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Opinion

Coach’s Corner Issue 31: Selection conundrums as Wallabies enter the Lions' jaws

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28th October, 2021
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Thanks to all who contributed a question, or helped develop one at the call-out stage!

We have heard a lot about big Willy Skelton being available for the Wallabies and this has prompted some diverse opinions based on his previous performances for Australia and his new-found success/attitude/physical attributes on Europe. I don’t watch much of the Euro competitions but I’d love to see some comparison between then and now for the big fella.
– Vintage Red

Has the Japan game shown that Dave Rennie needs the best from around the world to get the Wallabies to rise? Couldn’t other coaches (excluding Cheika) have had a similar performance given the change in the Giteau rule?
– Stillmissit.

Agree – though the quality at home is just not enough and Wallabies need Quade and Kerevi to be in the top 5, they probably need Arnold as well to stay in the top 3. Home grown players – only about seven is the right ranking.
– PeterK
The Wallabies were back to their woeful selves yesterday. No Kerevi or Koroibete brought them back to being the seventh ranked side we’ve become accustomed to.
– Raghead.

How are the tight five travelling? I thought Rodda was consistent and on script, whereas Philip seemed to drift away from that driving close play that made me a fan.
– Noodles

There cannot be any question that the Wallabies need all of their players available for selection – wherever they happen to be practising their trade – if they still aspire to be a top three force in world rugby again.

They lost two parts of their foundation-crust of five world-class players for the match against Japan (Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete) and neither of those two players could be satisfactorily replaced. As I indicated in Wednesday’s article, the absence of Kerevi’s thrust through the middle concretely affected the production of the people around him.

I suspect the same is true in the tight five, although it remains to be demonstrated as fact. Rory Arnold is Australia’s top second rower (and another world-class player), while Will Skelton is by far the most impactful option off the pine.

This is what the statistical picture looked like earlier in the year – at the end of Super Rugby, and the 2020-2021 Top 14 season in France.

Attack
Player Minutes Carry interval
(mins)
Gain-line dominance/
decisive outcomes
Avg own
lineout wins
Rory Arnold 671 11.6 17% (+6) 5.6
Will Skelton 1143 9 26% (+5) 0.3
Izack Rodda 1657 12.8 9% (+2) 3
Matt Philip 912 8.2 12% (+9) 3.1
Darcy Swain 254 50.8 0 (+0) 8.4
Defence
Player Minutes Tackle interval
(mins)
Completion % Passive tackle % Avg lineout
steals
Rory Arnold 671 8.3 88 5% 0.71
Will Skelton 1143 13.2 91 3% 0
Izack Rodda 1657 9.9 88 25% 0.78
Matt Philip 912 10.1 87 20% 1.03
Darcy Swain 254 9.4 87 27% 0.93

Now let’s take a look at a table illustrating the impacts of the Wallaby second rows during the Rugby Championship.

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Player Minutes Carry interval
/DOs
Lineout
/Steals
Tackle interval Tackle % Ruck attendance
interval
Swain 239 34/0 8/2 10 80 2.5
Rodda 283 35/0 5/1 8 91 3.8
Philip 384 12/0 7/0 9 98 4.4

One of the biggest issues Dave Rennie has faced since Lukhan Salakaia-Loto’s departure from the squad is squeezing enough punishing ball-carries out of the second row. Darcy Swain and Izack Rodda are not natural ball-carriers, and during the Rugby Championship Matt Philip was willing but not damaging.

Rory Arnold (starting) and Will Skelton (finishing) provide an instant solution. Half and hour of Will Skelton gives you gain-line dominance on the most difficult of carries.

The first example comes from last weekend’s game for La Rochelle against RC Toulon, Skelton’s first of the season after a recent suspension ended. He played a full 80 minutes and scored a try in the final quarter.

It’s fair to say he looked blown by the end, but he will be all the better for the run out.

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The other two examples come from the European Champion’s Cup semi-final between La Rochelle and Leinster at the beginning of the year. The naysayers will claim the Wallaby lineout will fall to pieces because Skelton is not a receiving option, but that can be overcome with a finishing back five of Skelton-Arnold-Lachie Swinton-Pete Samu-Michael Hooper.

The hard reality of the modern game is that Australia could probably expect anywhere between three and five lineout throws of their own in the last half-hour of a match, but there would be more than 50 contact situations (in the tackle, on the carry, at maul and around the ruck) in the same time frame where Skelton would prove to be a very powerful influence.

Neither Skelton nor Arnold are soft in defence around the fringes, and that is another area where Australia can look to improve their output.

There’s been lots of talk about the lack of specialist fullbacks currently in the Wallabies squad. With Hodge looking as though he has an extended stay on the injury list, did Kellaway prove he is the right replacement on the weekend? Should James O’Connor turn back the clock and fill in in the backfield for the Spring tour? Dave Rennie indicated Jordan Petaia needs more game time at the back in SR to be considered an option. What about Beale or Morahan?
– Reilly

Interested in your view as who is the logical fullback replacement? A few on the other forum whose opinions I do greatly respect such as Geoff have suggested James O’Connor as possible. Now if JOC was picked there I would not be surprised to see him doing well give his great talent, but I’m a bit concerned by his suggestion.
– Oblonsky’s Other Pun

The inclusion of Luke Morahan with his searing speed and leadership skills will be huge. Or will it be Beale who is called up?
– Rugby Wizard

The Bristol Bears have lost four of their first five games in the 2021-2022 English Premiership, and Australian back three utility Luke Morahan has been missing through injury for all of them.

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When he was asked to comment on the impact of Morahan on the Bristol side that he coaches, this is what the Bears’ head coach Pat Lam had to say.

“It’s leadership, that’s what leadership does. He has been around, he has played at the highest level but the big one about the leadership, and this is what I value, he is one of a few of our players that is in his fourth season with me so he understands the Bears game, understands the culture, understands the leadership and that is why he is in our leadership group. That is why he applied for it, went through a process and has been on our leadership group because that is what he is, that is what he brings to the whole organisation.”

Lam added pointedly, “It’s not me who has ever forgotten about Luke Morahan.” But with Morahan unlikely to get much playing time under his belt in the near future, it is hard to see him playing any part in Dave Rennie’s tour plans.

One of the selection shifts in the Rugby Championship was the movement towards greater size at fullback. Three of the four players who finished in that position – Reece Hodge for Australia, Jordie Barrett for New Zealand and Frans Steyn for South Africa – are big backs by any standard, all tipping the scales at 6’3 and around 100 kilos.

Barrett was New Zealand’s outstanding back in the tournament, and it was his size and ballast which withstood a hailstorm of chasers under the contestable high ball in the double-header with the Springboks.

The inside chaser is Eben Etzebeth, all 6’9 and 125 kilos of him, so you need physical presence in order to resist successfully. When the backfield failed, it did not occur on Jordie’s shift.

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The other aspect is the long-kicking game that all three have in common. Hodge, Barrett and Steyn possess howitzers for right boots, and Frans Steyn in particular transformed the second match against the All Blacks with his long kicking from the back.

Steyn had three long kicks which moved play all the way from one 22 to the other, including the 50-22 example above.

In the absence of Hodge and Morahan, the logical (if slightly left-field) pick from that point of view would be Jordan Petaia, who has the size and physical presence, and at least some of the same kicking ability. It is also his preferred position, and the spot he should occupy for the Queensland Reds in 2022.

Once when the Wallabies defended the lineouts Michael Hooper walked around the Japan players and joins the maul from “behind”. Is this allowed or did the ref miss that?
– Swiss Rugby Fan.

Is there any reason why the Wallabies wouldn’t form a line, hold strong and then come around the back all the time? If the opposition then brings it forward it becomes a truck-and-trailer penalty – right? Scuba Steve

You can’t come round off an established maul.
– Soapit

A rather more technical, and less controversial question to finish off! This is the incident from the Japan game in Oita to which Swiss Rugby Fan is referring.

As Soapit also pointed out, there is no offside line at lineout once the ball is thrown beyond the 15-metre line. The law says, “Once the ball has been thrown, a lineout player may move beyond the 15-metre line. If the ball does not go beyond the 15-metre line, the player must immediately return to the lineout.”

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Therefore, Michael Hooper is well within his rights to move straight past the receiver and his blockers on to ‘the wrong side’ and stymie the drive at source.

This defensive technique is one also used (in a modified form) by defensive teams who are not confident of their ability to stop a driving maul by more orthodox means.

These two examples come from a European Champions Cup game between Exeter and Dave Rennie’s Glasgow side a couple of years ago. If the defensive side backs off from contact and does not engage the men in front, it means that no maul has been formed – so the tackler is free to advance around the back of the blocking wall and tackle the ball-carrier.

Exeter did not use the typical solution, which is for the ball to remain with the lineout receiver, and for the attacking phalanx to advance until the defence is forced to commit a tackler to stop forward momentum in any case.

Thanks once again, look in again next week!

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