There are some parts of rugby which are more important than others and the relative importance of some parts are dictated by the level at which you are playing at.
At local level, one or two great players can be the difference, at club or corresponding Super Rugby level it is a good balance of attack and defence, but at international level set piece reigns supreme.
Set piece is the platform your backs launch off, it’s the first line of defence when an opposition is on the attack, and it is often where a game is won or lost depending on if you are conceding or winning penalties from it.
The scrum often garners much of the attention when one talks of set piece, however, the maul can be much more destructive if done correctly, and devastating if one gets it wrong.
Eddie Jones and his many consultants must get this part of the game right if they hope to compete with the heavyweights of the world in France 2023.
Pierre-Henry Broncan is Jones’ maul consultant (why Jones can’t just hire ‘coaches’ is beyond me). Broncan, like Jones, is an energizer and takes pride in turning teams around, as he has done when raising French provincial clubs to the nation’s div 2 ranks of the Pro D2.
The Frenchman’s experience comes mainly from French club rugby where one of his greatest achievements was as head coach of Castres Olympique.
French rugby is famous for its set piece reliance and the value they place on tighthead props, so Broncan is from the right part of the world. The question is; can he bring the thunder to down-under?
Broncan has some real specimens to work within the Wallabies pack, Angus Bell is 192cm and 125kg, Taniela Tupou weighs in at 135kg, while Will Skelton is 203cm and is probably somewhere just under 140kg.
However, mauling is complex and at times counter-intuitive; a dark art of the forwards and despite Broncan having some high pedigree raw ingredients at his disposal, he has not yet been able to construct a convincing maul.
The Wallabies have thus far scored no maul tries in 2023, and only on a few occasions has the maul made any headway.
Against the Springboks the Wallabies pack were torched at set piece time, conceding a maul try and losing the arm wrestle on their own try-line on a couple of occasions.
Against Argentina in Sydney, they got some good pay out of the driving maul, on two occasions pushing the Argentinian pack for 20 odd metres. However, the cobbled together Argentinian side despite having huge and imposing players are still trying to find their feet as a unit so they are not a good barometer.
The two Bledisloe games against Jason Ryan’s men are the most recent and the most apt litmus test for Broncan’s school of mauling so far.
Skelton is one of the most destructive maulers in world rugby on either side of the ball, but he cannot do it on his own and nor will he be on the field for the full 80.
Broncan must find where the Wallabies as an eight can make shifts to secure their maul, and then how they can turn it into a weapon.
In Bledisloe I at the MCG, the All Blacks pack destroyed the Wallabies pack. It was a master class in maul defence.
In this instance, Jed Holloway and Skelton are set too high, Brodie Retallick, Tyrel Lomax, and Scott Barrett, get underneath the Wallabies maul and stop it dead in its tracks.
Once it’s stopped, the All Blacks become individuals, finding weak seams in the Wallabies’ pack and eventually Scott Barrett pounces on the ball carrier Dave Porecki. Tate McDermott calls Porecki out, but he gets caught regardless.
The All Blacks did it again a week later in Dunedin for Bledisloe II.
The Wallabies again push too late, they lose the initial hit because New Zealand hit as a unit. This enables them to pre-emptively eliminate the threat as well as splinter the maul when it pivots.
There are two parts to the ABs’ system and there are two distinct but equally as important parts to maul defence.
First, as with all things Jason Ryan, the All Blacks are very low and connected, with no one-out stuff.
Secondly, each player has a job. In the first clip from Bledisloe I, Scott Barrett calls the defensive shape while Retallick and Lomax only have eyes for Frost’s pod, not the ball or the receiver himself. They are already set and are awaiting the caller’s signal to give an almighty shove.
Contrast this with the Wallabies set-up where they are all looking at the ball and hit too high in the following clip.
The pack is ball watching, waiting for the jumper to come down with the ball. The All Blacks also pivot straight away to the side the Wallabies left open to contest in the lineout. It is such a well-oiled machine and the decision makers can operate on the run.
If you look back at the All Blacks defensive clips above, the coordinated hit is too hard for the Wallabies pack to weather, and it cancels their maul’s effectiveness.
This is also the first part of maul defence. You must initially stop momentum and doing so is easiest when hitting like a unit (this is even more important at scrum time, but I digress).
The second part comes once you’ve successfully staunched momentum, the unit that stopped the opposition’s pack must now become individuals to try and splinter and separate the unit the opposition has formed. It’s like a tree root snaking through rock and stone.
This is what Scott Barrett manages to do exceptionally well in the Bledisloe I example in the first clip above.
The issues for the Wallabies defensive maul are body height, coordination, and timing.
The issues for the Wallabies attacking maul are similar but they are also running into trouble when they try to change the point of their attack.
In this example Richie Arnold is the receiver and having played a lot of rugby in France the maul is something the towering lock knows something about.
It appears like he falls when he lands but he is actually using his momentum to sink as low as possible to negate the All Blacks’ initial shove.
The rest of the pack is not accustomed to this, and it causes an imbalance which actually buys them time as the All Blacks’ early and low defensive shove props the oncoming Wallabies up and prevents the maul from collapsing.
However, due to the rest of the Wallabies being unaware of Arnold’s tactic the imbalance also creates a seam for Tupou Vaa’i to come through and it is only by Matt Faessler’s astute awareness, that he breaks away and a tackle ensues instead of a successful sack and a resulting turnover.
A quick side note, Faessler’s awareness of when the maul is lost saved the wallabies on a couple other occasions, the first of which occurs in the 18th minute of Bledisloe 2.
This may seem obvious, but Porecki has on several occasions been caught at the back of the maul which then concedes a turnover.
A couple minutes later Arnold again sinks very low once returning to ground and this time the Wallabies being alert to his tactics manage to bind together and drive as a unit.
Unfortunately, it is eventually stopped, and McDermott takes it from Faessler and eventually gets held up by Sam Whitelock and Ardie Savea.
The Wallabies’ best piece of maul defence as a unit comes in Bledisloe 2 in the 46th minute when Arnold, Tom Hooper and Zane Nonggorr manage to halt the initial shove, giving the rest of the pack time to readjust.
In this example, the Wallabies are finally low enough to be effective having stopped the initial rumble. The pressure they exerted on the All Blacks maul means it can’t pivot as a unit and it splinters and Hooper is able to swim through and wrap the ball carrier, forcing a turnover.
In all of these examples, in both attack and defence there are common themes; body height is too high, coordination is lacking and subsequently timing is off.
As mentioned at the start of this article Skelton can blow-up mauls on his own but the Wallabies and Broncan cannot rely on him alone. They must find a substitute for Skelton’s brute strength and mass.
Similarly, Broncan cannot rely on IP to get them through this campaign, Arnold and Skelton are the only world class maulers either through brawn or brains, but Frost is young in years and Matt Philip is unlikely to feature in any of the big games.
This is an issue with Jones picking such a young side, the likes of Hooper, Angus Bell, Taniela Tupou, Langi Gleeson, Rob Valetini and Fraser McReight must learn an intricate skill well and quickly if they are to secure their own mauls.
It is also a part of the game they must get right to prevent the heavyweights of the World Cup rolling over the top of them in the later stages of the tournament. Even Georgia could give the Wallabies a run for their money at set-piece time.
We will get another litmus test for Broncan’s maul system when the Wallabies take on France on August 28.