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'What was with that defensive set up?': Jones-Hodgson combo must get up to speed fast with Fisher absence clear to see

10th July, 2023
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10th July, 2023
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The Wallabies finished with a 37 per cent share of possession in the Loftus thumping at the hands of the Springboks on Sunday morning, Australian time, and frankly I’m stunned the number was that high. It might’ve been lucky to be half that for the second half.

Their 31.6 per cent share of territory, on the other hand, feels about right. South Africa spent 48 per cent of the game in the Australian half, and 28.8 per cent in the Wallabies’ 22.

When you’re only setting 39 rucks in a game and your kick-chase is almost not existent in support of a kicking game under extreme pressure, it’s no wonder James Slipper mused post-match that the Wallabies spent most of the second half tackling.

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With Argentina in Sydney ahead of Saturday night’s suddenly crucial clash at CommBank Stadium, there are so many lessons the Wallabies need to quickly heed from Pretoria: missing nearly one in five tackles, the turnovers conceded, the 13 penalties conceded to just three, and certainly the kicking game and kick-chase.

On that last point, the Wallabies kicked more than 30 times for the match, which isn’t unusual for Test rugby, but I can still only think of maybe a couple of them being contestable – either from the length of the kick, the quality of the chase, and how rarely those two crucial elements were connected.

But if only one thing can be addressed for this weekend coming, it absolutely has to be the Wallabies’ positioning in defence.

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When a new coach comes into a team, they’re always going to bring new ideas and perspectives on different parts of the game. The worry for Eddie Jones and former NRL fullback turned rugby defence coach Brett Hodgson, is that it was hard to tell what their defensive plan or method was.

Assistant coach Brett Hodgson during an Australia Wallabies training camp at Sanctuary Cove on April 18, 2023 in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

When Laurie Fisher was brought into the Wallabies set-up last season, his input was immediately noticeable: the Wallabies came up faster in defence, slid well when faced with lateral attack, and were then hard on the ball when the tackle was made. You could see that. But Fisher has been working on defence methods for 20 years.

Jones and Hodgson have only been working together for around 12 months, but this match in Pretoria was actually their first attempt at putting their plans into action; they never got the chance to implement them with England before the RFU made the call that shook Rugby Australia into the drastic action they took late last year.

And the issue with taking a look at the errors made in the six South African tries, is that it will easily sound like only one player was the problem. Of course, that’s not the case. There were mistakes made across the board. But the errors made in the lead-up to tries are obviously the ones that were most costly.

The signs were there in the run up to Kurt-Lee Arendse’s first try. Canan Moodie beat Tom Hooper on the right edge, with Moodie’s opposite Marika Koroibete nowhere in sight. It was only when he stepped back inside and was brought down by Tom Wright that Koroibete appeared in-frame coming out from centre field. Where had he been, that he wasn’t on his wing?

As the ball moved infield to the forward pods, the rushed pass hadn’t even been thrown behind Manie Libbok when Quade Cooper was already turned in, and then rushing in to take Libbok and/or clean up the loose ball. He got neither, and Len Ikitau is then left facing Frans Malherbe and Marvin Orie coming at him, and with Andre Esterhuizen out the back. Ikitau missed the loose ball, too, with an attempted right-foot hack.

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Orie picked up, passed to Esterhuizen, which dragged Suliasi Vunivalu – already 20 metres infield – further in again. Esterhuizen found Arendse, who walked it in untouched.

How did the defensive communication fall away so quickly? Why did outside guys feel they needed to bite in so hard and so far?

For the lineout that led to Arendse’s second try, Australia’s defensive alignment had Nic White standing inside the tramlines and Allan Alaalatoa in the standoff spot, with Michael Hooper the first player back behind the offside line. The Wallabies midfield are aligned out to his left, and Wright is back in the far pocket. Koroibete is up in the line but on his edge, and Vunivalu is strangely right back near the five-metre line on the short side.

Alaalatoa is drawn to or just voluntarily joins the maul as it forms, allowing Marco van Staden to clear out down that short side, immediately drawing White into a two-on-one with Bongi Mbonambi, who is invited into the space left by Vunivalu.

Vunivalu does come forward, and Hooper quickly slides out, but Mbonambi creates another two-on-one against the winger caught in no man’s land, and again Arendse runs in untouched.

What was with that defensive set-up? And why wasn’t Vunivalu up in the line with Wright covering the short side, instead across the other side of the field? Who or what was Wright covering in that far pocket?

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I’m still not convinced about the pass for Arendse’s third, but regardless, why was Vunivalu defending in the 13 channel, and why then did he bite in further again, leaving Michael Hooper and Wright to defend the three-on-two down the Boks’ left edge?

And for the final try in the 69th minute, why – from a Springboks scrum 20 metres infield – did the Wallabies leave Vunivalu as the only defender covering that short side?

Libbok switched to that short side as Grant Williams peeled away from the scrum with Tate McDermott in tow, and actually straightened back inside, but so far had McDermott let Williams run that Vunivalu was already in huge trouble.

In the end, his desperate and out of position lunge at the ball left Ben O’Keeffe with no choice but to award the second penalty try for the match, with the yellow card the final chapter in what had been a truly awful night for the Queensland winger.

But did no one see Libbok switch to the short side to exploit Vunivalu on his own? Did no Australian defender think the Springboks might fancy another crack at the guy found wanting already throughout the game?

Defensive issues are always concerning, but when they result in gift-wrapped tries, all you’re really left with is why?

Why were so many players caught out of position so often? Why did communication seemingly cease to exist?

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And with the next match already less than a week away, how on earth will these glaring defensive errors be now turned around before the Wallabies host Argentina in western Sydney?

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