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How the Wallabies are building cohesion towards 2023

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Expert
5th October, 2021
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The introductory mission statement for the company co-founded by ex-Wallaby prop Ben Darwin, Gain Line Analytics, reads in part as follows:

“We believe great teams are more than just the sum of their parts; we believe great teams are the product of the linkages and connections within the organisation.”

A quote from Darwin himself, found further down the page, reads: “We have been looking at hundreds of teams and thousands of players in union, league, soccer, AFL, ice hockey and generally any sport that uses teamwork. In the end, we found that instead of looking at each individual player, it was better to think of sporting teams as a network of connected relationships.”

The company has created metrics for “measuring the quantity and intensity of linkages within a team”, adding that “Cohesion is driven from the top of the organisation down”.

That provides an interesting framework in which to understand the events of the 2021 Rugby Championship.

The top of the All Blacks organisation in the glory years of Sir Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith was always the best of its kind. It was head and shoulders above the rest.

It was the best at generating innovations which broadened the game’s horizons. It had the deepest culture, which meant that New Zealand kept ‘blue heads’ under pressure. The linkages in the team became stronger, not weaker, at times of greatest need. Remember this, in the white heat of Dublin back in 2013?

Twelve phases, 25 passes, one minute and 50 seconds of sheer error-free excellence. That New Zealand side of 2010-17 had superb cohesion.

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A comment from Darwin to the Guardian on an unrelated matter admirably describes the last passage of attacking play at Lansdowne Road: “The more stable you are the greater level of understanding you have. You can buy skill but skill doesn’t manifest itself in chaos.”

On Saturday, in another titanic struggle with the world champion Springboks, New Zealand managed to lose a game in the dying seconds with the ball firmly under their control. The skills may still be there, but the stability and understanding are not.

More questions have been raised about the cohesion of the teams involved in the Rugby Championship than answers found. Did New Zealand miss a trick by failing to appoint Dave Rennie or Scott Robertson as their head coach after the 2019 World Cup?

Is Rennie creating more stability ‘from the top down’ in Australia than Foster is in the country of his birth. Is South Africa’s cohesion under Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber still the best in the world, despite their third-place finish?

Rennie will be stoked about his team’s comeback from three successive losses to their trans-Tasman rivals, to win four games in a row, including a double over the Boks.

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With Rory Arnold, Will Skelton and Tolu Latu mooted to return for the end-of-year tour to the UK and Japan, he can expect to build even more cohesion into his squad.

As Darwin told the Guardian, “We’ve found cohesion makes a 40 per cent performance differential… Most of it is about the talent you have access to.”

What does this this cohesion look like out on the field? We’ve already seen one example, in the ability of the All Blacks to execute their skills perfectly, when one mistake would have meant a losing conclusion to the match against Ireland.

It also resides in the ability to learn concrete lessons from previous errors, and develop greater understanding and trust in the patterns of play you want to use. Both were in evidence in the Wallabies second victory over the Pumas on the Gold Coast at the weekend.

Firstly, let’s take a case-study of how Australia have developed their understanding of, and deepened trust in a pattern of attack they like to use from lineout.

Here are two samples of that pattern from the first game versus Argentina.

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In both instances, there is decoy lineout drive designed to suck in the Argentine forwards, before the ball is moved out from hooker Folau Fainga’a to Rob Valentini on a cutback run into the space they have (hopefully) vacated. That is the basic design of the play.

Although Valetini breaches the advantage-line in both examples, a problem stubbornly remains: only four Argentine forwards have committed to the drive, so four remain out in midfield as potential tacklers.

So how did the Wallabies develop the same pattern of attack from lineout further in the return match? Firstly, they threw the ball to the tail of the line rather than the front, leaving more Pumas forwards on the wrong side of the play.

With ball won at the back, there are suddenly only two defensive forwards involved (no.2 Julian Montoya and no.8 Rodrigo Bruni), and the others have been removed from the equation. That allows Rob Valetini to penetrate the gap between hooker and back-rower and link easily with Andrew Kellaway on his inside, in an unimpeded lane of support.

In the second period, the Wallabies were able to refine the same play even further and build an even greater understanding of its possibilities.

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The Pumas have packed the defence around Fainga’a and Valetini with no less than four players – two forwards and two inside backs – so on this occasion the Australian number 8 is a decoy.

Quade Cooper, loitering in behind, overcalls for the ball from his hooker instead. The outcome is an easy run in space for Len Ikitau, and the opportunity to deliver a spectacular no-look offload for another try by Kellaway. Australia is still one step ahead of the game.

How did the Wallabies learn from their errors in the run of defeats to the All Blacks? They gave up five cheap intercept tries to New Zealand in the Bledisloe Cup series, so on the Gold Coast Australia cut the cut-out pass out their game.

Of a total 23 entries from midfield into either one of the 15 metre channels, 18 were by linking to the next man, three were via cross-kick and only two featured the use of a long cut-out pass.

The kick-pass from midfield out to the wing is a much safer method delivering the ball into the wide channels. There were two examples from the boot of Quade Cooper, one to Jordan Petaia on the right.

The other to Michael Hooper on the left.

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In both cases there is no chance of an intercept and the odds of further attacking progress are excellent.

When Quade did throw the cut-out pass, it was only when he was absolutely sure that the defence was committed to him, and not focusing on the space into which the pass would be delivered.

All eyes are on the Wallabies’ number 10, and none are on the space between Cooper and Petaia at the moment of delivery.

Let’s finish with a try-scoring sequence featuring a happy mix of these two aspects of Australian cohesion-in-action. The third try of the game started with the move linking Fainga’a and Valetini around the end of the lineout.

A few phases later, it finished with Quad Cooper rejecting the long looping pass out to Pete Samu on the right wing, and picking out Samu Kerevi short with a beautiful double-pump instead.

The view from behind the posts provides a lucid illustration of how the work off the ball by Kerevi, Petaia and Kellaway gives Quade a simple, no-risk option on the pass.

The linkages between all of the back-line components are strong, and everyone is doing a job. The cohesion is clear and obvious.

Summary

New Zealand may have returned to the top of the World Rugby rankings in the men’s game over the course of the Rugby Championship, but purely in terms of Ben Darwin’s idea of ‘cohesion’, the position is not so clear-cut.

The top of the Kiwi organisation (as represented by the coaching group headed up by Ian Foster) does not appear to be more stable than that of their two main rivals.

On the evidence of the past two weeks, the quality and intensity of the linkages within the current All Blacks playing group are not stronger than they are in the Springboks either.

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Over the two games between the teams, it is South Africa who have come off better in the physical exchanges and dominated the majority of play in contact.

Meanwhile, Dave Rennie’s charges are building up a nice head of steam leading into the tour of Japan and the UK, and the two key games versus England and Wales. With more veteran reinforcements on the way, they will have access to better talent and their level of cohesion can be expected to improve further.

In the meantime, the evidence of a growing trust in their patterns of play, and the ability to correct errors rather than repeat them, will be of great satisfaction to the Wallabies head coach. Sitting on his current perch, maybe he is happier in Australia after all.

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