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Coach's Corner: What is the best model for the Wallabies?

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Expert
24th March, 2022
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It was a big week for questions about rugby, with the climax of the Six Nations in the north crowned by a French Grand Slam and the first bruising encounter of the season between Brumbies and Reds in Australia. Let’s move it along with the team of the week:

Nick Bishop’s Super Rugby Aussie team of the week

NumberPlayer
1Angus Bell
2Josh Nasser
3Harry Johnson-Holmes
4Nick Frost
5Jed Holloway
6Seru Uru
7Fraser McReight
8Will Harris
9Nic White
10Ben Donaldson
11Manasa Mataele
12Irae Simone
13Hunter Paisami
14Andy Muirhead
15Reece Hodge

Nick Frost, with most lineout wins (31) and most lineout steals (4), Will Harris and Seru Uru look like the fastest risers among the young forwards in Australia this season, while Reece Hodge showed some encouraging signs of a return to form with the Rebels.

The query hot-spots this week centred around France’s triumph, and the back-row issues facing Dave Rennie. I will try to deal with both areas together. 

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“There seems two main styles which have had recent success: ball-control offense (Ireland, Leinster) and territory-based (play without the ball), by Six Nations winners France and World Cup holders South Africa. Do you see Australia going more with the Irish pathway?”  

HARRY JONES

Earlier in the week, I drew attention to the low amount of ball-in-play time (28 and a half minutes) and the low number of rucks built (123) in Canberra, compared to events in Paris (35 minutes and 162 rucks) and Dublin (40 minutes and 192 rucks).

France won the Six Nations while kicking the most, and setting the fewest number of rucks – after round five of the competition, they ranked dead-last with an average of only 69 rucks per game, compared to Ireland’s 102. Ireland’s ball-control approach has always been much closer to Australian rugby’s historical DNA, and I suspect under Dave Rennie the Wallabies will continue to move closer to Ireland than France.

Games like the one at GIO stadium will not help his cause very much. The Brumbies play much more like France or South Africa, with the lowest active time of possession (just over 14 minutes) and by far the lowest average number of rucks built (51 per game) in the whole of Super Rugby Pacific. There is a real problem of translation if Rennie wants to play more ball-control offence.

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We can view this issue through the lens of back-row selection, and specifically the pick at number 8, which was such a fertile ground for questions at the call-out stage this week.

“With round five finished, and each Aussie teams having played each other, the battle for back-row spots in the Wallabies is heating up. How are they performing, the points of difference and are the incumbents safe in their positions?”

LEEROY14

“I would say Hooper at 7 and Valetini at 8 are safe. The 6 position is still pretty open.”

BROKEN SHOULDER

It’s hard to play the ball-control game effectively if you cannot get your main forward ball carriers into the game successfully. In the Brumbies-Reds match, the raw stats were not impressive, with Harry Wilson carrying 16 times for 30 metres, and Rob Valetini four times for only six metres!

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There were concerns raised about whether Harry Wilson’s footwork and elusiveness had developed enough in the off-season:

“Harry Wilson seems to be running the same way he did last season, direct, hard and fast. I see no difference in the way he is running.”

FAITHFUL

“Wilson’s hands are his point of difference. He has been trying to address his footwork but it’s not instinctive, and if he has to think about it, he’s not going to be able to play his natural game.”

JC

Those misgivings are understandable. Take a look at these two instances from the game in Canberra:

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It’s a similar launch play from lineout, with a very simple aim: to target the smallest Brumbies defender (scrum-half Nic White) with the Reds’ best forward ball-carrier, Harry Wilson. In the first instance, Wilson is able to roll over the top of White and set up instant ruck ball. 

But players like White know how to make adjustments, and on the second occasion he stays higher and squarer for longer, and he is able to drop down over the tackle ball to win a turnover. In neither case is there any attempt by Wilson to change his angle or use any footwork before contact. If Australia want to play the possession game, they will need to get more variety from their big forwards than this. 

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When the conversation turned to some of the other young number 8’s in Australia, Mzilikazi gestured towards what should be an obvious reality:

“[Will Harris] is still a developing player. When you consider he would be facing the likes of Greg Alldritt – no, he won’t be there by 2023.”

MZILIKAZI

Greg Alldritt is also the answer to his question: “Who do you see as the player from each nation who was the most influential for his team?” when you take a look at France. Not Antoine Dupont, Greg Alldritt.

So, what does Greg Alldritt do that Australian number 8’s can learn from, and incorporate into their game? Take a look at this table (after round five of both competitions):

PlayerMinutesCarry interval’Metres per carryTackle interval’Tackle completion %Ruck attendance interval’Lineout [own/steal]Breakdown steals
Will Harris40011.47.713.880%5.07/21
Harry Wilson4005.25.36.794%6.75/00
Rob Valetini34611.15.66.490%7.73/01
Greg Alldritt3735.74.96.988%3.56/06

The table will reinforce some of the strong early-season Super Rugby Pacific impressions: Rob Valetini has had a slow start by his 2021 standards, Will Harris needs more involvements before he becomes a candidate for higher honours, Harry Wilson will always give 100% effort and Test-worthy work rate.

There is not a big difference between all three of Wilson, Valetini and Alldritt in the basic carrying or tackling stats. The French number 8’s real point of difference lies in his significant ruck attendances (SRA’s), especially on defence (59, 1st in the Six Nations after round five), which meant he was top of the charts in steals on the ground (six after round five, eight in total).

In other words, Greg Alldritt is a number 8 and a number 7, all wrapped up in a single package. This is an area where Will Harris can also strike a blow in future, because unlike the other three he has the potential to become a lineout expert in the Kieran Read mould for New Zealand.

Alldritt’s unique skill-set helps give the France defend-and-counter policy real starch, and he had two turnovers in the first 13 minutes against England:

The second sequence moves smoothly through the gears into a full-blown line-break on the counter, and that is exactly the kind of game France want to play.

Greg Alldritt’s power and work rate in and around contact situations makes a huge difference to France’s ability to play the counter-puncher’s game:

That is none other than Maro Itoje who is getting the rag-doll treatment in the second example, and England’s attack is dead in the water. On the hour mark, Greg Alldritt still had the energy to set up his scrum-half for the game-deciding score:

It is this kind of power and work rate that Wallaby forwards will need to emulate when they meet England in July. So, when Faithful commented:

“Watching the Six Nations games in the last couple of months, the game up there has evolved into a fast, skill-based, tactical power game. But dissimilar to the South, their play is centred around brutal forwards.”

That is also the main reason why forwards like the Waratahs’ Jed Holloway and Harry Johnson-Holmes are in Dave Rennie’s plans moving forward:

There is just time to address ongoing queries about the viability of the scrum after the England-Ireland fiasco. Ray asked, “Referees are having trouble with consistent ruling in the scrum area. Is there a way to simplify the on-field referee’s area of scrutiny?”, with Rugbytrylover adding, “I’d be interested to know your thoughts on improving the spectacle of rugby with regard to the constant scrum penalties.”

The Brumbies-Reds match was no better from this viewpoint, with only five scrums out of 19 (including resets) producing usable ball, and 10 penalties or free-kicks awarded. It was an unholy mess. 

One easy solution is to require the ball to be played away positively under advantage for the penalty to be confirmed. Most teams who scrum for penalties tend to lose control of the ball at the base as the scrum rotates away from the number 8. 

Another answer might be for the referee to enforce the use of ‘channel one’ ball (emerging between the flanker and left second row) if the ball cannot get to the number 8’s feet without incident.

Thanks once more to all who got stuck in at the forum stage!

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