How to get the Wallabies over the Advantage Line - Green and Gold Rugby
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How to get the Wallabies over the Advantage Line

How to get the Wallabies over the Advantage Line

The ability of a forward pack to get over the advantage line is possibly the single most important determinant of a team’s success. Obviously, the forward pack also has to secure and retain possession, but if you’re going backwards every phase then that doesn’t count for much. Front-foot ball has become a very difficult thing to achieve in the modern game due to the almost universal employment of rush defences. These have an innate advantage over the attacking team because the attacking team must start by going backwards (with a pass). When the advantage line is not met the backline is effectively shut out of the game, and the pressure of repeatedly going backwards usually results in either a turnover or a poor kick which returns possession to the opposition.

I have put together the average metres per carry stats of the best Australian Super Rugby forward pack in 2019 vs the stats of Michael Cheika’s preferred forwards based on selection in 2018:

Wallabies forward pack

  1. Scott Sio (3m – started 12/13 tests)
  2. Tolu Latu (5m – 4 hookers started 2-4 tests each, but Tolu Latu played in the most overall including bench appearances)
  3. Sekope Kepu (2m – started 5 tests)/Allan Alaalatoa (1.3m – started 5 tests)
  4. Izack Rodda (5m – started every test)
  5. Adam Coleman (3m – missed only 3 tests)
  6. Lukhan Salakaia-Loko (3m – Salakaia-Loko started more tests than any other 6)/Jack Dempsey (8.8m – Jack Dempsey played all 3 tests he was fit for)
  7. Michael Hooper (6m – started every test)
  8. David Pocock (5m – started every test he was fit for)

Super Rugby forward pack

  1. Jean-Pierre Smith (2m)
  2. Damien Fitzpatrick (3m)
  3. Harry Hoopert (5m)
  4. Luke Jones (8m)
  5. Harry Hockings (5m)/Matt Philip (4.5m)/Izack Rodda (5m)
  6. Pete Samu (8m)
  7. Brad Wilkin (5m)/Michael Hooper (5.6m)
  8. Lachlan McCaffrey (8m)

If every player in each forward pack takes 1 run, then the Wallabies forward pack goes 25.5 – 36.9m (depending on whether Kepu and Dempsey are starting), while the Super Rugby pack goes 73.6 – 74.2m (depending on whether Hooper and Rodda are included). This is an astonishing difference of 37.3 – 48.7m in just 8 carries. In fact, each forward in the Super Rugby pack is going an average of 2 – 2.91 times as far or 4.7 – 6m further than their Wallabies counterparts per carry.

By way of comparison, the 2018 All Blacks pack went 50m in 2018 Super Rugby after 1 carry each (many All Blacks have played little or no 2019 Super Rugby so these stats are useless or unavailable). This means that the Wallabies pack is carrying almost half as far as the All Blacks pack in Super Rugby. In test rugby however, the All Blacks average carry distance per 8 goes down to 40.9m while promisingly the Wallabies pack boosts to 39.5m due to players like Hooper and Pocock lifting for the occasion (this value is approximate as Wallabies stats for Salakaia-Loko are difficult to find).

Michael Hooper's due for a big performance.

Michael Hooper is key in attack for the Wallabies

Of course, this is a very simplified view. Players like Pocock bring a lot more to the game than run metres. Kepu can probably hold up a scrum against the Springboks front row better than 20-year-old Hoopert. But there is still a point to be made here, particularly with regards to the backrow. Second rowers should not be playing at blindside flanker and openside flankers should not be playing at number 8 – simply shoving McCaffrey and Samu into the Wallabies pack in place of Hooper and Salakaia-Loko gains the Wallabies another 2.2m per carry, bringing them up to 43.1 – 48m after 8 carries. To be fair to Cheika, Dempsey was not available throughout most of 2018 and his presence would have gone some way to getting the Wallabies over the advantage line.

There is also a serious problem at hooker. Not only does Fitzpatrick dominate his competition with 74m from 6 carries, but Anaru Rangi comes second with 52 metres from 9 carries despite also being uncapped. Using the argument that Latu brings more to the forward pack around the park just falls flat here, as while Fitzpatrick and Latu have both missed 2 tackles this year Fitzpatrick has successfully completed 35 while Latu has managed only 5 (playing only 30% as many minutes).

Even just watching their games completely dispels this myth as Fitzpatrick has the skills, speed, fitness, and game sense to mix in with the backs without botching their plays. Fitzpatrick has better lineout stats ,and despite having played vastly more minutes has conceded the same amount of penalties as Latu (1). These stats were similar last year, but Fitzpatrick was overlooked while Latu got called up to the national squad. It is shocking that Fitzpatrick has not at least run on from the bench for the Wallabies, especially last year when there was a serious depth problem at hooker. Paenga-Amosa was a better choice than Latu, but statistically there was no serious choice at all.

Tahs v Chiefs 2016

Tolu Latu ready to take on the defense.

There are many tricks that professional teams employ in order to increase their odds of breaking the advantage line (I’m a bit sick of seeing blokes rolling around on the ground trying to gain an extra foot after the tackle), but the conventional wisdom is that a bigger bloke is usually going to go further in contact than a smaller bloke. So how does a front rower with a weight of only 106kg manage such good advantage line stats?

The answer is simply that a lot of metres can be gained by be able to step into contact from an angle, or make/receive a last second pass to get the ball away from dominant tackles, or being rugby smart enough to take advantage of the backline’s playmaking abilities. Sadly, many of Cheika’s forwards are little more than meat sledgehammers. The image below was taken from the recent Chiefs v Hurricanes game, and shows the likely most skilled hooker in the world (Dane Coles) recognising that Retallick has 20cm and 10kg on him, and shuffling the ball onto Toby Smith who has 5cm and 15kg on defender Mitch Karpik. There is also a slight change in angle involved as Karpik was initially moving to assist Retallick with the Coles tackle. This results in a carry going several metres over the advantage line, while if Coles had kept hold of the ball the Hurricanes would likely have gone backwards.

via GIPHY

Being realistic and discarding players who are almost certainly not going to start for the Wallabies this year, you could restrict selection to nationally capped props and second rowers and start David Pocock. Even this small concession makes massive strides towards the advantage line in the backrow and at hooker:

Potential Wallabies forward pack

  1. Taniela Tupou (4m)
  2. Damien Fitzpatrick (3m)
  3. Sekope Kepu (2m)
  4. Izack Rodda (5m)
  5. Rory Arnold (4m)
  6. Jack Dempsey (8m)
  7. David Pocock (5m)
  8. Lachlan McCaffrey (8m)

Compared to the Wallabies 25.5-36.9m per 8 carries, and the All Blacks 50m per 8 carries, this team goes 57.4m per 8 carries and is still very dominant around the park. Even if Cheika prefers to stick with Sio over Tupou and Coleman over Arnold, the team still goes 54.9m per 8 carries. Hooper can also be slotted in for McCaffrey or either can be brought on from the bench, as the latter is unlikely to be able to maintain his stellar numbers at test level while Hooper actually rises to 10.3m per carry when wearing the green and gold.

KMP-G&G-SR-Waratahs-Brumbies-3205

Lachie McCaffrey has been a force for the Brumbies this year.

The most important take-away from this dissection is that there are multiple strong running backrowers in Australia, and the Wallabies need to recognise this talent and play one of them at 6 while potentially having the other share time with Hooper. Australia previously had two premier world talents at 7 in George Smith and Phil Waugh, but back then there was common sense enough not to play them both at the same time.

Additionally, the Wallabies have fallen far behind the world trend of having hookers who can run and pass, and this needs to be rectified immediately. The experience of Tatafu Polota-Nau (who was not included in these statistics due to spending most of his playing time in England) may still be preferred if he is in form, but if Fitzpatrick is fit then he needs to be given a shot at test rugby.

Only once these changes are made will we see a Wallabies backline which scored half as many points in 2018 as in 2017 re-enter the competitive international arena. Let’s not forget that in 2017 (a year in which the Wallabies beat the All Blacks), Dempsey and Sean McMahon were in the backrow and Stephen Moore was the reserve hooker. It will take a similarly sturdy setup again in 2019 to give the Wallabies a shot at World Cup glory.

  • Adrian

    I like what you are trying to show Cameron.

    Some stats are hard to compare, given SR defences are weaker than international defences, but…I still like what you are trying to show.

    Interestingly, Cheika’s speciality before he took over the Wallabies was getting teams to always get over the advantage line. He seemed to abandon that tactic when the Pooper seemed to work.

    With the exception of a Wales match in 2016, the 2nd half of Bled 1 in 2017, Bled 2 in 2017, a Wales match in 2017 and the second half at Salta, the Wallabies have deliberately avoided using getting over the advantage line as a tactic. Its only been a tactic in 20% of games.

    They have preferred “pass the parcel” instead in their other 45 or so games (80% of games overall)

    It isn’t just the players IMO, it is having players that are good at getting over the advantage line, AND employing getting over the advantage line as a tactic.

    Your suggested teams could do that, as could teams with guys like Latu and Lukhan S-Loto, so long as the tactic of getting over the advantage line re-appeared as a primary tactic.

    This means no Simmons, no Hanigans, no Carter etc.

    It is easily do-able if we have the will.

    I believe that Johnson and O’Connor will force the return of getting over the advantage line as our No 1 tactic

    • Jason

      I think it’s all based on SR run meters, so specific defence is irrelevant.

      • Adrian

        Ok, understood Jason

    • Cameron Rivett

      To some extent you can take a group of players and make them better at getting over the advantage line by training technique, but this is easier with some players than others. With only a small window of time until the RWC, it’s better to pick the players who can adapt quickly or who already have a tested ability to get over the advantage line.

      • Adrian

        Agree 100% Cameron, but it needs to be a policy of the team to actually get over the advantage line before playing wide

    • Huw Tindall

      It’s an interesting mix of big units and skills that get’s the gain line metres. As Cam points out Fitzpatrick gets metres despite being one of the smaller hookers. Similar to Dempsey in contact where he steps into it. Not many players have size and skill. They are the Retalicks of the world. S-Loto has size but not the skills by contrast.

      • Adrian

        I think that it is interesting that O’Connor has said that Cheika should be the attack coach himself, and not hire a Larkham replacement.

        Given that when he is hands-on, he only knows one way of coaching (get over advantage line then flat backline) we may indeed see this sooner rather than later.

        I think that Cameron has more or less identified the players, and Skelton could be potentially added to the list. He hasn’t signed for 19-20 with Saracens yet, so could be signed locally before the WC. He is the second rated Premiership lock for metres gained per match, and now catches lineout ball.

        As I have said before though, both the coach and the captain (and the halfback) have to make this happen. It won’t happen if the ball goes straight to Foley standing back, and it looks across the backline.

        • Huw Tindall

          If the Tahs first play against the Crusaders this weekend is a second man play out the back I’m going to burn my jersey. Will probably do it inside our 22. That tactic only worked last year because Taquele Naiyaravoro was in the 11 shirt. All he needs is 3 metres of ‘space’ with 1 or 2 defenders and he is away. This year we spread it wide to Newsome in the same amount of space and can’t even beat a man 1:1. The tactic was out of date last year and ONLY viable with a special player like Naiyaravoro. I’d have him back in the team at the drop of a hat. A truly x-factor style player who can do things nobody else can.

        • laurence king

          You’re absolutely right in regard to Taquele, Huw. He was in career best form last year. From what I’ve seen of the Tahs this year, Folua seems to be the only player that really can hurt the opposition, Hunts a good player but not what he was and Beale and Foley are not playing with the confidence that they had in the corresponding game last year. Folau was the difference against the Sunwolves and they dodged a bullet against the Reds because of the state of the pitch.

        • Adrian

          Yes, Naiyaravoro massively missed Huw.

          Aparently RA didn’t want to Chip in any $ at all to keep him.

          Your predicted play is pretty likely, given they have pretty much re-convened the band. I’m sure the plan is to go for broke in the first half, then try and hang on via Hunt’s defence.

          I think that the idea is to get Foley back into form by having his old mates on either side.

          Frankly, with the cattle they have there aren’t many options v Canterbury, although it isn’t what I would have done.

        • Keith Butler

          Interesting comment regarding Will Skelton. Can’t say that I rated him much when he was with the Tahs but it looks like his spell at Saracens is bearing fruit. He seems to have lost a shed load of weight and as a result his all round game, scrum, line out etc have improved considerably. However, with Kruis and Itoje certainties for the RWC I reckon Sarries will want him for 2019/20.

  • I don’t know how I’d sort this data and I really appreciate what you’ve done… but!

    Well there had to be a but after an opening like that, didn’t there… and in this case I think it’s a pretty important one. Simply adding the average carry metres together for a “gain by the pack” is probably not the right metric, although I do applaud its inherent simplicity.

    I spent a little while trying to find the number of times each of the players had carried the ball, it should be recorded somewhere, so you can get a weighted average gain based on how often they’re used a ball carriers. Perhaps their total carries over a season are close enough it doesn’t matter but I’d expect (in a team with a properly balanced back row) 6 and 8 to carry more often than 7 – who is fetching rather than carrying that often. With the way modern hookers play around the world, I’d expect 2 to carry more often than either prop. Typically I’d expect one lock to carry more than the other, while the “non-carrying lock” is often latching on, as are the props, particularly if you’re looking at the Bokke, but they’re there to hit the ruck fast when you’d doing hard metres around the corner in a defensive situation, or on the goal line rather than carrying themselves.

    There are clearly exceptions to those generalisations, it depends a bit on who your players are but as a quick illustration, in the Grand Slam decider, for the Welsh front row, Evans carried 6 times, Owens 5, Francis 1. For the Irish, the props did the carrying (4 and 5) while Best made only 2 carries. For the locks, the Welsh didn’t carry as much as the Irish but AWJ did the lion’s share (1 and 7 carries respectively), but the Irish were also really disparate (4 and 13 carries). Across the back row we have 4, 1, 7 carries for the Welsh at 6, 7, 8 and 3, 6, 14 for the Irish. Basing your “how well they’ll break the advantage line” on “they’ll all carry once” wouldn’t seem to be that reasonable an assumption. (I could find stats that showed carries for a couple of other 6N matches, and Francis very rarely carries the ball, Owens overall carries a bit more than Evans. Alan Wyn Jones carries about 5x more than his lock partner. Admittedly it’s still a small sample size. That back row balance of carries stays about the same.

    I couldn’t find such a detailed breakdown for Australia, or NZ, but I’m willing to bet it’s not quite as even as you’ve done, but I would be fascinated to see what such a weighted average showed. I have a horrible feeling, it will show the Wobs use their short runners more and the AB use their long runners more and that “we can catch them up” is not quite as supported by the stats as it seems. Under the Ass-Clown there’s much more of a philosophy of “get the ball out to our backs” that seems to emphasise short carries into contact, supposedly fast rucks, and moving the ball away. Any GAG supporter has nightmares about Retallik’s dummy and try, Reed out on the 5m line, and although it didn’t happen last year, Coles running with the ball and making those offloads or rampaging in for a score. Add Savea making huge metres in contact all too regularly (and not only against the Wobs) and the AB seem to use the forward carriers that make metres a lot.

    • Cameron Rivett

      I did think about removing the 7 from the equation, but sort of skirted the issue by essentially saying that Pocock will be there and including Hooper as an 8. I also tried to compare like against like (1s and 3s together, 4s and 5s together, and 6s and 8s together) though Cheika makes this hard by constantly playing 4s and 5s at 6 and so forth.

      As Adrian has pointed out below, it does depend on the systems in place. The ABs tend to use a 2-4-2 system which some believe makes the advantage line easier to achieve (as there are 2 forwards being tackled by wingers and 4 forwards supporting each other in the midfield), and a lot of their backs are skilled at the ruck (Waisake Naholo probably makes more turnovers than Michael Hooper) which effectively adds more forwards into the equation.

      I think the simplest solution for the Wallabies in the shortest space of time is to employ something akin to Gatlandball. Simply swap out Beale for Kerevi and have him charge between two tacklers on the first phase and there will immediately be advantage line movement as well as the sucking in of defenders. Do this again with a winger or Kuridrani and you’ve probably got front foot ball and an overlap, thus earning the right to go wide. It doesn’t really help with drawn out phases of play but most of the time we can’t even get that far before someone drops the ball. Of course this will never happen while we still chant the dual playmaker mantra.

      • A lot of other countries have backs who are good at the ruck… but then they have decent defenders in multiple positions in their backs and don’t have crazy position-switching backlines on defence.

        I do agree, a lot of the Wallabies’ current woes would be dealt with with a new inside backs line up. I might go with Genia, Cooper, Meakes at the moment. I’m only watching highlights, which skews things I know, but the Rebels look like the form side from what I’m seeing and Meakes looks comfortable outside QC which is important if you pick him. He’s not quite the wrecking ball huge 12 that you’re suggesting, so I think it probably means a power 13 and a properly balanced back row with a genuine ball carrier at 6 and 8, and Pocock at 7. But if you go for a more classical 10, Kerevi at 12 is a solid call.

  • Huw Tindall

    Great article Cameron and like your thought process and analysis. As with so many things in rugby selections it’s very hard to compare players across teams and comps. It’s an apples and oranges thing. E.g. the Tahs tactics are different to the Reds so you’d expect different run metres for certain positions, all other things being equal. Still, over time these would hopefully even out and you’d get a good picture of who is good at getting over the gain line.

    An interesting addition would be to look where those run metres are. They can be massively inflated if a player makes a lucky break or takes an intercept compared with doing the hard yards one out from the ruck. Just thinking McCaffery on the weekend had a great run off the back of a scrum which would have contributed over 50% of his metres in the match. Also post contact metres as a proportion of total metres would be interesting. Thinking guys like McMahon excelled in this area.

    I’m sure the coaches have all this data but we have to make do with what we get publicly!

    Great stuff again though Cameron and I hope (and think) we’ll see more beef in the pack this year.

    • Cameron Rivett

      Sadly, statistics are limited by these sorts of things. The best thing to do would be to look at them again at the end of the regular season when everyone has played the same amount of games against almost the same teams (bloody conference system!). However I did compare with last season’s stats whenever I went into depth and I would say that similar arguments can be made for most players in 2018.

      • Huw Tindall

        Yeah with the available data you are 90% of the way there anyway. The last 10% would help you decide who makes run within a wider squad but you’ve identified all the people that should be in the discussion.

        What I found interesting was that Naisarani and Timu aren’t up there. Your average punter would have them in the running for ‘gain line’ forwards but the evidence says no. Yes we have to take into account their defence but looking at the guys you’ve got in your team, they aren’t defensive weak points so it’s a bit redundant.

        Another similar consideration is lineout impact but again the team you’ve got has enough genuine lineout options so again a non-issue with your selections.

        In saying this I can still see Chek rolling with Pooper plus McCaffery. In that instance the lineout suffers a bit but you’d gain elsewhere. For a RWC where set piece is crucial there is an argument for a taller backrow combo so Hooper would be benched. But defence is also paramount in test matches so that puts Hooper back in the frame. Tough calls to make and it may be horses for courses ultimately.

        • Cameron Rivett

          Timu is 7.3m/carry and Naisarani is 6.1m/carry. They’re decent options for the advantage line but based on stats so far this year they’re not premier. Though if you took Dempsey and Samu as the starting backrow options and have Fitzpatrick at hooker, I’d say that our lineout would suddenly become one of the best in the world.

          It genuinely does appear that Hooper is best suited to run on from the bench. Thankfully we only have to deal with this conundrum for probably one more year before Pocock retires overseas somewhere based on the fact he’s 31 next month and is already constantly injured.

  • Who?

    Quote:
    (I’m a bit sick of seeing blokes rolling around on the ground trying to gain an extra foot after the tackle)
    I am SOOOOOO sick of watching players crawl after being tackled. Absolutely over it. Wish referees would start blowing penalties, as they should………
    If you want to talk Hookers who can pass, then, along with his lineout, that’s what we miss in Squeaky. His hands were as good as anyone in the pack this decade. I’ve never seen Taf – or any of our other hookers – pass near as well as Squeaks. About the only other tight forwards with a similarly strong skillset in passing are Kepu and Simmons. I think Tupou could develop, but…
    If you talk linking backrowers, Pocock’s arguably our best Test loose forward last year. Threw WAY more passes (and good quality passes) than the rest (researched by a poster in comments for one of the articles earlier this year).
    Oh, and you can’t do a straight replacement of Tupou with Sio. Tupou’s a THP, Sio’s a LHP. The only way you can play Kepu and Tupou together is to play Kepu at LHP (which he did late last year, but otherwise hasn’t done for years). Kepu and Sio would have Kepu at THP. Sio and Tupou is a clear LHP/THP combination.

    • Cameron Rivett

      I agree with everything you’ve said. I was concerned about the prop swap thing, but since Kepu seems to play both sides of the scrum (although with varying success) I figured we could just swap them around if necessary.

    • Adrian

      I’d try and use the Brumbies front row as finishers or starters, but keep them together because of the combination they already have. I’d have Tuopo at THP and Kepu at LHP as the other props. Whether they start or finish would depend on the locks IMO. We need lots of go-forward in locks behind the Brumbies front row, but a bit less behind Tuopo and Kepu who provide go-forward themselves.

      These sort of things need THINKING ABOUT….IMO of course

      • Who?

        Hard to argue against those combinations. I like FF at 2, he finally found his feet in Salta, then Cheika dropped him…
        Who do you go with the bench hooker? I know you’re a Latu fan, but I dunno. Terrible discipline, poor lineout throwing. Rangi’s in his second strong season, BPA’s been good, Uelese’s going to come back eventually…
        It’ll be interesting to see how Slipper goes, too… He’s played very, very well this year. Another prop with great hands and good around the field. Isn’t it nice to have options?! :-)

        • Adrian

          Yes, I like Rangi.
          We’ll see with Latu, I think he’ll come good. He has skills that none of them have, but let’s see.
          I also like BPA..
          I think we have good hooker and prop stocks…Slipper as you say, both Qld Smith’s, big fat (formerly) Qld guy, HJH at Tahs and the injured Shambeckler Vui at Tahs

  • Footyyy

    Imagine Genia-Cooper-Meakes behind a Wallaby forward pack giving them front-foot ball off each phase. Yes please.

    • Cameron Rivett

      Brumbies forwards and Rebels backs seems like a fairly solid combination. Who even needs the states where rugby is actually played?

  • Twoilms

    Highlights the contribution Hooper brings that he so seldom gets recognized for.

    • Cameron Rivett

      Hooper is hard done by not because his talent isn’t recognised, but because he isn’t the best 7 in the country but makes the starting Wallabies team anyway. Possibly also because we associate him with giving losers speeches.

Analysis

Somehow still a Wallabies fan. Enjoys brainstorming ideas on how to fix Australian rugby. Waratahs/North Sydney/Country Eagles supporter. Ex-Kiwi with just a touch of love left for the Highlanders and Otago.

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