile. For us, we’re after specialists primarily.”

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“He [Havili] was out of contention for us last year because he had a pretty horrific incident at the end of Super Rugby and so he lost an opportunity last year. I’m just more delighted than surprised with how he’s gone about it and how he’s focused on his job.

David Havili goes to pass in the Bledisloe Cup

David Havili of the All Blacks. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

“He’s always been skilful and I thought in Super Rugby we saw him go through phases of learning how to deal with the physical side of midfield but I thought by the end of it he did a pretty good job of it, hence he’s here.”

In the first Test against Fiji, Havili finished with two breaks for tries, one assist, one offload and four defenders beaten. On the flip side of the coin, Levani Botia won four turnovers on the deck for Fiji, on one occasion with the Canterbury man bouncing off him at a cleanout attempt.

As Foster said afterwards, “Things didn’t always go smoothly – I think he missed a clean and a couple of little things. But I like the fact that he stayed in the game.”

With a significant history in the back three, David Havili has the ability both to finish opportunities, and fill in competently at first receiver.

The Wallabies have an ambitious plan, and are trying to get the best of both worlds with Hunter Paisami. They want the physical package, but with passing and kicking skills added as a bonus.

At Eden Park, the Reds’ man started like a world-beater in the first period. Taking a leaf out of the Danty play-book, he dominated the middle of the park defensively.

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In the first instance, Paisami dominates Havili in contact and the ball spills loose for a Wallaby turnover penalty; in the second, he rips the ball out of Richie Mo’unga’s grasp one-on-one.

The third sequence illustrates how physicality can suffocate skill-set. Paismami creates the initial pressure with a powerful hit on chase against Rieko Ioane, and there is a spill-over on the errant pass from Damian McKenzie at the base. Then David Havili kicks the ball straight down Andrew Kellaway’s throat and the attacking opportunity has evaporated.

Hunter Paisami has equally good on attack in the first half, showing sympathetic touch on the pass:

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Like Havili, Paisami is expected to be able to fill at first receiver on occasion. The crowning moment of his first half performance arrived in the 36th minute.

There is a terrific 25 metre arrow from the hand of Brandon Paenga-Amosa at the lineout, which pulls Paisami straight through the gap between the last forward (Codie Taylor) and the first back (Mo’unga) to create a try for Kellaway.

If the game had ended at half-time, we would probably be celebrating the arrival of a new Australian star on the global stage. Things began to fall apart for the Reds’ centre with a game-changing intercept score by Richie Mo’unga in the 51st minute.

Hunter steps in at first receiver, but there is no upside to his long pass off the left hand in the direction of Jordan Petaia. Even if it reaches the target, Petaia will have to take the ball well above his head and the defence will pin him against the side-line. Richie Mo’unga’s body-shape makes it clear that he has only one idea in mind – to dart into the space between passer and receiver and pick off the ball in flight.

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Matters went from bad to worse, until Paisami’s substitution by Matt To’omua 15 minutes later.

David Havili upped the physical segment of his game in the second half, forcing errors in contact out of his opposite number on two separate occasions.

He also gave a glimpse of New Zealand’s future, and the attacking potential with three genuine distributors (Havili, Mo’unga and McKenzie) on the paddock at the same time.

After four phases from lineout rolling into midfield, all three have re-aligned on the left, and the combined ball-handling ability of the trio offers a tremendous range of attacking options.

It is easy to get the ball to width, and stretch the defence with those handling skills linked up together. Havili had four important involvements in the eight phases that the sequence lasted – two first man cleanouts, one offload and the final scoring run.

With the attack split to both sides of the ruck, New Zealand have just as many attacking options at their disposal.

Mo’unga and McKenzie provide the connectivity on the wide side of the field, while Havili can play short to the forward pod in front of him, or remember his past in the back three and shuffle out to become a winger and a finisher.

Summary

It is now up to New Zealand, Australia and Argentina to solve the riddle of the World Champions in the forthcoming Rugby Championship. The Springboks are a paradox: were they to be offered a choice of the best players from across the world, there are relatively few they would pick to improve their existing team.

On the other hand, there are probably no more than two Springboks (Pieter-Steph Du Toit in the forwards and Cheslin Kolbe in the backs) who would be automatic starters in any World XV selected by a top coach from outside the country.

South Africa enjoyed total clarity in selection and game-planning in their series against the Lions, and it contributed to a mental resilience that the tourists could not match. They knew what they were doing, and trusted their systems (and each other) at a more intimate level than the Lions. At the same time, their vision of the game is so narrow that it will be tested to the limits and beyond, by the All Blacks in particular.

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Whereas South Africa knows what it wants from a number 12, and they get it (and more) from the excellent Damian De Allende, New Zealand and Australia are keeping their fingers crossed that David Havili and Hunter Paisami are the answer before the World Cup arrives in 2023.

Paisami looked like the business in the first period, but his game fell apart after the interval. With Matt To’omua on for the final 14 minutes, Australia won that part of the game by 17 points to nil. There is difficult choice ahead for Dave Rennie and Co. Paisami has yet to prove he is a king in the centre of the park.

With David Havili playing at second five-eighth in conjunction with Richie Mo’unga at number 10 and either Damian McKenzie or Beauden Barrett at the back, New Zealand has a trio of footballers that no other nation on the planet can hope to rival. Second is nowhere for Kiwi rugby supporters, and they will want their All Blacks to make a decisive move out of the middle of the pack chasing the World Champions.

The question now is whether they can handle the physicality which Fiji brought in the first Test at Dunedin, and which the Springboks will undoubtedly replicate in the double-header on September 25 and October 2. It is time for rugby to rediscover its lost soul after the Lions series, for the immoveable object to be tested by an irresistible force.

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