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.
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.