Are the Brumbies about to lose their mantle as Australia’s No. 1 team? Part 1

Digesting the semi final over the past weekend has only re-affirmed some thoughts that I’ve had for some time now about the Brumbies’ game. Their win against the Force places the two best teams in the country against each other for the thid time in 2021. The previous games have been pulsating! The first: almost […]

Are the Brumbies about to lose their mantle as Australia’s No. 1 team? Part 1

Digesting the semi final over the past weekend has only re-affirmed some thoughts that I’ve had for some time now about the Brumbies’ game.

Their win against the Force places the two best teams in the country against each other for the thid time in 2021. The previous games have been pulsating!

The first: almost 80 points scored and while there was some great attack, it’s hard to know just how good it was, because across all the Australian teams, defence has been poor (the Force this past weekend exempt).

More on that in later analysis.

The second game – more of a grind, but nevertheless just as intriguing for its sub-plots.

Hunter Paisami’s late withdrawal threw the Reds’ attacking rhythm. Don’t underestimate his importance to the Reds – there’s a reason the Force, and Tevita Kuridrani in particular, went after him in their last game.

The Reds have very good front foot and quick ball decision-makers and Paisami sets them up for that. If he stays on the field against the Force, it may well have been a different result and Dave Wessels may still be in a job!

During the first half of the last game, the Brumbies went after the Reds’ forward ball runners. Throwing sometimes three players into the tackle, they won the advantage line and starved the Reds of the quick ball that their backs thrive off.

James O’Connor particularly struggled to find space during this period reverting to some old habits, specifically just standing and passing – usually with a step – slowing delivery further to outside flat-footed runners!

James O’Connor. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

It’s a common habit that fly halves fall into when they’re exposed to defensive speeds that they’re not used to.

Unfortunately, it also plays into line speed based defence for which the Brumbies were able to generate through tackle contest and defensive gain line dominance.

This is a bi-product of a philosophical flaw with the predominant 15-on-15 training that sides utilise these days.

I’m not suggesting that teams shouldn’t do 15-on-15 training, by any stretch.

It is a fundamental component. But well over 80 per cent, and sometimes 90 per cent of on-field preparation is just that.

Consequently, players aren’t exposed enough to isolated conditions that are above peak game intensity.

Thus, forcing both context and necessity for technical proficiency and tactical decision-making while under significant physiological (conditioning) and time stress. That’s a long way of saying elements of training need to be harder than the game to get effective transfer.

O’Connor was also exposed in this area during the last Force game as well.

I wonder whether Jim Mackay, who is a smart operator, may have adapted their training over the past few weeks to address this, particularly without Paisami – who, as I mentioned above, creates space for O’Connor et al. through his ability to get over the advantage line and generate quick ball.

Hunter Paisami

Hunter Paisami. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Despite not playing flyhalf for the large part of his career, O’Connor is no run-of-the-mill player. The way he and Jim Mackay altered the last Brumbies game tactically in the second half was master stroke.

It wasn’t just kicking, as many have reported, either.

The first time the Reds were in possession in the second half, their forward ball receivers – who predominantly carried in the first half – began throwing short passes to other forward runners on the inside and outside.

It looked clunky and didn’t penetrate – but it was implemented to stop the Brumbies inside and outside defenders (from the ball carrier) just zeroing in and double or triple tackling the ball carrier.

This, combined with good variety including excellent short and long kicking to space, took the speed out of the Brumbies’ line, sting out of their contact and resulted in more one-on-one contests, leading to quicker ball, advantage line and dragged the Reds back into and eventually towards winning the game.

(https://gfycat.com/enlightenedfarflungkodiakbear)

This leads to the first point of comparative analysis:

Leadership
The Brumbies have well established leadership and a very good Captain in Alan Alaalatoa.

Allan Alaalatoa of the Brumbies

Allan Alaalatoa. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

But deeper than that, they have an on-field leadership process born out of research of a former employee.

It’s based around maximising the ‘time off’ components of the game. Collectively re-centering – then refocusing and clarifying – what is to be done next.

The effectiveness of the process is best explained using what went down in folklore during the 1991 Rugby World Cup quarter-final as an example.

With only a few minutes left on the clock, Ireland scored to take the lead against (eventual champions) Australia.

With their World Cup potentially being over, there was obviously significant stress behind the try-line. Compounding this, regular Captain Nick Farr-Jones was off the field – injured.

Stand in captain Michael Lynagh, whose father was the Australian cricket team’s psychologist during the late ’80s to early ’90s, took control, brought everybody in and (I’m paraphrasing) said…

“I’m going to kick off deep to here… Edgo, you chase and pressure their relieving kick.

“From the line-out, we’ll then get the ball to David Campese on the switch off Timmy (they’d already scored off this move). If it gets shut down, we’ve just got to keep the maul going forward so we get the scrum feed (old laws).

“From the scrum, this is the move I’m going to call – Campo, when you get the ball, I’ll be following in support.”

History, states that everything he said would happen, did. Campese was pulled down a metre from the line but he managed to offload out of the tackle.

Lynagh in support picked the ball up off his bootlaces and barged over in the corner for the match winning try.

The stadium went silent – the Irish hearts ripped out!

(https://gfycat.com/sillydependentjay)

In one of the best pieces of commentary in World Cup history – Gordon Bray instructed his co-commentators to also remain silent, so everybody could take the moment in!

But I digress.

The Brumbies have worked on their on-field communication process now for a number of years. It’s automatic and it’s been at the heart of some of their most famous ‘backs to the wall’ victories.

It will mean that they’ll be there competing with clarity right through to the final siren – doing whatever it takes to win the game.

Tom Wright of the Brumbies celebrates scoring a try with teammates.

Tom Wright of the Brumbies celebrates scoring a try with teammates. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

The Reds
In the post-match interview after the last Reds-Brumbies game, James O’Connor was asked what his decision-making process was.

His reply was words to the effect of: “It’s more feel than process.

“It’s what I feel is right for the time!”

Captaincy has brought out the best in O’Connor.

But more than that, he knows intuitively when to engage others in the process.

After the Reds beat the Brumbies in Canberra, he was asked about the decision for Paisami to kick in behind the Brumbies line for the match-winning try. His reply was, “Paisami called it, and we back our players when they call for a specific play.”

I don’t know the machinations of the inner sanctum of either team, but from the outside looking in and joining some very ‘loose’ dots, the Brumbies appear more systemised in their on-field leadership.

Centred around game plan clarity, managing focus and emotions – but such that if their captain is injured, other identified players can step in and run the process.

Tom Banks congratulates Andy Muirhead of the Brumbies

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

On the flip side and while I’m sure the Reds do have some systems in terms of the above, it’s more democratised in terms of incorporating what players are seeing as the game unfolds.

Where the Brumbies may have an advantage is in clear ‘protocol’ to refer back to in managing focus, emotions and getting back to the prepared or adjusted game plan. The Reds may have the advantage in collectively recognising and adjusting to opportunities – on the run.

Their game plan having some more flexibility in the unstructured components to collectively communicate space, decisions and adjust.

These are just my observations – this may not necessarily be the case.

Which comes to the next point, which I’ll try to articulate with another story.

In 2002, the Canberra Vikings (playing in the Brisbane Hospitals Cup), then coached by Laurie Fisher, had a number of very good backs. But a number of players were slated in the same position.

He had Brumbies contracted players in every position but 12 and had two very good scrum halves – one contracted, one not.

His instinct was to pick two players out of position to cover the fact that they didn’t have an out-and-out 12.

One of the players he was going to play out of position was regular flyhalf, captain and Brumbies starting winger, Mark Bartholemuez.

He sat down with Barty and had the difficult conversation. Barty wasn’t happy and didn’t agree with the decision but being the wonderful person he is, he disagreed and committed!

The player that Barty made way for in the flyhalf position was backup scrumhalf, 19-year-old Matt Giteau.

History shows that with Giteau at flyhalf and Bartholemuez at 12, the Canberra Vikings that year set attacking point scoring records on the way to winning the Brisbane Premier Rugby competition.

The form of both players was rewarded with selection on the Wallaby end of year tour to the UK, culminating with both making their Test debuts.

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How does this relate to the Reds?

The unfortunate injury to Liam Wright at the start of the year thrust the unlikely James O’Connor into the captaincy.

Similarly to an enforced change of position to Matt Giteau and Mark Bartholemuez in 2002, what a revelation he has been!

With added responsibility, O’Connor’s game goes to another level and he brings others with him. The Brumbies’ leadership is a practiced and embedded system, that will ensure they will be there right to the end.

Wright may have been Brad Thorn’s initial choice as captain and the logic at the time may have been sound.

But this year, O’Connor’s leadership has developed homogeneously and is interdependently linked with the team and their performance.

There are weaknesses in their game as there is with the Brumbies game, which I will articulate in subsequent articles.

But the Reds are more adaptive than the Brumbies in the unstructured game elements where on-field ‘feel’, and decision-making is crucial.

I don’t see it happening, but with O’Connor captain, the leadership advantage that the Brumbies have is blunted.

Further weight to this is that Wright should have been penalised in the last game at Suncorp for what was a cynical act at the death.

Wright is young, and like us all, has a lot to learn.

But the captain needs to be the person who shows the team that there is unwavering belief. That act alone showed the team that he didn’t believe they could legally hold the Brumbies out.

That specific breakdown also pointed to clear weaknesses in the Brumbies game – that have been there for a few years, but have infrequently been targeted and exposed until the Force game last weekend.

The Reds’ defence, tackling and tackle contest will go a long way to winning them the game.

Wright needs to lead this and allow O’Connor to make and facilitate the global game decision-making. Otherwise, the Brumbies have an edge in this area.

My next article will compare kicking, field position and set pieces, while the final articles will look at attack and defence.

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Why a moral victory was not enough at GIO Stadium

After all the dust had settled on the Super Rugby AU preliminary final, the story turned out as expected. The Brumbies advanced to their third showdown of the season against the Queensland Reds, and the Force went home to lick their wounds. The Force’s head coach, Tim Sampson, was honest enough to admit disappointment after […]

After all the dust had settled on the Super Rugby AU preliminary final, the story turned out as expected. The Brumbies advanced to their third showdown of the season against the Queensland Reds, and the Force went home to lick their wounds.

The Force’s head coach, Tim Sampson, was honest enough to admit disappointment after the event.

“There’s genuine disappointment there because probably when we reflect on that it was one that we let slip because we didn’t fire too many shots,” he said.

“It’s going to sting, no doubt. I think the guys were pretty flat.

“The disappointment will be there for a few days, no doubt. It will probably hit over the next couple of days.”

Firing enough shots on offence has been the Force’s main problem throughout the 2021 regular season. They averaged 18.5 points, and fewer than two tries per game, and those stats do not tend to win you much silverware.

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Holding the Brumbies to fewer than 20 points on their home patch was always going to be a big ask, even though Sampson had correctly identified the major items on his team’s menu before the start of the game.

“It’s important to get a good start against the Brumbies; to get in that arm wrestle and not fall behind on the scoreboard early,” the coach said.

“It’s a big focus for us and we’re going to have to be bloody good at it.

“Last year and the start of this competition we hadn’t beaten any team so we’re ticking boxes and there’s another box to be ticked, and that’s beating the Brumbies at home.

“We’re riding a wave at the moment and the Brumbies in the last couple of games have been a bit clunky.

“We’ve got to maintain possession for long periods; they infringe a lot in all areas of the game so we’ve got to hold on to the ball as much as possible and play in good areas of the field.”

Get into the arm wrestle and don’t fall behind on the scoreboard early – tick. The Force were still 3-0 ahead in the 36th minute of the game.

The second part of the equation – holding on to the ball and maintaining possession for long periods – did not go so smoothly.

The raw stats show that the men from Canberra enjoyed the lion’s share of the ball (62 per cent), and even more of the territory (71 per cent). That the Force were able to come out on the positive side of the penalty count (12-9) in those circumstances was a great tribute to their defensive discipline, even if they did lose their right wing, Toni Pulu, to a red card for a 20-minute window just before halftime.

In the process, they were good enough to demonstrate why the Brumbies can look clunky when their key strengths are neutralised. Led by the evergreen Jeremy Thrush, the Force started strongly on the Brumbies’ lineout ball, getting first touch at two of their early throws and forcing a handling error at a third.

They successfully stymied the home side’s attempts to drive the ball from their favourite set-piece.

When the Brumbies try to roll the maul around the openside corner with their favourite ‘driver’ Allan Alaalatoa in the van, they are comprehensively stopped.

This is where the Brumbies’ highly methodical approach can become clunky and predictable. If they don’t get momentum at forward, their attempts to move the ball wide lack finesse.

Andy Muirhead heaves a long pass out in the direction of Tom Wright on the left wing, and Wright receives the ball and four Force defenders together.

Both the Force centres plus Pulu and fullback Jake Strachan commit to the point of contact, against two Brumbies – Wright (on the ground) and Tom Banks. All attacking impetus is lost and the home side coughed up the ball a couple of phases later.

The pressure the Force were able to exert on the Brumbies’ wide rucks was a consistent theme. On plays where the Ponies moved the ball from midfield into either of the 15-metre channels with two or more passes, their ruck retention rate was only 17 out of 27, or 64 per cent.

That number includes severe delays at the ruck, where the Brumbies either committed a handling error, or were forced to kick the ball away immediately afterwards.

The man especially under the microscope was Tom Wright on the left wing, and the tone was set right from the start of the match.

In this case, Noah Lolesio takes the ball into the left 15-metre zone by hand, and Wright should be the main cleanout support when he goes to ground. But he enters the contest far too high, and there is no prospect of him being able to remove his opposite number Toni Pulu.

By the end of the ruck, it is pretty clear Wright is not quite sure what he should be doing, and he leaves the job to his halfback Nic White instead.

Tom Wright is in a similar position to Marika Koroibete when he first transferred from rugby league. He clearly has the running and handling skills needed to succeed in elite level rugby, but he has yet to learn the nuances of the game in contact. In league, nobody can take the ball off you in the tackle.

Wright takes the ball into contact, and ex-All Black centre Richard Kahui promptly strips it away from him. Scrum to the Force.

The Force targeted all aspects of Tom Wright’s contact work with great success. As in the first example, his cleanout attempts tend to come from high-to-low and struggle to remove the threat.

His ball placements after being tackled on the deck tend to be too slow and too short. In the following example, the ball is still directly beneath his body as he tries to get up, after the Force counter-ruck has already passed over the top of him.

The malaise in a particular area of the field tends to spread from player to player, and from phase to phase:

In the first instance, Tom Wright is not directly involved, but the pressure on ruck set by Andy Muirhead squeezes a handling error out of the following second line play between Darcy Swain and Lolesio. In the second, Lolesio ships the ball on to Muirhead, who is first swamped, then stripped by Kahui and Strachan in contact.

The one proviso was that the Force remained in good defensive shape on Wright’s side of the field. When Wright is given a sniff of an opportunity in space, his level of performance shoots up from ordinary to stellar.

As ex-Wallaby coach Michael Cheika pointed out in the Stan Sport commentary, Kyle Godwin’s action – biting in on the second passer (Irae Simone) – exposes Pulu and Strachan to the kind of contest where Tom Wright ascends rapidly to world-class.

His instincts as a finisher are second to none, and he proved it again in the second period, with another try which was rubbed out on review for the sliver of a foot in touch.

With Pulu off the field on his card and space in behind Strachan, Tom Wright again has the luxury of operating in space.

One-handed pick-up and slick slide in at the corner? No problem.

Summary

The Force won many of the small battles they needed to win to ‘stay in the arm-wrestle’ with the Brumbies, but ultimately they lacked the ability to maintain possession for long enough, or the scoring power to exploit what little they had.

There is little doubt however, that they will have taught the Brumbies as many lessons about their vulnerabilities as they taught the Reds in the previous round. They showed that when the Brumbies’ lineout platform is disrupted, their attempts to move ball wide can be clunky and predictable.

When the ball enters the wide channels off a forward screen or via a long pass, it can be attacked at the tackle, and this is particularly true when the ball goes right-to-left and anywhere near Tom Wright. For all of his world-class handling, running and finishing skills, Wright is still very, very average in contact situations. League does not teach you that.

The Force have provided a true litmus test for the two best provincial sides in Australia, and they have bowed out at the right moment – not with a whimper, but with a strategic bang.

Tim Sampson’s preparation will have provided a lot of the bullets for both finalists to fire over the past two weeks – the question is: who will be quickest on the draw, in the gunfight at the Suncorp Corral next Saturday?

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