Coach’s Corner issue 1: Can the Reds midfield step up for Australia?

Thanks to all who participated in the forum for my first article this week, either by asking questions or making comment. All offered value. The most intriguing theme, and the most relevant to events at the weekend, was how the success of the Queensland Reds attack under Jim McKay may influence Wallaby selection in midfield […]

Coach’s Corner issue 1: Can the Reds midfield step up for Australia?

Thanks to all who participated in the forum for my first article this week, either by asking questions or making comment. All offered value. The most intriguing theme, and the most relevant to events at the weekend, was how the success of the Queensland Reds attack under Jim McKay may influence Wallaby selection in midfield and the back three in 2021.

The question fell into three parts:

  1. Is Hamish Stewart capable of being a top Test centre? (Rugby Wizard)
  2. Will Tim Horan be correct, and we see Jordan Petaia move to the back? (Toanui)
  3. Len Ikitau had a strong game for the Brumbies against the Force. Do you see him as a genuine threat to Petaia’s Wallaby number 13 jersey? (Fat Gary)

All of these are great questions that deserve an in-depth answer. Let’s take a look at Hamish Stewart first. He tends to fly under the radar because he doesn’t have the more obvious and spectacular backline skill-set of Jordan Petaia or Filipo Daugunu.

He played flanker at school and idolised George Smith, not the kind of background you’d expect from a top-drawer number ten. So how does he fit into the Reds’ backline?

Armchair Halfback commented of his game against the Waratahs, “That was one of Stewart’s best performances for the Reds. Can you be a schoolboy star and a late bloomer at the same time?”.

Numpty asked, “What role does Hamish Stewart play in the Reds backline?”

The answer is Stewart’s role is highly unusual, not to say unique, in Jim McKay’s offence. He has previously started games at number ten and fullback for the Reds, so you’d expect a second playmaker who could take the pressure off James O’Connor, right?

Wrong. In fact, Stewart didn’t appear once at first receiver in the entire game, but he had nine meaningful cleanouts as either the first or second man at the tackle. He recovered one fumble, forced another and captained the Queensland backline defence. He led two counter-rucks which resulted in a turnover. Great work (for a flanker) if you can get it.

Player Appearances at first receiver vs Waratahs
Hamish Stewart 0
Hunter Paisami 5 (one try created)

Dean commented that “Hamish Stewart’s strength in defence, cleanout and short bursts of speed are a delight to watch”, and he is not far from identifying the strengths of the Reds midfielder’s game.

Despite all of his experience at flyhalf and fullback, Stewart plays 12 as an enhanced number seven, and the playmaking is left to the man outside him, Hunter Paisami – which is exactly the arrangement the Wallaby coaches have said they want moving forward:

At this attacking scrum, the first two backs the Reds want on the ball are O’Connor and Paisami, with Daugunu and Stewart fading to the outside of the play:

Likewise, when there was a cross-kick to be made and O’Connor was not available to execute it, the responsibility fell to the Reds outside centre:

Stewart’s role is cleaning house at the previous ruck before the creative influence arrives to use the ball on the next phase:

Daugunu runs, Stewart cleans out Harry Johnson-Holmes one-on-one at the tackle, and Paisami makes the half-break from first receiver.

It was Paisami who created the Reds’ third score of the game on the short side:

Stewart is a valuable bits and pieces role-player at inside centre, organising the defence, playing effectively with McReight and Wilson at the front end of an attacking lineout sequence, doing a lot of the dirty work on both sides of the breakdown.

When Red Rob asked the question, “What is the Reds’ best centre pairing: 12. Stewart 13. Paisami; or 12. Paisami 13. Petaia?”, he also answered it in the next breath: “I was in the latter camp until Paisami showed he can do ’12 work’ – some nice distribution and kicking – from the 13 position anyway, and Stewart is a handy glue between the back row and the backline.”

The problem for Stewart is that this kind of work is unlikely to catapult him to the forefront of Dave Rennie and Scott Wisermantel’s thoughts, especially if it means blowing the kind of golden opportunities which do not swing around too often in a Test match:

The issue here is that after stepping inside the first defender to make the break, Stewart runs further away from the three free support players on his outside. Both taking an immediate step back towards that support or putting through a simple diagonal kick to the corner would be better options than seeking contact.

This where the doubts would begin for Rennie and Wisemantel, and handy glue-guy may not be enough for the long-term fix.

Hamish Stewart of the Reds breaks away

Hamish Stewart. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

The second question, which is directly connected to the first, is what position suits Jordan Petaia best – outside centre, wing or fullback. Wallabies legend Tim Horan recently came out in support of the idea of moving Petaia to fullback.

Rugby Wizard summarised it as follows: “To’omua/Stewart and Godwin-like players at centre will work well for Wallabies if they can develop a back three capable of outclassing top opposition, for this to happen it might require Suliasi Vunivalu to live up to the hype and Petaia settling in the 15 position.”

The simple maths for the Reds is that four into three won’t go. If they keep Stewart and Paisami in the centres, one of Petaia, Jock Campbell, Filipo Daugunu or Suliasi Vunivalu has to miss out. If Paisami and Petaia play in the centres together, Queensland lose the inherent balance that Hamish Stewart provides.

Want to have your rugby questions answered by Nick in next week’s article? We’ll do a callout for questions next Tuesday, so be sure to come to The Roar then to get them in!

A body of evidence is slowly beginning to accumulate which suggests that Jordan Petaia is at his best playing in space, with the field well in front of him. The original article showed how effective he can be as a blindside winger from lineout, which is now the key attacking position from that set-piece.

Numpty pointed to the try he created against the All Blacks in Bledisloe 3 last year.

“I’m not saying he is a world-class player, but his ball-running and line-breaking ability are. Hell, the mere fact that he can make the Reds’ and Wallabies’ starting team with so many deficiencies highlights just how good his attacking skills are.”

Running at space in an unstructured situation, Petaia is a potent force. He has power, he can move both ways and he can offload in contact. When the defence is still in good shape, it can draw a reckless desire to make the big play out of him, even when the chance of success is low:

In the first instance, Petaia offloads when the support has already run past him. In the second, he kicks the ball away into an area policed by three Argentine defenders. And in the third, he fails to secure possession before making his move on the tackler.

Making a majority of solid choices under a lot of physical pressure is the essence of a number 13’s work nowadays – ask Jonathan Davies or Conrad Smith.

Don said, “I want my fullback to be able to take on the second playmaker role rather than my 12. I think Petaia would play an Isreal Folau-type role at 15 rather than a Beauden Barrett-type.”

If we speculate that Jordan Petaia plays at 15, and further that Hunter Paisami is being groomed as the second playmaker to eventually take over from Matt To’omua, who now gets the vacant spot at number 13?

Jordan Petaia runs the ball for the Reds

Jordan Petaia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Evidence from the first round of Super Rugby AU indicates that Len Ikitau may get an early look from Dave Rennie. He was a surprise pick in Rennie’s 2020 Wallaby squad with next to no senior professional experience, but the game he played in opposition to the man he replaced at the Brumbies, Tevita Kuridrani, helped explain why.

Fat Gary asked, “Len Ikitau had a strong game for the Brumbies against the Force. Do you see him as a genuine threat to Petaia’s Wallaby #13 jersey?” while Corw also saw him as an option.

Ikitau started by beating Kuridrani on the outside when the Force number 13 showed him space:

At 6:25, Kuridrani looks to have him lined up for the tackle, but within one long, razor-sharp stride, Ikitau achieves separation. What is particularly interesting from a Wallaby viewpoint is that Ikitau appears to be left-sided, carrying the ball naturally in his left arm and able to offload under control from there. That is an enormous help on right-to-left attacking movements, and a skill the Wallabies palpably lacked in 2020.

Ikitau promptly demonstrated that he could step sharply off his left foot when Kuridrani looked to block the outside route in their next one-on-one clash:

Kuridrani has come further across this time, but gets beaten on the inside shoulder instead. Ikitau’s long left arm ensured the movement continues with momentum after the offload to Irae Simone. If he can kick with his left foot as well, the Wallabies may really be onto something.

Ikitau’s final victory over Kuridrani sewed up the result for the Brumbies:

Ikitau does not need to make the clean break – he only has to create enough space to deliver one of those potent left-arm offloads to his inside support.

Andy Muirhead, Len Ikitau and Rob Valetini of the Brumbies celebrate

Len Ikitau (centre) with Andy Muirhead and Rob Valetini. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Summary
There is a tide in the affairs of the Quensland backline of flood-like proportions. They have a nice balance in midfield with James O’Connor and Hunter Paisami doing the playmaking, and Hamish Stewart leading the defence and managing the contact work.

That balance may be undermined if Queensland feel they have to develop Paisami in partnership with Jordan Petaia in the centres, and fully exploit the considerable investment in leaguie Suliasi Vunivalu.

If the Reds choose to keep Petaia at 14 or 15, he will not be learning the patience and shrewdness of judgment needed in the number 13 position at international level. Either way, there is a loser.

The Brumbies’ Len Ikitau is the joker in the pack. If he continues to develop his game through the domestic season at the current rate, it may push Petaia into the back three for good.

Others like Matt To’omua and Reece Hodge of the Rebels will have their first say on the matter this weekend, so the situation is only likely to grow richer and more complicated.

Want to have your rugby questions answered by Nick in next week’s article? We’ll do a callout for questions next Tuesday, so be sure to come to The Roar then to get them in!

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The ripple effect is a wonderful thing for rugby union (Part 2)

Now all of the code constituents are firmly facing in the right direction after Part 1 of this series, we should appreciate the wider changes evident in the game based on attention to a relatively small number of centralised changes. The five-second law The ripple effect of this change is perhaps even more so than […]

The ripple effect is a wonderful thing for rugby union (Part 2)

Now all of the code constituents are firmly facing in the right direction after Part 1 of this series, we should appreciate the wider changes evident in the game based on attention to a relatively small number of centralised changes.

The five-second law
The ripple effect of this change is perhaps even more so than the breakdown directives.

The narrowest measure for this law is ruck speed. We saw that Super Rugby Aoteroa produced an increased ruck speed of 0.44 seconds, which is huge given the competition didn’t really have an issue, and the Premiership increased by 0.34 seconds.

While this appears to be a one-way measure in favour of the offensive side, it’s anything but.

Attacking sides now need either a halfback who can make it ruck to ruck or the organisation to cover an absence. Halfbacks are now having to make decisions on the way to rucks as they don’t have the time to arrive, look around, reorganise and then play. This makes the prescriptive three-to-five phases so much harder to do.

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One side seemingly impacted by this change is Exeter in England. Forward dominated, prescriptive and almost unstoppable in recent years, they have had a serious wobble since returning from the COVID break. I watched Exeter play Northampton at the weekend – the things I do for you guys, eh. It was an awful, stodgy game of football, but it was noticeable that Exeter, not being able to slowly reorganise and reset their drives phase after phase, are far less dangerous than before.

Halfbacks now don’t have all day to organise their screens. As a result we are seeing less precise box kicking and more opportunities for sides to run the ball back in broken play.

Ireland adjusted to have Christiaan Stander run the ball back from deeper to take advantage, South African No. 8 style, and his metres per carry are through the roof this year. Thanks to Off the Ball Podcast for that one.

What this has also highlighted is just how many players started their chase from in front of the kicker, and the ripple clampdown on this aspect is providing opportunities to run the ball back at staggered defence lines.

The aimless kicking of the last couple of seasons, especially down the middle of the park, is likely to be punished by your opposition having more time to execute better return kicks and running options. Stuart Hogg against England is a great case in point.

Quicker ruck ball will translate into more metres per carry in the narrow channels also, putting the onus the attacking side to have their cleaners close to the ball carrier to avoid being picked off by the jackal. One attacking player cannot arrive and seal the ball off.

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Defensively it is even more difficult. Teams are having to retreat further and faster. They have to be drilled to be organised as they retreat given there is no time to readjust, especially near the post. Increasingly players are just not making it back in position in the line in time.

What has become apparent is that what has loosely been defined as the ‘rush defence’ is going to be so much harder to achieve. Coordinated line speed ruck after ruck is harder to execute, be it either in an organised position to do so or to maintain it over a sustained period as fatigue hits home.

We will have a greater sense once the full cycle of the internationals is played this year, but defensive line speed and slow balls are bedfellows, and they are now in approaching trial separation.

The breakdown directives
Without the breakdown directives, we can forget about the five-second law even being needed, but it appears the days of the deliberate ruck flop and subsequent slowing of the ball might just about be over.

As noted in Part 1, it was the establishment of the World Rugby breakdown group at the end of 2019 that has been the catalyst for this entire recasting of the game.

What should be greater concern for us all if this is confirmation of the existing laws is: what exactly happened to the refereeing of the breakdown over the last five years? Has it just been a case of wilful negligence?

For now the focus at ruck time will be on competition over constipation.

If you want to genuinely slow an opponent’s ball down, and it of course can still be done, then new techniques are required. We are already seeing the reintroduction of the counter ruck, a wonderful sight as forwards blow over an oppositions ruck ball. It warms the heart.

Jackals will still be in the game, perhaps even more so as distances extend from ruck to ruck, but they need to be demonstrabley on their feet and have their hands clearly lifting the ball. No more winning penalties for wrapping your arms around an opponent’s body, no more being rewarded for raking one-handed at the ball and, perhaps more importantly, no more surviving a cleanout to affect a turnover. Whose ridiculous idea was that one, by the way?

But there is a caution for us all.

We have a whole generation of players who have been trained to kill the ball at source and a whole generation of rugby referees who have been trained not only to allow them to do it but to reward that with penalties.

This is the area that will take longest to get right. It’s like trying to make changes to a golf swing you’ve had for years – overcoming the inbuilt muscle memory will not be perfect immediately.

Persistence and patience will be required here in equal measure.

Argentina players push against New Zealand players in a maul

(Photo by David Gray/AFP via Getty Images)

The ripples summary
Vincent Bugliosi, the famed former Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney, when commenting on the OJ Simpson case said the verdict was ‘in the air’ from early on. I have never forgotten that statement, nor how right he was. Once something is in the air it can become self-fulfilling.

The acceptance that rugby union is becoming a cleaner, faster game with less officiating tolerance for offending is now in the air.

This very rapidly spreads to all parts of the game. From referee Luke Pearce calling “allez, allez” to the French forwards when setting scrums to shorter advantages being played, from having more taps than a plumbing convention to kickers from hand putting penalties out to touch quickly, there is a dynamism evident in the code which has not been apparent for a number of seasons.

World Rugby need to not only stay their current course but find more lateral means for measuring success as the game evolves.

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