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Opinion

Coach’s Corner Issue 28: Can the Wallabies get even bigger?

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30th September, 2021
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A big thank-you to all who contributed a question, or helped develop one at the call-out!

Our lineouts were generally poor. Is that the fault of the thrower, the catcher, the caller or the lifters? It needs addressing and quickly.
– TBH
On our [lineout] throw, we haven’t done much attacking mauling despite doing more in the French series. Is this due to us wanting to increase tempo by quickly handing it off to a runner to get momentum against bigger packs, or is it due to the throw going to the front which may be harder to maul from? In any case, it’s an attacking arsenal which has not been developed, given that is Dan McKellar’s specialty.
– Chester B.

Maybe too early but Aussie is looking at using Arnold, Latu and Skelton on the EOYT. The Wallaby lineout has been fragile even with three jumpers. If Skelton is not at least as good as Swinton, I can’t see how he can be an option even off the bench. How would you handle Skelton?
– PeterK

Lots of questions are building up around the productivity of the Australian lineout. At the end of the 2020 Rugby Championship, under the stewardship of ex-England second row Geoff Parling, the Wallaby lineout was running at highly respectable 89 per cent retention rate.

With Dan McKellar taking over at the start of the 2021 season, the current retention rate has dropped to 83 per cent. Even more worrying, the actual proportion of usable ball from lineout (ball which has not been spoiled or disrupted) is only 72 per cent, and that ranks the Wallabies dead last in the competition.

The following table summarises the main lineout targets.

Player Own ball wins
Lachie Swinton 16
Matt Philip 7
Pete Samu 7
Darcy Swain 6
Izack Rodda 4
Rob Valetini 3

The player who is most integral to the structure of the Wallaby lineout is no.6 Lachie Swinton, who typically jumps at the front or middle of the line, and Swinton was not playing against the Pumas last weekend.

His absence was sorely felt, and it also had the knock-on effect of showing that Matt Philip’s lineout captaincy has not really developed since he was given the role by Parling last season. With Swinton absent, and Izack Rodda still feeling his way into the system, there was more of a burden on Philip to be the primary bread-winner.

In the event, he lost the battle of lineout wits versus the estimable Guido Petti. The following examples illustrate how the practical reality of ‘usable ball’ is more important than the statistical picture, which typically means nothing more than ‘first touch’.

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In the first example, Petti is reading and copying Philip’s movements pretty easily, and he gets quicker elevation into the air when the ball comes in. With Michael Hooper loitering beneath Philip as the halfback ‘plus one’ this was clearly intended to be a lineout drive, but it is one which never materialises.

The second instance occurs in an even more important position close to the Pumas’ goal-line, with the Wallabies undoubtedly looking to drive the ball through in time-honoured McKellar fashion. Philip is again under huge pressure from Petti at mid-line, and the drive dies at source with Hooper.

The third example is a replica of the first two: again, Matt Philip cannot win the ball cleanly and on this occasion the ball never even reaches Hooper underneath him. It is flapped back by Rodda for Samu Kerevi to clean up the mess in midfield.

The issues at lineout were compounded by the ineffectiveness of the Wallaby drive after the ball was won.

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The Wallabies were forced to go to the front on seven of their 15 throws because of the pressure on Philip, and here it is easy to see the difficulty this causes in the formation of the maul. The drive can only really go in one direction (infield), and once the Pumas prevent Philip getting ahead of the receiver (Rodda) it literally has nowhere to go at all.

The problems the Wallabies experienced in shifting the drive infield were crystallised at another lineout in the second period.

In the course of the maul, Philip is split away from Rodda completely and the ball has to be moved out to the backs.

The issues persisted to the very end of the game.

It was just fortunate that the turnover didn’t matter, with time already up on the clock. That did not mask the fact that the Rugby Championship season thus far has raised some unanswered questions about the Australian lineout.

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Is Matt Philip the long-term solution as lineout captain? Is Dan McKellar the long-term answer as lineout coach? Is the Wallaby lineout too dependent on Lachie Swinton? Where do Rory Arnold and Will Skelton fit into the picture moving forward?

Those unknowns lead us neatly into the next batch of queries!

I would be most interested in your thoughts on how the potential introductions of Rory Arnold and Will Skelton impact the Wallabies’ replacement back row selection? Specifically, is it still feasible to have a Samu or a McMahon on the bench, or will the replacement need to be top quality jumper like Swinton?
– Oblonsky’s Other Pun

Ball carrying question. New Zealand have Retallick, South Africa have Eben, Lood and even Snyman as excellent ball-carrying locks. What about Australia? Chester B.
Do you need the locks to be that player? So long as you have options who can do the job for you?

– Sgt. Pepperoni

How would you introduce McMahon in the next game against Argentina? The two thoughts are: replace Valetini as a straight swap; the second is replace Samu as a straight swap.
– PeterK

It was recently announced that the Wallabies would look to include the likes of Rory Arnold, Will Skelton and Tolu Latu on the end-of-year-tour to Europe and Japan.

Rory Arnold is the no-brainer. He has been running the lineout at Toulouse for the past two seasons, and at 6’ 10” tall he represents banker ball. He would most likely come in for Matt Philip, and renew his successful partnership with Izack Rodda from the 2019 World Cup.

The presence of two high-quality lineout targets in the second row gives Dave Rennie more elbow room with his picks at numbers 6 and 8. If Rob Valetini sticks at 8, it is quite possible for him to take a look at Sean McMahon on the blindside flank instead of Lachie Swinton.

The two best ball-carriers from the second row are undoubtedly Lukhan Salakai-Loto and Will Skelton. One plays at home in Australia, the other in Europe, and both are head-and-shoulders above the rest.

Skelton has become a real point-of-difference player since being exposed to the cut-throat coaching cultures at first Saracens in England, and now La Rochelle in France. He has always had the size, power and skills, and now he is a far better-conditioned and a more disciplined athlete.

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He provides ideal impact material off the bench for 20-30 minutes, even if he is a non-factor as a lineout receiver. That means that either Lachie Swinton, or Pete Samu, or both, have to be on the field in the back-row with him. A finishing back five of Arnold-Skelton-Hooper-Samu-Swinton would do very nicely indeed!

Akira [Ioane] is a conundrum. How do you get the best from him? I think with Papali’i, Blackadder, Jacobson, Sotutu, Savea, Cane, Frizell it will mean Akira drops off again but when he has a good one it’s a blinder.
– Jacko

Akira is fine in open games so keep him in the wider squad perhaps, but leave him out of the dogfight.
– JD Kiwi

Akira was shown up once again when the going got tough, it was scary to see the All Black 6 going swiftly backwards with the ball in contact. And we were awful at the breakdown for too long. Blackadder desperately needs Jacobson to help him out.
– JD Kiwi

How about the lack of right loose forward play to counter Boks at ruck?
– Faith

Can you look at why the All Blacks loose forwards were less effective against South Africa than the other two teams in the championship? Akira Ioane had quite a visual impact playing Australia out wide but seemed to be not up to scratch against the Springboks.
– Otago Man.

Are the All Blacks (who have very few weaknesses) balanced enough with Akira and Ardie?
– Harry Jones.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article on the premium content add-on to the RugbyPass site, ‘The XV’. It examined the distribution of roles among the current New Zealand loose forward trio: (then) Dalton Papali’i at 7, Ardie Savea at 8 and Akira Ioane at number 6.

The article looked at the way in which the Kiwi coaches were creating systems to liberate the outrageous attacking talent of Akira Ioane, who is a very big forward with the heart and soul of an outside centre. Take a look at the following table, culled from the first four rounds of the Rugby Championship.

Player Run metres Decisive
outcomes
Tackle interval
(mins)
Ruck attendance
interval (mins)
Dalton Papali’i 47 0/1 5.7 2.3
Ethan Blackadder 77 0/1 6.2 2.8
Ardie Savea 132 2/5 6.8 3.4
Akira Ioane 291 5/17 9.7 5.3

‘Decisive outcomes’ represent clean breaks/tackle busts.
Tackle or Ruck attendance intervals represent the average minutes between involvements in tackles, or at attacking or defensive breakdowns.

A clear pattern emerges: The number 7 position (via Papali’i and Blackadder) supplies the work-rate on defence and at the ruck. Akira Ioane is the main ball-carrier of the trio, while the number 8 does a little bit of everything.

One of the curiosities of the package is that the biggest physical unit of the three (Ioane) does most of his work in the wide channels – on attack.

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Savea and Blackadder do the hard yards up the middle, while Akira in is the wide right channel alongside Codie Taylor and Will Jordan. It is in this role that he has made so many sensational contributions in 2021.

It is a similar story in defence, where Ioane is often the widest of the three back-rowers:

This arrangement created a number of problems against the very hard, pressure defence of the Springboks.

Before the clip even starts, Ethan Blackadder has gone back to re-ruck over the top of a Jordie Barrett catch, to provide the base for a strong run by Ardie Savea in midfield. But when the ball comes back out to the right, he has to re-ruck again after Taylor is taken down behind the gain-line.


There is never any chance of the ball reaching Akira before the play is shut down.

On the one occasion Beauden Barrett did try to get the ball to the edge with a cross-kick, Akira could not hang on to the pass back inside.

When he is forced to play in between the two 15 metre lines, Akira Ioane loses most of his effectiveness. Here, he is bouldered off the first cleanout by Siya Kolisi.

When he receives the ball on the carry in midfield, he does not look like the same player that he is on the edge.

In the tight exchanges, Akira Ioane is no Jerome Kaino.

When the first layer of the driving maul is peeled away, Ioane finds himself pancaked by tiny Faf de Klerk and taken out of the play. That strips away the last piece of protection for the ball-carrier, who has nowhere to go but across the side-line.

Australia solved their conundrum in midfield with the selection of Samu Kerevi. For New Zealand, the problem remains. Of their two centres, one is a natural playmaker and the other is a finisher, while their biggest back-row ball-carrier prefers to play out on the edge. The question of who is to provide the power through the middle is alive and kicking.

See you in October!

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