Analysis: How Australia can smash the White Wall

Analysis: How Australia can smash the White Wall

Analysis: How Australia can smash the White Wall

About 15 minutes into the first test I nearly turned the TV off, I’d had enough. Another hiding down South, and it being courtesy of England’s nemesis the Wallabies was making it all the more painful. Yep, another test series gone. It wasn’t even the thought of losing the series that was making me angry, it was the way Australia were coasting through the abject English defence, literally scoring tries for fun.

15 Minutes and we’d had a try apiece from Hooper and Folau as well as Foley’s disallowed try for crossing. Gustard’s new look England defence was getting found out, big time.

But Eddie rolled the changes, Big Luth was removed from duty with immediate effect. Ford came on and Farrell shored up the midfield defence and the general consensus is that England strangled Australia out of the test series. 145 minutes later England have got a historic test series win and Cheika is under pressure to make sure England don’t manage a whitewash.

There’s been a hell of  alot said about the Wallabies style of play, some of it fair, some of it not so much. Cheikas response?

Michael Cheika at the post-match press conference

Michael Cheika at the post-match press conference

“We are going to continue to play running footy. That’s something that we want to do. It’s part of how we play.”

That’s all fine and dandy but with 74% territory, 71% possession and one try in the game Cheika and co must be questioning their ability to actually do this.

Execution has been probably the biggest issue and to be fair Cheika has said as much. But let’s consider a couple of things. First we should remember that a week ago not only did the game came down to goal kicking but that Australia outscored England by 4 tries to 3 with one of those England tries coming after 80 minutes, when Australia coughed up the ball chasing the game at the death (it happens).

4 tries is not to be sniffed at in test level Rugby. Especially when you consider that since Gustard took over as England defence coach they have conceded a measly 5 tries in 480 minutes of Rugby.

Whatever way you look at it Australia for the first 20 minutes of that 1st test tore England a new one, playing with a level of pace and width that they just hadn’t experienced before, and yes, England adjusted eventually taking control of the game but in that first test they still managed to score two tries in each half by generating quick ball and using the width of the pitch.

So what changed from week one to week two for Australia to not even be able to land a decent body blow?


If we put aside set pieces and concentrate purely on the ball in hand play (because that’s how Chieka wants his side to play) the thing that immediately jumps out to me is a lack of depth.

In this instance when I refer to a lack of depth I’m not talking about players on the bench, or not having that Giteau 2nd play maker. But how flat the Australian attack set up during phase play in the second test.

Photo courtesy of Tim Anger

Photo courtesy of Tim Anger

When they have the numbers Englands defence naturally shows the outside on phase play; they defend with the 13 as the last defender, and sit the winger back a little deeper to work a pendulum system in the back three (essentially it gives you two full back options). If a team attacks wide they try and shut if off by blitzing in that 13 channel and whilst that happens the winger flies up to fill the space they’ve left.

In the first test we saw Australia exploiting that, but the way they got there is important. If you’ve not read it then do check out Murray Kinsella’s brilliant analysis of the 1-3-3-1 system that Australia deployed in that first test it is a wonderful piece of analysis looking at how the Australians structured their attack in Brisbane.

The abridged version is that they leave a loose forward on each touchline (usually Hooper and Fardy) with two pods in the middle. Within those pods Moore, Holmes, Pocock (and Foley slotting in at will) will generally act as play makers, making a decision as to whether or not they punch it up and clear to generate quick ball or play out the back.

That last bit is important , because it’s the key to how Australia attacked so well in the first and last 20 of the 1st test, and it’s also key to how you shut down this aggressive line speed.


If we look at the opening sequence of Australian attack in the first test we can see how the Wallabies counter and move the ball wide across the face of the English defence, getting around them. It’s not a clean line break but it’s enough to TURN the defence, and that is incredibly important to the Australian game plan (as we’ll illustrate later).

Now as they come back from right to left (below) Australia will usually use a punch group about 10-20 metres off the ruck to generate quick ball and suck in a couple of big defenders, it might come from Phipps or if they really want to generate speed it will come form Foley. Here though that’s shut down by a bad pass from Foley that gets Pocock lit up.

It’s still quick ball though and they’ve set up a screen formation (Red Circle) and come out the back door to Folau who generates a line break down the right.

If we look at to the first Hooper Try (below) it’s a similar story.

It’s been an untidy start to the sequence of play but Australia have managed to get across the pitch and are now ready to work back. First we get Arnold laying a lovely ball off to Simmons to change the point and target weak shoulders.

That allows Australia to get on the front foot, which they exploit by coming out the back to Folau who releases Fardy and Horne out wide. Notice how they’ve held that wide channel whilst Yarde defends almost like a second center.

Australia are in behind and the English defence has had to turn and re-set. This means Australia’s big ball carriers now have quick ball to come onto, and it turns the English defence in – watch Haskell’s head, he has to turn in to watch, just in case the tackle isn’t completed, and then reset to get off the line – this all makes a small but important difference to England’s line speed.

Again it’s quick ball and Australia play out the back to Folau (again), and he makes the break that leads to Hooper’s try.

Throughout this opening period we see the screen used over and over again, Foley’s “No Try” for example again comes from a screen pass:

And even later on in the game when England have subbed off Burrell and moved Farrell into 12, Australia got plenty of success from using screened passing off quick ball.

Hoopers second try (below) is a prime example: The ball is carried up, Lealiifano brings it to the line – stopping the defence advancing and plays out the back to Foley who hits Folau with a peach of a pass creating a 2 vs 1.


But a week later, and all of that structure and formation has gone from the Wallabies attacking game. Some of that is to do with the English defence,  some the forced changes. The 1-3-3-1 relies hugely on having 3 breakdown specialists Hooper, Pocock and Fardy who can pass, clean and carry in their respective locations. With the powerful running McMahon coming in they seem to go back to a naturally more traditional flow pattern with Hooper and McMahon covering the ground.

But importantly for me, the attack becomes flat and there are limited or no back door passing options.

Australia are no longer turning the English defence with ball in hand and end up opting to take contact time and time again, which for a heavy set blitz defence like this is bread and butter. They get stopped on the gain line and suddenly the next formation in the flow of the pattern has flattened out and those passing options and angles are erased from the Australian attack.

As we can see here as the phases build early on Australia persist with these one-out runners despite them yielding much success. They are isolated and constantly met with two men and stopped on the gain line, even when they do have some success wide and get over the gain line because they are isolated the ball these runners generate isn’t great. The knock on effect is basically more big guys running into a set defence (as we see in the final frames with Carter getting destroyed in the contact ).

Even when they do try to use the screen the formation is all askew. From this one out runner position Arnold plays out the back to a very flat standing Foley who gets clattered, and it’s back to the one out runners with little success.

As the game moves on we can see the panic getting smashed back creates and when Australia finally get the ball wide Fardy wastes it by kicking away a 3 vs 1. It’s not all on Fardy though, because if you look how his two support runners haven’t worked hard enough off the ball and are in front of him, you can understand why he felt he had no options.

It’s really poor play from Australia, but also look how flat the openside attack has set up? There is no one sweeping around behind able to select a late running line.

Even when they generate quick ball, as we see here from McMahon attacking the kick off, they opt to go head down instead of out the back  exploiting the space and numbers.

At 40:57 if we watch that 20 phase sequence we can see it amounts to little more than one out runners – yet how often have we seen teams like the Rebels play out the back close to the line and manufacture a score, but here we see Australia just hammering on the door wasting space wide on phases 11 and 13 (look at Kuridrani signalling it’s on) .


It’s easy to get caught up in the brutality of England’s defence and sucked into their game. But even during the second test Australia demonstrated they can break down the English defence.

At 31 minutes, even though England are having a field day, we can see when Australia do get it right it opens the English defence up with Moore using the backdoor to set Kerevi and Folau free:

And then Foley gets it out the back to Haylett-Petty, though it’s worth noting how disorganised Australia are with Slipper having to duck out of the line of the pass). It’s great hands from Haylett-Petty to take it off his bootlaces and two passes on Kuridrani is outside the defence:

If you scan the discussion boards, most people think the way to break down a blitz defence is to chip over the top or use pick and goes. It is to a degree, but chipping is a 50/50 call, you run as much chance of giving the ball away as you do of regaining it and pick and goes will narrow a defence but it’s not going to do much on the goal line other than just bash into the defenders (as we saw in this game Englands ruck defence is exceptional).

For me depth and using these screened passes are a good option, and certainly fit in more with Chiekas desire to play with ball in hand. You sit deeper, and you have two or three options for the ball carrier, out the front to a short runner, wider to a second short runner or in behind to a slider. Having those multiple receiving options create uncertainty in the opposition defender as to who is coming down their channel and as we’ve seen all through the Super 16 if you flood a defenders channel with options they will make 50/50 calls.

Additionally by coming up and putting the ball in their faces and then playing out the back they stop that defence rushing up.

Sitting deep off the ball affords the supporting player a chance to see what’s happening, adjust their run cut a line, stay deep they have time and space to choose the best option. If the ball carrier drifts they can still adjust but if they are flat they pretty much have to go with them or have their space shut down.

That doesn’t mean they can’t play flat, but there is a big difference between playing flat and standing flat, if  Australia want to bust the gain line they need to use more of those short one off passes from a forward in at 1st receiver, if they want to go wide they need to break the tackle line in that 13 channel and they will only do that against this blitzing defence by using depth and giving the ball carrier lots of options.

To me it seems Australia are struggling to find a balance between the power game that gets them on the front foot and using the passing and pace out wide, if they want to salvage some respect come Saturday evening they are going to have to revert to the attacking flow of game one to beat this English defence.

  • Huw Tindall

    Top analysis and well written article. I can’t believe that a change in personnel would have such a big impact on the attack structure though without specific instructions to play differently.

    A lot has been said about the wallabies lack of tactical nous and plan b in the second test but did we just not have the personnel for the game plan? No line bending forwards like Palu and Skelton? With 74% possession we can’t have been doing much wrong so I can only put it down to lack of personnel for the game plan or just dumb play. Maybe a bit of column a or column b.

  • Kiwi rugby lover

    Great analysis. It looks as though with bringing Skelton back they are going away from this and trying to smash it up with a bigger mass. It’ll be interesting how it turns out but I’m not confident that it will work. Maybe they should have brought in Gill who could provide what they lost with Pocock. Must admit while I like loose forwards out on the wing scoring trys, not at the expense of losing the ruck ball which is what I think is happening with the wallabies at the moment.

    • AlanDownunder

      Skelton is not a mere smash up merchant. He has equal or greater value as a rock at the breakdown, freeing up teammates to be carrying or defending options, and as a deft ball distributor. The Skelton drawback is his displacement of a lock who is a better lineout exponent.

      • ForceFan

        Most of the support for Skelton is what he is thought to have the POTENTIAL to do rather than what he ACTUALLY does.
        Have a look at what Skelton has actually DONE in SR this year.
        His impact at Test level is generally at this level or less.

      • Kiwi rugby lover

        We’ll have to disagree on that mate. I don’t see Skelton doing much other than crashing up on the odd attack and leaning on rucks or mauls in defence when he finally gets there. He has done some good distribution in the past but I don’t see a lot of it now. Still as a one eyed kiwi maybe I’m not looking at it right.

        • idiot savant

          Im with you. What I dont understand is why he isnt a finisher instead of a starter. Its a huge ask of a man his size to dominate for 60 minutes. He might have moments but there will also be other moments where he will be missing due to the massive amount of oxygen those corpuscles need. If Skelton only needs to open the valve for 20 minutes at the end he could do some serious damage. Cheika still hasnt shown that he understands that most test matches against quality opposition are not won in the first hour but can be lost in the first hour. They are won in the last 20.

      • Keith Butler

        To paraphrase Joe Hockey he’s a leaner not a lifter. Not a great scrummage technique, no lineout presence and for a guy his size ineffective at the breakdown, rumbles in a flops rather than hits. His SR form this season has been mediocre but he’s still Cheks blue eye boy. Kiwi below is right.

  • Kokonutcreme

    Thanks for the analysis Graeme, very insightful.

    Cheika stated he picked McMahon to do a certain job, that he loved his aggression and the way he approaches the game.

    From your analysis, it doesn’t appear that adjustments made in attack were either correct or done at all.

    Can’t wait to see if lessons have been learned tomorrow.

  • Unanimous

    Good analysis. Thanks for the article.

    I think the idea with the chip/grubber kick options is to use them inside the English 22 and also high balls into the in goal when a bit closer. The 50/50 ball then might rusult in a try 30% of the time. In the last game the Aussies were able to get towards the English line reasonable reliably using a lot of simple phases. Crossing the line against the compressed defence when close to the try line was the problem. As the game gets close to the English try line there’s a point where they switch from 12 plus three backfield defenders to 14 plus the full back. At this point, there is a lot of space behind their line.

    When closer to their try line their structure is appropriate and they defend very well, so just stick it high and see what happens.

    I suspect the Aussies used simple phases in Melbourne due to wet conditions, and once they’d made gains that way thought if they just kept at it they would continue to make gains right into the English in goal area. Unfortunately the English defence was stiffer closer to the try line. It was some of the best I’ve seen.

  • Pedro

    Great analysis as always.

    I think chipping or grubbering will happen if we have advantage close to the try line. If nothing else it would give the ref a chance to hand out yellow cards for cynical play… ;)

    • Wiremu

      I don’t think you would find the All Blacks chipping and grubbering close to the try line and giving the ball back to the opposition. We do enough of that senseless kicking in general play so the opposites can have another crack at us, despite our boasting about playing running rugby. Nah, I just don’t think we have the players of test match standard at the moment, especially in the back line.

      • Pedro

        “if we have advantage”

      • Scablifter

        The AB’s tried it in the RWC semi v the ‘Boks.

        • Wiremu

          The AB’s are a different team to us Wallabies and it was probably only a oncer. Anyway what happened when they had a go at it?

        • Scablifter

          I’d have to watch the game again, but if memory serves it was a wet pitch with the AB’s facing a big, physical, but conservative forward pack with an aggressive breakdown, and dominance in the scrum and driving maul using a blitz defence to shut down their superior back line. Bit like last week, hey?
          In the first half quite a few grubbers were poked through into the corners (one or two garryowens too), pretty sure they were all either defused by SA, or went too long/knocked on/too close to touch…
          Not saying its not a tactic, but if THAT back line of Carter and co couldn’t pull it off, I’d say it’s one to save for a dry day!

      • Jack Mallick

        Graeme has outlined that we have everything we need in the backline…just need composure – don’t give away stupid penalties, don’t get drawn into stupid niggle, don’t lose attacking shape.

        We’ve got all the players we need, just got to switch on mentally (and this is where I think poor and inconsistent super form of all the oz teams comes into play)

  • John Tynan

    Thanks again Graeme.

  • Sam

    The big thing I noticed from both tests was the lack of subtle variation. Whether that was an inside ball, short pass, different line. Also, forward pods suck – What is the point recycling the ball a couple of metres behind the advantage line. Run off the 10 and give him some options and support the ball carrier.

    • Who?

      Exactly. And the reason for wanting those options isn’t to overuse them – it’s to sow that seed of doubt in the defence’s mind.
      As it stood, we asked defenders to make very few decisions last weekend, and when defenders don’t have to make a decision, they don’t miss many tackles. And England didn’t just not miss – they hit hard all night.

  • BarneySF

    It seems the art of the wrap has been lost in our back-line play generally. I remember Lloyd Walker in particular, being able to prop and pop the ball up off his shoulder to a looping support player creating the extra man. Requires some straightening of course otherwise it’s simple to blitz with a drift defence.

    • John Tynan

      What we need is Thurston!

  • Rob Malcolm

    This is spot on! Guys that have been calling for Foley to play flatter are playing rugby from 10 years ago. Defences are just too good now (Test 2). The facts are that we need to get it wider quicker, but not allow the defence to drift. You do that with pods/decoy runners and inside balls in the wider channels. That means the Kurandrani/Folau boys get it at full tilt and 1 on 1: which is a defence nightmare (Test 1).

    Chip kicks are okay if used really occasionally as a surprise because even then they’re a low percentage play. And if execute well, which frankly Foley needs to work on.

    I actually think we’re in much better shape with Toomua back. Plus we’ve now had a few tests under our belts in the backs. I think our backline will fire up.

    Scrum is still a concern. No idea how we’ll go there with the shenanigans Cole gets up to, but if we lose the first few I would be putting TPN on early.

    And I hope we have some good plans in the line-outs because Willy can’t fly.

  • idiot savant

    Thanks Graeme. I agree we need more depth when we get into their 22. Strangely we play with more depth further out as is evidenced in your clips.

    We had our state of origin rugby league game between NSW and Qld this week which showed the value of depth in the ‘red zone’. Defenders in league in the red zone are used to having to make decisions or guesses about who will get the ball in either a first line or second line play or who will kick and will it be a grubber, chip or bomb. This tends to both restrain rush defence and create gaps when wrong guesses are made. Now granted the defence has to stay 5 metres back from the play the ball which creates some of the depth but the principle still holds that the attacking side has more time to set up a variety of options to get in the minds of the defence. The Wallabies, like the Brumbies, dont appear to train for using these options in the red zone.

  • Adrian

    If the critics of Skelton and Palu had watched the Waratahs beat the competition leading Chiefs in the last SR match, they’d see what they can do.

    Take the ball at speed, crash into the defence, get them on the back foot, then slip a pass….to a support player running at speed. One try came from Palu (in traffic) slipping the ball to Skelton who ran 20m (in traffic) and slipped it to someone who scored.

    Sure they aren’t fast, but it’s better than still ala Wallaby forwards in the second test.

    Sure they don’t last 80 minutes, but nor did most Wallaby forwards in the second test, especially Fardy

    Palu is good in the lineout, and isn’t bumped off the ball like Simmons, Fardy, Mumm were in WC final and 1st test.

    Skelton does more in the lineout than most people notice.

    Anyway, what was the use of all our ball (lineout ball included) in the second test?

    We didn’t bend the line or break the line.

    Who are the forwards we have that are actually better? Have they delivered anything?

    Let’s see what happens on Saturday

    • idiot savant

      Im coming around to your power religion Adrian but only in the last 20! Test matches against quality opposition arent won in the first hour though they can be lost. Clearly Eddie made his players understand this as they never panicked after Cheik’s Shock and Awe attack in the first 15 minutes in Brisbane.

      The ABs have always known that test matches are won in the last quarter so they have become masters at grinding out the first hour through huge workrate (which Palu and Skelton cant do) kicking for field position and taking the points. Then a combination of bench speed, ability to up the ante, and confidence usually drives the nail in the coffin. The last time we beat them, their plan didn’t work because our bench upset them. They couldnt dominate the last quarter.

      In test matches I think the power monsters like Palu and Skelton wont win you games when they start but Im coming around to the idea that they might if they come on in the last quarter!

    • jamie

      I think everyone understands the idea of Skelton and Palu, and loves the idea of massive forwards destroying a defence. But Skelton (especially) does not play like his weight should allow him to. Too often you see him jog and be cut down 1 on 1 by a far smaller player.

  • RobC

    Very good Graeme, thanks for the time you put into this.
    I do think the kicks are also important though

    • m0b1us

      Without Giteau and probably Mitchell (though I think DHP has actually kicked well) your kicking game
      seems weak. IMO, it’s pretty much how England beat you at Twickenham in 2014 – despite Australia
      having superior ‘running rugby’ stats. You fellas should get yourself a good NH coach to add a bit more
      steel and tactical guile to your brilliant natural running game ;-)

      • RobC

        One chap who’s at fault here is the Rebs coach, Tony McGahan. He played our best 8, Lopeti Timani, at 5. Hence all the deck shuffling.

        I think a bit of kicking will help, not too much. At least more than what Foley delivered. Zero. The two ENG midfielders kicked 26 between them.

        DHP should be attacking from 15 and provide the variety WBs needed to exploit the spaces.

        2014. Well that list is long ;)

    • I agree kicks are important, and used wisely they will open up a defence – Saracens use of the grubber kick against rushing defences for example is brilliant.

      I guess it’s all a case of obtaining balance.

      • RobC


        Who are you tipping for tomorrow? Sarries or Tahs.

        Oops I mean Eng vs…

        • too close to call i think, could go either way.

          Think if England get into a lead it will be difficult for Australia to break them, if Australias can lead at half time they’ll have too much for a tired England.

  • mikado

    Good article, and great to see mention of Murray Kinsella’s excellent analysis.

  • harro

    Thanks mate, that was awesome. I appreciate all the time you put into these pieces

  • Tim

    Anything that isn’t the same thing we tried the last eight times might create a little doubt in the minds of the Poms. Maybe even the odd chip over the top. Either way, I’m looking forward to the Wallabies forcing Brexit 2.0.

  • Seaweed

    Thanks for there analysis. Spot on.

  • thanks for reading.


an Englishman living in France, Graeme runs the Rugby Analysis website He coaches in his spare time, is an IRB qualified coach and you can catch him on twitter lazily re-tweeting other peoples comments.

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