The Urgency Window Part 2: the Wallabies bench - Green and Gold Rugby
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The Urgency Window Part 2: the Wallabies bench

The Urgency Window Part 2: the Wallabies bench

In Part 1 of my Wallabies bench analysis I identified that the 50-70 minute period in the game is particularly crucial and that the Wallabies are not scoring enough points in this period.   The bench plays a significant role in determining the outcome of the match and it could be used a bit more strategically by the Wallabies.

The strategies for bench selection can be split into two groups; ‘cover’ and ‘closer’. Selecting a bench for ‘cover’ means that you select players to carry on your gameplan when the starters come off. You do this by either using players who can cover multiple positions (like Horne) or have players who are there to replace a specific player (like Horwill). Basically, it’s about replacing like for like.

There are also two ways to select ‘closers’. Either someone who can produce some magic, speed up the game and put it beyond doubt. Or someone who can lock down the game, defend their backside off and pressure the opposition out of the game.

Let’s take a look at the Aussie bench from Newlands and who they replaced:

Looking at the front row, I don’t think replacing Slipper, Fai’inga and Kepu with Robinson, Hanson and Alexander is going to speed the game up. They are very competent players with their own strengths, but they definitely seem more likely to be players who batten down the hatches and defend a lead.

I think McKenzie got caught out with Simmons’ injury. Simmons is a lineout guy with a bit more mobility around the park and Horwill scrummages, tackles and runs tight as his primary focus. Horwill was probably supposed to come on for Carter. That would have made more sense.

Higginbotham has received some good press this year about his impact off the bench. And when he replaces Palu, he creates more options in attack. This time, he replaced McCalman, who had already been a lineout target and had shouldered a lot of the running and tackling load.

In the backs, Beale and Horne come as a package. One assumes to cover Beale’s perceived defensive issues. Beale is certainly brought on to bring some magic late in the game. It didn’t happen, but the intent was there. Horne is just the consummate cover man. He can slot in anywhere and you don’t have to change the gameplan appreciably.

Link is on record as believing in starters and finishers. By these definitions, his bench has a few players to secure the game, but only two appear to be there to speed it up. Not to mention that one of them seems to be a bit hit and miss.

There is no question the Springbok bench could lift the tempo and intensity. And that’s what they did. The All-Blacks’ bench in the last victory over the Wallabies was the same. Every member of that bench could bring something to increase that intensity.

Ultimately, if you’re not replacing players with a like-for-like skillset, you need to alter the gameplan somewhat. And, if you’re not bringing in players to up the ante, you aren’t usually going to be able to put points on the board.
Of course, Ewen is a bit stuck. There are a few injury crises and we’ve lost a lot of talent recently overseas. There is some promising stock in the NRC, but blooding them en masse is likely to do more harm than good.

If only there was a way to manage this better…..

Strategic Bench Usage

Remember I said that the previous 14 tests saw us scoring less total points, but turning the pace up in that 50 minute period? That seems odd. Especially since we had substantially the same players. Aside from the obvious issues with some of those players being unavailable, there are two noticeable differences in the way the reserves were chosen and used.

For starters, you were much more likely to see Slipper coming on for Robinson, rather than the other way round. I think he was chosen for his ability to cover both loose and tight head. Nonetheless, when he came on, the front row work rate increased.

Likewise, Moore’s backup was either Fai’inga or Polota-Nau. Tatafu can clearly increase a game’s intensity in the dying stages and Fai’inga sure can get speed up the pace. Having the likes of Vickerman and Samo didn’t hurt, either.

However, of even more importance is that of the replacement strategy. Link seems to bring on several of his replacements at around the same time each match. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. But it’s not what happened when we scored more points in the window between 50 and 70 minutes.

Except where forced by injury, there were no bulk changes. One at a time only. There were also no wholesale changes until after the other team’s scoreboard had stopped ticking over or the game was well and truly in hand.

For example, if we have a look at 2011 when we beat the Boks in Durban, South Africa had made a bulk change at 50. It wasn’t until 59 minutes that Australia made two subs. By that time, South Africa had scored nothing aside from a long penalty goal in that half.

As far as the All Blacks are concerned, it seems that Hansen (and Henry) use exactly that bench strategy. You rarely see bulk changes unless there has been an extended period of no scoring by the opposition. However, there are plenty of bulk changes made after 70 minutes, when the game is well in hand.

The Upshot

So, what’s the answer? I don’t know. I’m just an analysis geek who was suffering insomnia for a few nights.

This isn’t a sleight on McKenzie. I preferred him to Deans at the time of his hiring and still think he’s the right man. There are also many variables which he and his staff are unable to control. Player availability is one which is wreaking havoc, it would seem.

What I do hope is that we can see a return to being able to up the ante in the middle of the second half, rather than running out of steam and letting teams back into the game.

What’s more, I hope that happens before the World Cup.

  • Kate Elizabeth

    I think (and this is from a fan perspective, and a gut/memory place) that the Reds had trouble tightening the screws when Ewen was there too. I am a fan of the Reds and of Ewen, but I do recall getting frustrated that we would allow a few ‘easy’ tries in towards the end. I get that everyone is blowing hard, but I like putting teams to the sword. Every time. They get to know that and their decisions alter slightly throughout the game because they know they can’t haul it back/sneak a win. Which you can use to drive the screws in.

    • Jenkss

      I don’t really remember that being the case myself. But maybe I’m looking back with happy thoughts and have blocked out some negatives.

  • Bobas

    We could start with our bench props and bring slipper and kepu on at the 30min mark. Even if there’s an injury to a front rower you get the subbed player back.

    • Chris M

      That is a reasonable idea, but it is also a bit disingenuous. Plus, I seem to recall we got caught out with that one time previously and had to finish a game with 14.

      • Bobas

        I remember that, the IRB admitted the error on that one though.
        http://www.sareferees.com/News/now-the-irb-says-it-was-wrong/2829713/
        & video of the incident:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7SkhOvOIk0w

        • Bobas

          Sorry, this is off the post topic, but while I’m on the topic of referee errors. I cant for the life of me work out this one.
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCT7bHfO8f8
          I get the initial free kick for not feeding straight. If there not back the 10 off that (which it looks like they are), why isn’t it communicated or even that there’s an advantage? and why is it another free kick if it is indeed offside?

        • Chris M

          I think the clue is in what the ref says when he gives the second short arm. “Not back 15….. I mean 10, sorry”.

          I think he was as caught out by the pace as the Wallabies were. Sometimes it can be that simple.

        • Bobas

          but why is offside a short arm? and why doesn’t he play advantage or say he’s playing advantage?

        • B

          Offsides from short arm offences are penalised with a shirt arm 10 metres down field from where the original offence took place if memory serves correct.
          The ref just never gives an indication of the advantage.

        • Chris M

          Almost. It’s 10m from the original offence, but is a penalty. Not a free kick. And it can’t be taken quickly. I’m pretty sure the ref just ballsed up in both cases.

        • B

          Easy. Yea weird passage of play from him.

        • Rob McKay

          If I may put on my refereeing hat, I can answer this for you:

          1. Law 21.8. Crudely summarised, an infringement at a free kick (such as not back the 10 metres [let alone 15m!]) begets another free kick.

          2. I suspect Glen didn’t manage (i.e. talk) or have his arm out, because he either didn’t see it, or didn’t think there was an infringement, which further leads me to conclude he has made the call based on a word from his AR. Given the footage, probably the AR on the open side (nearest camera), as the AR on the blind doesn’t appear to use his
          comms. In such a situation, the referee isn’t going to debate it – he’ll either ignore it, or blow straight away, the latter of which he did here.

          3. Positioning of the subsequent free kick, quoting Law 21.8: “Any infringement by the opposing team results in a second free kick, awarded 10 metres in front of the mark for the first kick.”. This was a bit loose, as according to the ground markings, he looked at least five metres closer to the blindside touchline, which given the subsequent try,
          in a match decided by less than a conversion, could be somewhat important….

        • Chris M

          You are correct. I certainly had the wrong end of the stick.

        • Bobas

          Coming from a logical perspective I would have thought, (assumed wrongly it seems), not back 10 means you’re offside, meaning penalty advantage, no advantage means blow the penalty.
          I guess it comes down to weather they’re actually back 10. Which based on where he taps it I would say it would be hard not to be.

          I think the wallabies get caught out a bit on the 2nd free kick as they rightly assume Fardy’s turn over is good and the whistle is relieving them of their defensive duties, having not heard a thing about free kick advantage that I would have thought would go away after clean ball off the back of a ruck…

        • Rob McKay

          Looking at it again, if anyone wasn’t back 10, it was Folau, which would probably explain why Glen said what he said, as the call in his ear would have been something like “15 gold not back ten” and he’s simply muddled up his numbers during his explanation.

          The second free kick did lead to a loss of structure but relaxing because you think it might be a free kick to you is just not on – “play the whistle” is an adage that applies at all levels, and I don’t fancy that if any of the players used that excuse with Link that they’d be anywhere near the match 23 next time around.

  • RedAnt

    Thanks for the analysis, really good stuff. It’s almost ironic that one of the main criticisms levelled at Deans was his use (or lack thereof) of the bench, while Link has been praised for bringing bench players on sooner. Maybe the Wallaby’s apparent lull in the 50- to 70-minute period isn’t related to the bench?

    • Chris M

      The bench is definitely a factor. How big a factor is open to interpretation.

      • RedAnt

        Yes, you’re right, I was being a bit sarcastic (lowest form of wit and all that). But I also agree with Kate below, maybe it’s partly down to a general lack of ruthlessness / concentration / intensity throughout the whole team.

        • Chris M

          Sorry, I don’t have a very good sarcasm or wind up filter.

  • Tony H

    Methinks, the author has unearthed a salient chink in the Wally Bees’ armour, the 50-70 Achilles Heel, if you will. Now, the 64,000 dollar question is: How can the Heel be healed!

    • Will

      Start with the bench!! Sub the rest of the entire team on at the 30min mark!! ;-)

  • Patrick

    I’m certainly not a fan of the wholesale bench changes. I do think that helps kill our momentum.

    I would like to see one every five minutes from say 55 minutes even.

    • Jenkss

      It could kill it yes, if the players aren’t fired up and ready to go.

      OR

      It could bring about a good change of momentum and inject some pace and fresh legs into the game. That assumes the guys coming on are up to the standard and not just coming in expecting to stroll their way through the game.

    • usacenter

      More and more I think allowing overseas players to represent the wallabies is the way forward. It allows guys to get money overseas and still be utilized. Look at what it’s done for the Boks, their bench is full of experience and skill and gets the job done. Imagine If we had Giteau, Palmer, Douglas, Mowen, Smith, Mitchell at our disposal.

      • RugbyStu

        Palmer’s retired but agreed.

  • strewthcobber

    Let’s not overcomplicate things too much, our bench just isn’t as good as our opponents a lot of the time. Look who South Africa could bring on when it counted
    Du Pleisse, Nyakane, van der Merwe, Botha, Burger, Lambie, Pieterson.

    Our bench has nowhere near the experience or dynamism as that lot. And it’s the same for the All Blacks.

  • trent

    Interesting read again Chris.

    Can I ask your thoughts on Link’s lack of use or no use of a player of Hodgson’s form off the bench this Wallaby season to date? He was the only man left on the bench this week. And I think that many would support the observation that in the last 2 games Hooper has been dead on his legs and against SA went missing from the action and against Argentina he started making lazy high tackles and then the yellow card brain snap.

    Chris, what are your thoughts about why Link wouldn’t use Hodgson to inject some on ball pressure and fresh legs?

    Hodgson was the highest try scoring forward this year in Australian Super teams as well as the highest tackler and pilferer. He plays a very different game to Hooper. But he brings strengths that I would think would be a huge asset in the championship minutes. Thoughts?

    • Chris M

      I don’t know McKenzie’s reasons because I don’t know the man or what he’s thinking. But there is one pretty obvious explanation.

      If you look at the squad he had in Argentina, Hodgson was the last available forward from the original group and Leali’ifano was the last available back. He pretty much had to choose between them for the last bench spot. As we know, he ultimately went with a 6-2 bench with Hodgson.

      Being as that is the case, it’s reasonable to assume that his plan was to only use Hodgson in the case of a late injury in the back row – perhaps the second row with a shuffle. That obviously didn’t happen.

      • Perth Girl

        Is there a law that says a captain can’t be subbed? Hooper needed to be subbed in the game and Hodgson was on the bench and not used. A poor decision

        • Chris M

          No, there’s not. As to whether that’s a poor decision, I’m afraid I don’t feel I (or anyone else here, really) has the detail at their disposal that Link has. So, I’m not going to be critical.

  • subfreq

    Damn you letting your facts and analysis get in the way of all the which hunting…

    Amazing how on such small things found in analysis the margins for winning and losing can be found.

  • Anor

    someone get Link’s e-mail and send this to him

  • TouchFinderGeneral

    Excellent stuff Chris! The reason this site is in another space-time-continuum to others I could mention is the emphasis a lot of the contributors put on reason and evidence.

    It occurs to me is that one reason we have struggled in the back end of games recently is that we lack the power to stress the opposition sufficiently in the preceding 50 minutes. Kepu, Slipper, & Hooper have been our only reliable ball carriers in the forwards, and our only credible crash ball options in the backs are TK & Folau. On the flip side collectively we don’t regularly dominate a tackle either. So, when our benchies do arrive the playing field ain’t level, so to speak.

    Of course a sufficiently scary bench could compensate.

    • Chris M

      I kind of disagree. This analysis shows we score a lot of points in the first 50 minutes of a game. Far more than the Boks or the Blacks when you control for opposition. We seem to just give them an opening at some point which may or may not increase the opposition’s confidence.

      If what you’re saying is that more physicality in the first half might kill off their enthusiasm, you may well be right. But we’re still giving them a sniff later.

      • TouchFinderGeneral

        I guess I’m wondering whether we could be taking more out of the opposition in the first 50. I guess some tackle stats might show something – not just the count but some measure of dominance. Even when we keep the ball for multiple phases I can’t recall much in the way of defenders being towed along the way Retallick & Etzebeth do, for example.

        • Chris M

          As much as that would be great, I’m sure ESPN’s unpaid interns (or whoever does the stats) would be less than happy and less than qualified to do it.

Analysis

Mrs Mac thinks Chris talks about Rugby far too much. She's probably right. If he's not coaching, he's watching. And if he's not doing either, he's jibbering incessantly about it. He has also been named as a finalist in the Asteron Life Community Coach of the Year for 2015. Mrs Mac remains unimpressed.

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