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Captains and coaches heading for the exit?


It is time to experiment. Instead of the usual Monday callout for questions, I am going to comb out the issues which matter most to forum posters and try to answer those at Coach’s Corner time. Feel free to point the way and suggest topics in the forums to any of my articles!

There remains a question about how well Australia’s Super Rugby competition prepares potential Wallabies for the step up to international level. At the end of the third Test against England, Swiss Rugby Fan summarised it nicely:

Too many times they [Wallabies] were isolated after a run. Not in sync with what they are doing. Can’t remember this happening to one Irish Player. Sometimes it seems like they are playing the game too fast for their own skillset. 

It’s a great observation. As I pointed out during Super Rugby Pacific, the average ball-in-play time in games between the Australian sides was around 32 and a half minutes per game, around three minutes less than matches between Kiwi sides.

Ireland, and the Leinster team on which they are squarely based, regularly play in games with over 36 minutes of ball-in-play time, and the final round Six Nations match versus Scotland topped 40 minutes. The individual skill-sets and tactical patterns are honed to a higher level because they are put under strain for longer periods, so they are more robust.

The Wallabies were trying to play the right kind of game, but with too little background to enable it to succeed in Sydney. Dave Rennie needs more Super Rugby franchises to embrace an up-tempo, high ball-in-play style to give that grounding. It will help develop items like speed to the cleanout, quicker realignment, tighter phase patterns on attack and the game intelligence of Australian number 10’s.

Questions abounded about Wallaby skipper Michael Hooper. Some revolved around his presence in the side, even more about his ability to be an effective captain.

Hazel Nutt commented:

Hooper’s strength historically was that he made it to almost every breakdown to ensure a ruck was formed on our own carry, and the ball couldn’t be pilfered, and contested or slowed the opposition’s ruck. He has to get it out of his head that he’s a ball runner.

By his own sky-high standards, ‘Hoops’ will probably admit that he has not been at his best in this series, although the third Test showed that he is getting back to it. As usual, he had the most significant ruck arrivals of any Wallaby – 22 on attack and 8 on defence – and topped the Australian tackle count with 10 tackles and no misses.

The number 7’s role in the modern game is increasingly not about being chief pilferer on the deck. Rugby is evolving in such a way to make that process team-wide. It was Ireland second row Tadhg Beirne who won three crucial turnovers at the breakdown towards the end of the third Test against the All Blacks.

The number 7 can achieve defensive turnovers by different routes. Hooper tormented England scrum-half Danny Care in and around the base of the ruck, so much so that Care was hooked by Eddie Jones before half-time:

The first instance is a significant ruck arrival on defence. Hoops can’t pilfer the ball, but he can work through a cleanout attempt by Owen Farrell and play Care’s arm as he goes to pass the ball. Turnover Australia.

In the second example, he anticipates that Freddie Steward will win the ball in the air and goes straight through on to the England halfback, forcing a knock forward. Turnover Australia.

That kind of game awareness is dearly bought by experience at the highest level:

England have made a break and Hooper is first to the ball, pinning Olly Chessum to the floor to ensure he cannot get up and make a second legal play at the ball. Penalty Australia.

This is Hooper keyed in at lineout defence around the fringes, first blocking the path forward for Jamie George and then reacting quickest to retrieve the fumble on the ground. Turnover Australia.

This is an illustration of what a good 7 can do to enable others win pilfers on the deck without getting the credit himself. Pete Samu is on the ball but needs protection against the cleanout in order to win it back. Hooper gets ahead of the England support and the double jackal overloads the cleaners. It was an echo of that crucial goal-line turnover in tandem with Pistol Pete on the Wallaby goal-line in Perth.

The more pertinent questions centred around Hooper’s captaincy:

Many of us Roar members have been saying for five years Hooper is an excellent player and a very poor captain. White, AAA, JOC, even Matt Philip are all better choices

WAXHEAD

I wonder if it would help, or hinder his game having the captaincy removed. It’s a hypothetical question anyway as Rennie strikes me as the type who values loyalty.

DEAN

I’m a Hooper fan but he clearly hasn’t succeeded in the role of captain. Time to look elsewhere. He continues to be picked at 7 as long as he’s the best option there.

OZINSA

James Slipper should absolutely be captain. If you watch him in the sheds, on the field, in pressers, he is the one who shows the most pastoral care to his fellow players, and shares his experience and smarts with the team.

SAVANT

Does the captaincy sit lightly on Michael Hooper’s shoulders? Does it subtract from his abilities as a player? Another interesting model has developed in the course of the Australia-England series. Up until recently, Eddie Jones had been adamant that a fully-fit Owen Farrell was the captain to lead England to the World Cup.

That perception seems to have changed now, with Eddie commenting that “With Courtney’s [Lawes] more laconic style, they have created a great fit at the top.” England have benefited from a more laid-back figure as captain, supported by Farrell’s more active and aggressive involvements in the team leadership below.

James Slipper, Allan Alaalatoa and Matt Philip all fit that particular bill. They are stable, but they are not nailed-on starters in the run-on XV. The other hope is that a player who is a definite starter (Nic White) would swiftly morph from poacher to game-keeper, given the chance. As Dean rightly says, it is probably a hypothetical question now, even though Michael Hooper’s mode of communication with the referee still leaves something to be desired.

Lots of interest in Taniela’s Tupou’s comeback from fatherhood in time for the second Test in Brisbane.

Train without a Station rightly applied a starting ‘brake foot’ to the debating scrum, when he said: “You cannot ignore that Tupou is [only] two games back after a reasonable lay-off. It’s unreasonable for people to expect him to be at his best immediately.”

Even making allowance for the initial lack of match sharpness, there was some discontent in the ranks:

I’ve said for years that [Tongan] Thor’s work-rate is terrible. His scrums have slipped, big time. He rarely dominates against top-liners. From all the fluff some punters have given him, he has become ‘entitled’. Taniela has the body of a Bull Mastiff but the temperament of a Cavoodle.

BOBBY

Tupou’s opponents often don’t take the weight, to con the referee into thinking he’s pushing too early. The whole thing is politicized, and frankly most refs are looking for a picture to penalize him, not reward him for his prowess.

SAVANT

Tupou is overrated. He’s error-prone, gives away penalties, fades in and out of games and fails on basic skills too often. Ellis Genge comprehensively out-played him in two Tests.

WAXHEAD

Regular readers will know from previous articles that Taniela Tupou’s work-rate has often compared unfavourably to that of his main rival for the tight-head spot, Allan Alaalatoa. Triple A may not have Thor’s explosive impact at the scrum or on the carry, but he does hit more rucks and make more tackles.

Elli Genge is a good measuring stick for Tupou, because he also tends to thrive on making big, spectacular involvements rather than a steady drip of solid ones. Here is an oven-ready comparison of the pair over the last two Tests, when they were in direct opposition:

Player Carries Breaks/ tackle busts Tackles Ruck Attendance
Taniela Tupou 11-24m 5 8/11 13
Ellis Genge 13-43m 4 9/13 13

Both played roughly the same number of minutes, and Genge comes out slightly ahead, especially on the carry:

Both have similar explosiveness on the run, but Genge is in better control when he goes to make pass at the end of it.

The Leicester man is also more capable of ‘repeatable actions’ – he can get off the floor and get back into the play faster. At one stage in the second half, he made three telling runs in the space of four phases:

It is fair to say that Taniela was outwitted, rather than out-powered at the scrums. In the preparation for Leinster’s European Cup quarter-final against Leicester, it became obvious that Tigers liked to close the space on the ‘E’ of the ‘Engage’ command. Ellis Genge was clever about it: he would regularly pull back at the first scrum in order to entice his opponent across the gap early and draw a free-kick. That would put a damper on the urgency of all his future engagements.

That is exactly what happened to Tupou at the first scrum in both the second and third Tests:

When Genge starts winning free-kicks and penalties, he also starts talking, telling both the referee and his opponent all about it!

Ellis successfully pressed the ‘mute’ button on Taniela, and he and Jamie George dominated the conversations with the match officials in both Tests. There are valuable lessons in scrum smarts, and work rate on the carry to be learned for the Tongan Thor.

The state of self-questioning, and not a little self-harming among New Zealanders on The Roar ran deep after the first series loss on home soil since 1986.

Not wanting to pre-empt your next article, but what were the two or three areas that laid the platform for the Irish win?

KIWI WANDERER

Did Hansen and then Foster adopt a strategy of ‘X-factor’ individuals and down-playing hard forward graft because of a particular philosophy of the game they have, or because of a lack of depth?

SINCLAIR WHITBOURNE

Instead of firing [Ian Foster], he has a proven track record as a back-room guy. Would he mind stepping back into that role and let someone like ‘Razor’ or Schmidt assume that of head coach?

JUST NUISANCE

What did NZ Rugby think would happen when you had a succession plan from Graham Henry through to Ian Foster? Are they not aware of what happened to the Roman Empire?

DANIEL LYTTLETON

CEO Mark Robinson was playing with a very straight bat after the loss to Ireland:

We are still none the wiser about the status of Ian Foster’s position as head coach of the All Blacks.

Daniel’s point is well taken. There has been a plan of succession from Graham Henry to Steve Hansen, and on to Ian Foster in order to preserve continuity. However, that has not taken account of a difference in personalities: ‘Ted’ and ‘Shag’ have obvious leadership personalities, and they were happy to take the lead in dealings with the media as All Black coaches.

Ian Foster may be a very good coach but he squirms away from the harshness of the spotlight, and interface with the media is rather more than 50% of a head coach’s job at Test level in the brave new world of rugby. So, there is definitely a case for keeping him as a part of the coaching team, but changing the man at the top. It worked for Wayne Smith, it might work for ‘Fozzy’.

The multiplication of ‘X-factor’ individuals as a path to improvement has been a historical weakness in All Blacks selection since the game turned professional. The choice of players like Christian Cullen and Mils Muliaina and Leon MacDonald in the centres in previous generations bears testimony, and it has happened again in the Ireland series.

The All Blacks finished with Beauden Barrett at number 10, David Havili at 12 and Rieko Ioane at 13 for the decisive third Test. Havili is a number 10/15 convert, Ioane and Barrett are both arguably better players in the back three. They were in opposition to two out-and-out centres in the shape of Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki, who would not be considered for any other spot in the back-line by their teams. The difference showed in the Kiwis’ relative lack of know-how in the physical and technical details of the game in contact.

The single biggest area which set the platform for Ireland’s success in the series was their ability and desire to score tries. Previous opponents have come to the shaky isles hoping that an accumulation of three pointers can somehow outweigh the All Blacks’ capacity to score fives or sevens. Not so Ireland. The British & Irish Lions scored four tries in three games to draw a series in 2017, Ireland scored nine and that made all of the difference.





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