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If I was Wallabies coach for three weeks...

Dave Rennie (Andrew Phan/supplied by Rugby Australia)
Roar Rookie
4th November, 2021
40
1737 Reads

Roarers. If you’re like me, there are times, especially after another Bledisloe loss or unconvincing win against Japan, when you think: “If only I was the national rugby coach or selector”.

Another thought often follows, mostly when the post-game alcohol kicks in, like “Can’t they see what needs fixing…Blind Freddy could see it!”

After many years of watching the Wallabies, screaming in despair at another dropped ball, aimless kick or isolated gold jersey and turnover penalty, almost smashing the TV, I started self-medicating with NRL (league) therapy, because mostly they did simple things well, especially the kicking games of Cooper Cronk and Adam Reynolds.

Then by fortune I found this brotherhood of rugby experts and tragics on The Roar. And having recently written a well-received article on Jordan Petaia, I’m airing some views that have been incubating inside my pattern making rugby brain, now in rehab from PCRD (Post Cheika Rugby Disorder) under the new Rugby Australia coaching structures.

Firstly, for context.

I haven’t laced up rugby boots since leaving school nor played at any level, and never coached a team. Hence the word ‘fantasy’. Rest assured that no under 12s will have me destroying the morale of rugby juniors.

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Nor has Rugby Australia ever contacted me for views on team selection, not that this has stopped me from holding passionately held opinions about who should be playing and where. (See my opening sentence). Though it has kept me awake for hours which does indicate the level of my insanity/obsession.

Now, boosted by a new sense of Roar-inspired ‘belonging’ and optimism from this year’s results, I’ve taken out a Stan subscription to view the games more critically. I’m glad I did. Now I can rewatch either the whole game, a mini match (25 mins), or 10-minute or four-minute highlight packages.

Stan also shows UK Gallagher Cup and New Zealand provincial matches so it’s given me a more informed scope of how the game is played in those locations. And from reading the Roar Gurus and experts, my appreciation of the Rugby’s nuances have increased.

So here goes. By the way, what I lack in practical coaching or playing experience is perhaps made up for in over 30 years of studying personal development, human performance and potential, accelerated learning, Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and 1:1 coaching.

As we face the next three games without our missing players, indeed with a large backline reshuffle, Dave Rennie and the team will certainly want to adapt the previous game plan. The inclusion of our northern hemisphere players has now tilted the balance towards a more dynamic forward pack away from the dominant Cooper-Kerevi axis.

Hence, I want to focus on some areas that I believe we can upskill in, playing smarter not harder.

These are: possession, kicking/passing and lineouts.

1. Possession
Using the last two years under Dave Rennie as a starting point, it’s my view that the Wallabies haven’t valued possession enough. Against the All Blacks in particular, I thought the Wallabies have often been in the contest for large periods until a dropped ball, pushed pass, ruck turnover, ball steal, or our latest culprit – intercepts – have allowed the All Blacks to turn the momentum of the game in their favour, and run away with the contest, especially either side of halftime.

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We are making progress, as shown by Pete Samu holding his feet and taking the ball into a ruck against the Boks which led to a Marika Koroibete try, and most recently, Jordan Petaia hanging on to a very flat Quade Cooper pass against Japan, resisting the temptation to throw a speculator, which led to a break by Len Ikitau and Nic White that resulted in Rob Leota’s try.

I hope these two instances are put onto highlight reels for the team to watch and learn from.

What follows are two novel suggestions for increasing the impact of the message that we must hold onto the ball and control our possession.

First, I suggest that every player has their own rugby ball with their name on it and they take it everywhere they go, except when eating… perhaps leave Gilbert out of the shower too.

There could be penalties for losing your ball, something fun and competitive that would build team spirit and subliminally anchor the message about keeping track of your ball and valuing possession.

Now this may sound like something you’d do at a Telstra team building conference on the Gold Coast, but please bear with me as experience shows that any sport is won in the space between the ears before it’s won outside them.

Also, if you have skied intensively you know there’s a time where you forget you have skis and they become an extension of you. The brain takes over, movements become automatic, instinctual.

That’s the state I want the Wallabies to achieve with the ball. That it becomes an extension of their hands and feet. Faf De Klerk is a great example, the way he spins the ball on his finger while waiting to feed a scrum-that level of control and reflex action, so offloads and difficult passes stick instead of going to ground.

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Soccer players likewise practice their foot skills for hours to achieve excellent ball control.

Players having their own ball constantly can help achieve this.

Of course there are the normal training and passing drills, but I want players to develop something beyond that, an “obsession with possession” as it were.

My next strategy is, using a 4kg medicine ball, to practice wrestling it off teammates, to simulate a breakdown or tackle situation. Because of the medicine ball’s size and weight, you have to apply more force to get the ball away, which should build muscle memory for hanging onto the ball and wrestling it from an opponent in game day situations.

The Kiwis are good at stripping ball from a players grasp. I want the Wallabies to become the rugby magpies, stealing any loose ball they can, and holding on to theirs as if it was gold!

My acronym here is HOBB: Hang Onto the Bloody Ball.

2. Kicking
Roarers, agree or not, kicking is with us to stay. Teams are perfecting it as a territorial and attacking weapon, frequently now in the oppositions 22.

For example, take Jordie Barrett’s kick in behind the Welsh that led to Sevu Reece’s try in the 65th minute last weekend:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qLGPRgEjMCs (at 9m 55secs).

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Jordie’s kick wasn’t too high nor forceful, just a beautifully weighted LOW Trajectory Kick(LTK) in behind an advancing Welsh defensive line that landed 15 metres inside touch, bounced twice, giving the chasers time to arrive and score a vintage try.

Here’s another great example of the LTK at 3m 30 secs from a highlights reel of Marcus Smith, a mercurial player we’ll see if/when he starts for England.

I’ve been highly critical of the Wallabies’ previous kicking. The ‘high aimless crossfield kick’ without a good kick/chase has led to many an All Black counter-attacking try. Two of the things I want our kickers to do is to find the grass and land the ball in play when appropriate, allowing the shape of the ball to provide unpredictability, as it did in New Zealand versus Wales.

My ideal kicking strategy involves mastering the grubber through the line (GTTL), the kick return that Reece Hodge is so good at, and the LTK for touch that lands 10-15 metres in from touch and skids on especially in the wet.

Did someone say KFC? I did! Kick For the Corners! I would be training this kick especially this tour.

All sides practice taking the high ball and so are fairly safe under it. But that LTK, either in behind a rushing defence or hitting the ground opens up possibilities that don’t exist under the high ball and can reap rewards.

If we kick smart and play in our opponent’s territory, we can use our forward power to greater advantage this tour now our backline has lost some of its dynamism.

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Another potential game changer we haven’t utilised is the new 50:22 rule. What an easy way to way to exit our half and gain a lineout throw. Look at this quick highlight reel, including Nic White’s first international 50:22, and you will appreciate how well NH teams use this kick.

To hone kicking skills, I suggest kickers practice landing the ball on a target 15 metres in at training under pressure, so in the game situation, where pressure is higher and adrenalin more active, they have a healthy margin of error so the ball doesn’t go out on the full, something our kickers have been guilty of before.

Why a target? Modern sports science practices like NLP promote focus on a target, as basketballers do. I would coach landing the ball on a three metre square mat, practising hitting the target by starting close then moving further away as proficiency rises.

Taniela Tupou of Australia scores a try

(Photo by Kenta Harada/Getty Images)

With a target you can keep score and measure accuracy. It also makes visualising the kick going where you want it much easier.

It’s important too to celebrate wins. You’ve seen tennis players pump their fists when they do a good shot. The fist pump becomes an ‘anchor’ to reinforce success, so the brain knows what to aim for and reproduce. Sounds a little ‘woo woo’ I know, but the brain is a goal-seeking mechanism that works best when rewarded and directed towards the required behaviour.

To this end I would have the team and individuals have their own highlight reels of what they have done well, and to replay those often, as sport is a confidence game and what you focus on expands.

Let me finish briefly with three things.

First, in my sternest coach voice: “No more wild or flat long passing.”

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You know, the kind that led to intercept tries. Better to be patient and pass short, rather than risk those demoralising moments. Matt Philip and Angus Bell both threw long heave-ho passes against Japan that were nearly intercepted and could have cost us the game.

Let’s instead refine our short passing game, using a 2kg medicine ball to develop passing strength and skills. Our new motto-Pass Short, Pass Often.(PSPO). And use more inside passes to mix it up and keep opposition defences guessing.

Next, the Wallabies scored some spectacular tries from ‘special’ lineout moves. I want more of those, and more FRONT of the lineout moves, involving Taniela Tupou as a runner or decoy. Also, I would be asking James O’Connor, Tate McDermott and Nic White to put some chips over and grubbers in behind the lineout to a rampaging TT, Jordie or AK coming through the five metre channel.

This would give us the advantage of surprise.

Lastly, SLD-Sustained leg drive into contact, post contact and into tackles like an energiser bunny a la Ardie Savea. The aim-post contact metres over the gain line.

So let’s HOBB, LTK, GTTL, PSPO, KFC, SLD and 50:22 our way through this tour and towards the World Cup.

Finally two quick questions.

1. Can Will Skelton help unlock Taniela, who to me seems a confidence player? I would love the ‘Tongan Thor’ to fully realise his potential as a ball playing forward, damaging ball runner, and stand in half back.

2. Israel Folau was an aerial target before. Could Jordie P be our new ‘bomb master’, catching LTKs in the 13 and wing channel, as he showed great leaps against Japan?

Would appreciate some feedback, especially from those who have been involved in coaching about the theory versus practicality of my views.

Thanks for reading and happy Roaring, rugby brothers and sisters.

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