Coach’s Corner issue 2: What hope for the Waratahs?

With the Waratahs having shipped over 100 points in the first two rounds of Super Rugby AU, questions understandably revolved around the root causes of their problems and how they might be resolved. They ranged from the general to the specific. Zenn asked plaintively, “How can the Waratahs improve?” with Tight-head adding, “Where the hell […]

Coach’s Corner issue 2: What hope for the Waratahs?

With the Waratahs having shipped over 100 points in the first two rounds of Super Rugby AU, questions understandably revolved around the root causes of their problems and how they might be resolved.

They ranged from the general to the specific.

Zenn asked plaintively, “How can the Waratahs improve?” with Tight-head adding, “Where the hell does Rob Penney go from here?”

Shed raised the issue of recruitment and development: “Interested to know your overall thoughts on the first two performances of the Waratahs, and if they got their recruitment and retentions plans wrong?”

The spectres of a more specific problem were raised by Zenn: “What can the Wallabies do about the shortage of Wallaby available locks, with Tahs locks and Seru [Uru of the Reds] being imported players?”

FEFS pinpointed the lineout drive, an area where the Waratahs really suffered on defence against the Brumbies: “I’ve seen a lot in the press (again) lately about the maul – mostly against (still). The basis of a lot of this is the ‘obstruction’ by players at the front end. What’s the difference between this as a ‘problem’ and the protection given to the ball in a ruck which is accepted?”

Let’s try and wrap these different issues up (hopefully) within one answer. The issue of the Waratahs’ recruitment and development plan over recent years is clearly at the heart of the problems they are experiencing in 2021.

When you recall that New South Wales could have fielded an entire pack of Wallaby internationals, or established Super Rugby forwards (Tom Robertson/Paddy Ryan – Tatafu Polota-Nau/Damien Fitzpatrick – Sekope Kepu – Rob Simmons – Tom Staniforth – Jed Holloway – Michael Hooper – Michael Wells) who have played for them over the last couple of seasons, it is easy to see how catastrophic the losses to their talent base have been.

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There is no veteran leadership in the 2021 side, and only two forwards from the current selection, Angus Bell and Jack Dempsey, would stand a chance of getting into the previous set of forwards.

The shortage of talent is nowhere more evident than at lock, and I want to look at the maul defence in relation to the involvement of the NSW big men in the second row and blindside flanker.

Here is the beginning of the Brumbies’ final lineout drive try:

There is no penetration by any of the Waratahs through the Brumbies’ blocking front, and the Waratah forward with the toughest and most aggressive reputation in the tight exchanges, Lachie Swinton, is defending away from the ball on the blindside corner:

As soon as the drive starts to move forward, he has to retire and re-join from the back, and that is a sure sign of failure for the defensive side. The inability of the Tahs to get on the ball was a recurrent theme throughout the half-minute that the maul lasted, and in the match as a whole:

brumbies maul vs waratahs

With Swinton and Sam Caird constantly breaking off from contact and re-joining, there was no resistance to the Brumbies’ onward march to the try-line:

There is a ready point of contrast, in the way the Brumbies handled the same task versus the Force in Round 1:

Brumbies lock Cadeyrn Neville immediately reaches around the receiver, Jeremy Thrush, to get hands on the ball-carrier in the second tier, and he does everything in his power to maintain contact throughout the duration of the drive:

force maul vs brumbies

force maul vs brumbies

The two snapshots are 15 seconds apart, with the maul going first left, then right – but Neville always stays in contact with the ball-carrier, and rightly gets his reward at the end of the play:

The issue of the lineout drive as a form of organised obstruction is highlighted by the modern practice of backs joining the drive after it crosses the five-metre line, as in the second clip.

Play ahead of the ball is an art in itself in rugby, and it exists in all areas of the game – at the scrum or ruck (after the ball has been hooked or placed), in the use of decoy runners on attacking plays, in support play, in defence of high kicks or on box kick exits. It’s a part and parcel of the game, and it is here to stay.

Angus Bell and the Waratahs look dejected

It’s been a dire start to 2021 for the Waratahs. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Seasoned Roar veterans Mzilikazi and Harry Jones have both asked about the use of box kicks over the past couple of weeks.

“The box kick is here to stay: can you demonstrate by video where it is best used? What are the organisational considerations for the team executing the halfback box kick, so that the best possible outcome from the chasers eventuates?” said Mzilikazi.

The best box-kicker in Australia, by a long way, is Nic White of the Brumbies. I looked at that part of his game after the first match of the 2020 Bledisloe Cup series, illustrating how intelligently he used the wind to manipulate the All Blacks’ backfield defence.

In the first half with the wind against, White hung the ball up in the air to pull the wingers or fullback forward and induce an error:

In the second period, he used the wind behind to go for length and outkick the defensive backfield:

An expert box-kicker will look to either squeeze or stretch the space between the defensive line and backfield, and make good use of the elements on the day.

When the weather does not play a part, White has the knack of placing the ball in the landing zone where the defensive receiver least wants to see it – the five-metre corridor:

Waratahs fullback Jack Maddocks does not know whether to catch, get forced into touch and give up the lineout throw; or leave, and allow the ball to bounce. He chooses the latter, and the result is a big territory gain for the Brumbies.

Nic White makes a box kick

Nic White: expert box-kicker. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Numpty drew attention to the scrums from the game between the Reds and the Rebels.

“How were the Reds and Rebels approaching scrum time? Spider-cam revealed a stark contrast in how they were packing, with the Reds square and tight and the Rebels props setting very wide with much of their weight on the flankers,” he asked.

It is always one for the scrum connoisseur when the overhead shot is available, and this game was no exception. In fact, the situation was by no means as clear-cut as Numpty implied. Here is the first scrum of the game:

In real-time, it looks like Rebels loosehead prop Cabous Eloff (he of the infamous pink budgie smugglers) is angling in and forcing the scrum across the field. In reality, the Reds’ set-up had a strong influence on Eloff’s alignment:

rebels scrum vs reds

Before the front rows engage, the Reds’ tighthead, Taniela Tupou, and hooker, Alex Mafi, are positioned to close the space around Rebels hooker Jordan Uelese and pinch in on him. Eloff has to adopt a sharper angle to remain in contact with Tupou.

There is no doubt that this was a Reds tactic to offset the enormous power of Uelese, who is by far the strongest scrummaging hooker in Australia. This became obvious at the Rebels’ next feed, when Uelese simply powered past Tupou and on through Mafi:

Uelese’s presence was sorely missed when he went off for Ed Craig. With all the same front-rowers bar Uelese on the field, the outcome was completely different:

Unlike Uelese, Craig simply cannot resist the pressure of the pinch and is helpless in the power of the vice:

rebels scrum vs reds

It was a real education in the importance of a strong scrumming presence at hooker in the modern game.

Wallabies hooker Jordan Uelese

Jordan Uelese on international duty. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Steven Harris asked, “Nick, how is the decision of taking a kick at penalty goal or going for the potential seven points arrived at?”

Most of these decisions are part of a playing policy which is agreed between coaches and players before the opening whistle ever sounds. So there is probably no point in blaming Michael Hooper for making these decisions in the heat of the moment with the Wallabies!

In the cycle before the 2015 World Cup, Ireland in the northern hemisphere and South Africa in the south deliberately began to pass up goal-kicking opportunities in order to exploit the strength of their driving lineouts in the opposition red zone (goal-line out to the 22m). Other South African-coached sides, like the Brumbies under Jake White, quickly followed suit.

Research showed that in certain field positions, the chances of goal-kicking success dropped dramatically. Those zones included any kick from 40 metres out from the goal-line or more, or in the left or right 15-metre zones closer to the goal-line.

So, if we go back to the Brumbies game against the Waratahs as a sample, there were four potential kicks from centre-field on or beyond the 40-metre line, and another three in the wide 15m zones. The Brumbies refused all of them, opting for the driving lineout instead.

Handre Pollard

Whether to kick for goal or not often divides fan opinion. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

JD Kiwi turned attention to the Six Nations, asking, “How did England’s mental skills let them down against Wales and what should Eddie do about it? How does Wales view England and what will that win mean to the people?”

Firstly, the easy part. A win over England at any sport, but especially rugby, always matters to the people of Wales. There is a bounce in the step of every returnee to work on a Monday morning after a win – if they are allowed to return to work, of course!

The failure of England’s mental skills is probably the most worrying takeaway from the loss to Wales for Eddie Jones. It was a game they had to win in order to be in with a chance of retaining the Six Nations championship, but they switched off entirely not once, but twice during the game.

On the first occasion, there was a claim that the referee, Pascal Gauzere, did not allow time for England to reorganize fully after warning England for repeated offences at the breakdown.

If you look at the wide shot, however, just as Gauzère waves time on and Dan Biggar launches a cross-kick out to the left, one half of the England defence is clearly organised:

wales cross-kick try vs england

The defence out to the left is already numbered up and ready, but out to the right it has not moved past the far post en route towards try-scorer Josh Adams. The boxing saying, “Face your opponent, and defend yourself at all times”, is appropriate. England had only themselves to blame.

A different version of the same inconsistency was at the heart of Wales’ third try, a quick tapped penalty taken by scrumhalf Kieran Hardy which you can see on the above highlights reel at 3:45.

Fullback Elliott Daly breaks the cardinal rule and turns his back on the scrumhalf before a shot at goal has been signalled by the ref:

wales try vs england

Those are mental breakdowns of the kind that make you wonder whether Eddie Jones still has the power to motivate and develop his charges effectively.

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

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Lions watch: Selecting a forward pack to take on the Boks

There may be no fan attendance, but the Six Nations is certainly living up to all expectations. All of the games – apart from Ireland versus France and Ireland versus Italy – have been highly enjoyable and displayed brilliant Test-quality rugby. Wales have been resurgent, putting their roller coaster 2020 year in the rearview mirror […]

Lions watch: Selecting a forward pack to take on the Boks

There may be no fan attendance, but the Six Nations is certainly living up to all expectations.

All of the games – apart from Ireland versus France and Ireland versus Italy – have been highly enjoyable and displayed brilliant Test-quality rugby.

Wales have been resurgent, putting their roller coaster 2020 year in the rearview mirror – clinching the Triple Crown in booming fashion with a thrilling display over their fiercest rivals England, who are playing with a shadow of the confidence they had in the build-up to and after the Rugby World Cup in 2019.

Ireland have narrowly and unluckily been beaten by Wales and France respectively, with the French looking the tournament favourites even without Romain Ntamack. However, the prospect of cancellations against Scotland and uncertainty of rescheduling makes them a tad vulnerable to enforced squad changes.

Scotland were awesome in dominating England and a Zander Fagerson red card ultimately cost them the game against Wales. They have played some of the best attacking rugby, which should warrant plenty of Lions contenders for them.

Meanwhile, Italy – well, they’ve been Italy.

From what I have seen so far, considering ruled out players and the sizeable and dominant set-piece nature of the Boks, I’m picking a Lions forward squad which will be best suited to taking on the World Champions this summer and one that is most realistic to be selected by Warren Gatland.

(Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

LH 1: Rory Sutherland
Since his international comeback, he has been immense, both with ball in hand and at scrum time for Scotland. He and Zander Fagerson were architects of rattling England’s scrum earlier this February at Twickenham.

Against the prowess of Frans Malherbe and Steven Kitshoff, Sutherland will relish a chance to take on South Africa in what would define a remarkable comeback.

LH2: Mako Vunipola
Vunipola’s had some recent injury issues, which is the only major thing questioning his presence in the red shirt. He is always found at the top of the carrying and tackling charts for England.

The only other area of concern is his past outing with the Boks – will he have learnt how to deal with the Springbok scrum?

Only time will tell.

LH3: Wyn Jones
This is a toss up between Cian Healy and Wyn Jones. Jones always gives his all, ball in hand or not. He needs to brush up his consistency at scrum time – either he is very good and wins penalties, or the opposite and leaks them.

The Welsh bias comes into my mind in this selection.

Moreover, Cian Healy has helped the Irish scrum probably become the best in the northern hemisphere. This is a proper 50-50 call.

Up until this tournament, Ellis Genge was high up in the stocks as a travelling loosie, but his treatment by Scotland and further questionable performances have cast serious doubt about his Lions chances.

Hooker 1: Luke Cowan-Dickie
It’s a matter of time before he becomes England’s first choice hooker. Tasted a lot of success with Exeter and is rightfully a guarantee for the Lions.

Hooker 2: Ken Owens
The Sheriff is back in town and Wales hade dearly missed his ball carrying skills. He’s called Cannon-Ball Ken for a reason – easily Wales’ best carrier and always seems to make the gain line.

Hooker 3: Jamie George
Saracens’ relegation has not helped his form at all for England. However, he is a class act and a very likeable figure.

His performance in the lineout has been solid, up until this tournament, but his scrummaging, defence and soft hands are definitely in need for Gatland.

TH 1: Kyle Sinckler
His discipline has vastly improved and is showing his class more and more. England’s best scrummager and an influential ball carrier with soft hands.

Has had two very impressive games against Italy and Wales.

TH 2: Tadhg Furlong
Returning from injury, Furlong has had two solid outings against France and Italy. A fierce scrummager and ball carrier, he is no doubt to tour.

TH 3: Andrew Porter
Porter has made sure Ireland hasn’t missed Furlong. With Sinckler and Sutherland, he has been the best front-rower so far after three games.

On form, he deserves a go.

Lock 1: Alun Wyn Jones (c)
I have not rated AWJ since 2016 and am not a big fan of him in general, But watching his performances this Six Nations, on form, he warrants a place on tour.

He has carried exceptionally well, defended brilliantly and led Wales well. Regardless of his age, given his experience and great form so far, I am happy to see him lead the Lions.

Alun Wyn Jones

Wales’ Alun Wyn Jones. (ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Lock 2: James Ryan
On form, Ryan has not been impressive since 2019. He has constantly been outdone by Maro Itoje and other competing locks, which leads me to question how good he really is.

He still is a really good lock, but not on terms with an Itoje or Eben Etzebeth. Given his high praise from the Irish media and senior role in the Ireland camp, he’s too hyped a player for Gatland not to take.

Lock/flank 1: Maro Itoje
On reputation and merit, Itoje will always be on the tour, without a doubt. However, his chances of captaincy are fading – he gives away too many penalties, as displayed in the Scotland and Wales games.

But it’s probably a good thing he is not the captain – we will likely see the best of an extremely talented and athletic forward hoping to rewrite the wrongs of his World Cup final performance against Siya Kolisi’s men.

Lock/flank 2: Iain Henderson
Henderson and Tadhg Beirne make James Ryan look the (overrated) player he is. Henderson is a great leader for Ireland and Ulster and offers a consistent all-around line out, tackling and carrying game. Selfless and underrated player.

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Lock/flank 3: Tadhg Beirne
He has been awesome for Ireland so far alongside Iain Henderson. Beirne is able to athletically cover blindside and is a total nuisance at ruck time – Squidge Rugby has shown how Ireland’s rucking tactics are superior to every side in the competition right now – and Beirne features heavily in it.

Flank 1: Tom Curry
Since moving to blindside before the World Cup, Curry has bulked up and retained most of his awesome fetcher skills, while becoming a very handy ball-carrier at six. His best position is probably seven, but his versatility and aggressive, energetic defence make him one of the definite picks for the Lions.

Flank 2: Sam Underhill
Like Mako, this pick depends on injury. He’s formed a formidable Michael Hooper-David Pocock-esque duo with Curry and is one of the most dominant tacklers in the modern game.

Flank 3: Josh Navidi
This spot is contested by Hamish Watson, Jamie Ritchie, Justin Tipuric and Josh van der Flier. All of the mentioned have been solid for the last few years and I would not be surprised if either of these names replaces Navidi, Curry, or both.

Navidi just has such a good work rate and defensive engine that makes Wales perform a lot better. He has had three battles with Curry and has outshone him twice, in 2019 and 2021.

The only issue with Navidi is his size to take on the biggest pack in world rugby.

No. 8/flank 1: Toby Faletau
Faletau has been awesome this Six Nations for Wayne Pivac’s side – his soft hands combined with cunning defence makes him one of the premier number eights in rugby.

No. 8/flank 2 – CJ Stander
Has been immense for Ireland since his qualification for them. Massive ball carrier – the clip of him bumping Faletau in their recent meeting is vintage.

One of the best number eights in the world with his rucking and defensive game complementing his big carries.

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