The Roar
The Roar


Why it's a long and winding road back to the Australian way

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20th July, 2022
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The cab ride to the Ballymore ground back in 2001 still lingers in my memory. The driver was animated, chatting Origin, talking Joey and Alfie. I looked out of the window at the trees waving underneath a cloudless blue sky – Tuckeroo, Weeping Lilly Pilly, the eternal Eucalyptus. 

When we arrived, he stuck his head through the window: ‘no worries, mate. I’ll wait for you – no charge’. Ballymore was no soul-less, manufactured modern stadium. It was organic, open-plan and inviting, like Pontypool Park in Wales. I had to scale a small green rise to get to the pitch where the Queensland Reds were training, and looked down at a creek winding along the side of the road, oblivious to the day’s work.

Rugby life was already humming like a bee-hive on the other side of that climb. I recognised faces and features that I knew: Sam Cordingley in his maroon hat, Elton Flatley and the Kefu brothers. Michael Foley calling the scrum with a stern bark, and his trademark Mephistophelian beard. 

The Reds spent most of their time running choreographed attack patterns up and down the field. Passes flowed as quickly and easily as the water in the creek, Cordingley floated from ruck to ruck in the zigzag of checkerboard phases. Urgent calls spiralled up into the air before every play – switch, double switch, in-pass, cutback. I stood at the top of the hill and wondered. It was slick and seamless, my first close-up experience of the cohesion and a balance of a multi-phase attack.

In those early days of Super Rugby, that was the Australian Way. Entertainment was the name of the game and the rucks were relatively lightly contested, coaches were free to plan 10 or 15 phases ahead. With Rod Macqueen as a rock-solid steward of the national game between 1998 and 2001, it remains the most definitive statement of Australian purpose in Rugby’s professional era. A Wallaby clarion call, if you like.

Dave Rennie and his coaching staff are still trying to answer that call, and rediscover Australia’s rugby soul in the process. On the evidence of the third Test between Australia and England, it is still a work in progress. 

For the first time in the series, the lineout provided an attacking platform, and Australia was able to build over 100 rucks in the game. The Wallabies made twice as many carries and forced England to make double the number of tackles.


As Rennie commented after the match:

“What we know of England, you kick them a lot of ball they’ve got Steward at the back who kicks it longer. We wanted to move the ball and kick from wider channels, but we found a lot of space there and carried on attacking.”

Australian captain Michael Hooper was more specific:

“I thought there was some space, that if we could get one or two more phases going, we could probably cut them up.

“They had some good defence. They were able to get some pretty pivotal turnovers. But I think, we were able to find space on the edge a couple of times, but we just needed to get one or two more phases. Yeah, it wasn’t quite as flowy as we’d like.”

Australia generally had no problem in breaking England in the early phases from set-piece. Indeed, that is how their first try of the game was scored:

Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell had their hands full trying to contain Samu Kerevi and it made for a torrid evening for Leicester’s Guy Porter in the 13 channel. Porter cannot handle Marika Koroibete and that leaves Owen Farrell trying to cover across behind him. Unsurprisingly, Faz is outrun to the corner by the mix of Nic White and Marika in support of Tom Wright and the try is scored.


In backs-on-backs scenarios, the Wallabies could create the opportunities they wanted. They had many more problems when they looked to build on the initial breaks afterwards:

Time/duration’LaunchPhases #Outcome
13:30 [0:30]Scrum5Interception
17:53 [0:30]Kick Return6Turnover [kick]
28:20 [0:40]Scrum5Wallaby penalty
41:50 [1:20]Lineout11Turnover [breakdown]
56:40 [0:40]Kick Return6Turnover [breakdown]
61:30 [2:15]5m lineout12Wallaby penalty
64:45 [0:45]5m lineout5Wallaby TRY
68:10 [0:50]Kick Return5Turnover [kick]
70:40 [0:45]Lineout8Turnover [breakdown]
74:00 [2:10]Scrum18Turnover [breakdown]
78:15 [0:55]Lineout7Turnover [breakdown]

Australia enjoyed 11 attacks of 5+ phases at the Sydney Cricket Ground: 88 total phases spread over a combined time of almost 11 minutes of play. The raw stats say that they won 77% of their rucks in under three seconds. 

But the outcomes do not reflect the amount of work: eight of the sequences ended with England turnovers or turnover penalties, and only at close-range 5m lineouts did Australia really profit from their multi-phase attack. So, what was going wrong?

Let’s frame the negative by looking at a positive first. The best multi-phase attack in the world today belongs to Leinster and Ireland, and it has been a constant threat during the titanic three Test series between the All Blacks and the men in green.

Take a look at the try Ireland scored at the very start of the second Test at the Forsyth Barr stadium in Dunedin:


Ireland set up a compact diamond shape as Jamison Gibson-Park prepares to pass, with Jonny Sexton very much a part of the pod of forwards around him. All of the remaining attackers are in the right half of the field, with only James Lowe keeping width out on the left side-line.

After Josh van der Flier makes the initial tackle bust, Sexton advances to the tip of the diamond with a back (number 12 Robbie Henshaw) filling in at the left prong. Forwards and backs combine together fluidly and the passes are short and deft, not long and languid.

The same pattern was repeated as Ireland neared the New Zealand goal-line later in the sequence:

Once again, the shape is very compact, with no more than ten metres separating the first and second pods of attack, and Sexton playing close to the forwards in front of him. Passes are short and nuanced, and it is easy for the cleanout to cover the distances between the rucks, which means more quick ball and a rolling wave of attacking momentum.


Here is the end of the sequence:

Now let’s move on to the Wallaby interpretation of similar attacking structures in Sydney:

It is not easy to see what the Wallabies are trying to achieve with this attacking shape. Hunter Paisami is positioned ahead of a three-man pod, which means an extra pass before they can carry and support, while Noah Lolesio is lurking well behind the forwards in front of him. In the event, it simply allows England to develop more speed off the defensive line, with Jamie George intercepting the pass between Dave Porecki and the Wallaby number 10.


The forward shape is not compact, and the nearest back (Paisami) is nowhere near his forwards, so cannot be a part of the play. This was a persistent problem:

The nearest back (Len Ikitau) is actually running away from the play when Tate McDermott passes from the base, and that paints a target on Nick Frost’s back as the only obvious receiver.

In backs-on-backs situations, Australia did not find it hard to crack the England D, the issues developed when they had to drop into their phase shape thereafter:

England are all over the shop in defence when Tom Wright makes another long break down the right, but the tables begin to turn when the Wallabies have to connect their forwards with their backs in a definite phase shape:


There is only one option available for Matt Philip on the phase after the break is made, and that is to take the ball into contact. Nick Frost and Noah Lolesio are too far away for him to make a pass. That means a one-man cleanout and slow ball. The same shape is repeated on the following play, with the two forwards too far ahead of Lolesio to be realistic options. More long passes, and easier defence for England on the opposite flank. Samu Kerevi had to kick the ball away a couple of phases later.

All of the themes of the Australian attack combined in one sequence midway through the second period, for better and worse:


In the first clip, the connection between Allan Alaalatoa in the front pod and Samu Kerevi behind him is too long, and the forwards ahead of Lolesio are only paying lip service to the idea of multiple options on every play. England are able to write off the decoys and flood through on the Wallaby number 10.

The second instance shows what is possible. Although Noah is still too far behind his forwards, a deft short pass from Gus Bell to triple A unlocks the D first, then Lolesio again feeds Frost short for another mini-break to back it up. The law of K.I.S.S in action! Keep it short and simple, stupid.

In the third clip we are back to the dark days, with Nic White looking to hit Alaalatoa on the end of a forward pod which is too ragged to accept the delivery, with the main back-line play-maker well out of the picture behind them. Ireland, it is not.


When all is said and done and Dave Rennie and Michael Hooper look back at the series, they will do so with a large measure of anger and frustration. They will be kicking themselves at missing the chance to turn over an England side which was there for the taking. The Red Rose offered a solid set-piece and kicking game and rather depressingly, that was enough to take the Ella-Mobbs trophy back to Old Blighty.

Eddie Jones will tell you that it will all come together at the World Cup next year, but at the moment England are well behind Ireland and France in the running. There were precious few comparisons to be made between the Australia-England series and events in the Land of the Long White Cloud in terms of sheer quality.


The unevenness of Australia’s Super Rugby franchises continues to haunt the Wallaby head honcho. The back three and the front row are well-stocked with talent, but depth is thin and there are still too many unknown quantities in other areas.

Number 6 and the best combination in the back row is still an open question, and Australia will need their European second rows in the knockout stages of the World Cup. As much as Noah Lolesio’s kicking game has improved out of hand and off the tee, there is still no substitute for Quade Cooper running the Wallaby attack, especially when it moves across the five-phase threshold. 

Watching from the top of that small grassy knoll under the Ballymore sun, I could not believe the smoothness of an Australian multi-phase attack in action. It actually got better the further into the phase-count the play went. The same cannot be said now.

With all Australia’s injured and overseas-based stars back in harness, the Wallabies have a shot at the World Cup. If Dave Rennie can get Quade, Rory, Jordie, Lenny and big Will all in the same place and at the same time, fully fit and firing, the green-and-gold is a chance in any circumstances, against any opponent. But right now, the big ‘Ifs’ are shading the certainties.