You win by scoring more points than the opposition. Defence wins matches and any other number of tropes. There are really only two overall objectives in the sport, score as many points as you can, stop the opposition scoring more than you.
It’s really that simple.
Whilst great attack will rack up points, winning gets a whole lot easier if you have a defence that does its job well. In this aspect the Waratahs vs Brumbies was an interesting game not least because the score, but also because defensively both teams returned similar stats:
Diving in deeper, if we look at the made missed numbers we see a bit more clarity.
The Brumbies missed 17 tackles from their 137 interactions whereas the Waratahs gave up 27 from 214 tackle interactions. A whole ten more than the Brumbies conceded over the course of 77 extra tackles during the game. That’s a significant workload that showed throughout the game. If you’re returning 214 tackles you want a solid defensive effort not to concede four tries.
So we’re going to look at it in a little more detail to see what’s happening and in particular I want to look at two specific defensive sets that interested me.
We’ll start with the opening 2 minutes and the Brumbies first two attacks and then we’re going to look at the Brumbies final try and how they broke the Waratahs open.
Getting Off the Line
I always find the opening defensive sets interesting, a huge part of Defence is rhythm.
If you watch the very best defensive teams they have a kind of fluid motion about them and good teams get into this almost from the off and are well into it by the end of the game. Nail that and defence is easy, well as easy as stopping a 117kg international prop can be.
It’s something that is talked about a lot when referencing attack, but South Africa, England, Wales and Saracens have an almost wave like motion about how they defend. They come forward fast (2 – 3 steps, get into the opposition half and then slow before picking their target and pushing into their space to meet them). Once the decision is made it’s committed to and it’s committed in a way that the whole team buys into.
It’s a trust thing, in principle it’s essentially I see someone making a decision and I trust they have made the right decision even if I haven’t seen it.
Even teams with a softer defence, New Zealand get into that space and then push out. If you operate in the opposition’s space you have more room to correct your defence in and recover.
So let’s look at the opening defensive push from the ‘Tahs.
Standard set up now, Horton defending the tail (out of shot) and the space between the lineout and the first defender . Short is defending in the 5m channel.
It’s just timing that gets them here and in a straight shoot out you’d be expecting the throwing team to get that the vast majority of the time and the ball is down and in Powells hands.
Ball goes from Powell to Simone who carries into Harris and Horton. We can see the Pass from Powell has brought Simone right onto the gainline.
But we can also see the Tah’s have got their tackle line up on the gain line but instead of advancing, in a secondary movement, into the Brumbies space they sit and wait.
This allows Simone to barrel through the challenge of Harrison and Horton and the gain line is crossed and the ‘Tahs line is bent.
via GIPHY Brumbies play on the same side and we can see those two carriers have created a potential 2vs1.
I think, personally, the Brumbies get things wrong at this point with Banks picking the least effective of his three options, Muirhead, over what I think is the better option of the take and give to Wright, who is in the open, likely to make some easy yards and turn the ‘Tahs line, with Muirhead and Banks able to support.
But in Three phases the Brumbies have manufactured a potential line break that they have failed to capitalise on.
It’s a tiny little detail in the scheme of things but let’s pause there for a moment and cast our minds back to the start and how this has come about. Here is where it all starts to get interesting, as the ball comes down watch how the Brumbies forwards focus changes from ball to disrupting the ‘Tahs forwards.
It’s nothing massive but it’s a detail worth noting. You see everyone getting a little shove on their opposite number and in the case of Alaalatoa wrestling Hooper to keep him out of the chase (there is a question here as to why you wouldn’t put Hooper as the tail gunner to chase the ball?).
Even though it doesn’t look like much it’s important because it allows the Brumbies to keep the defence narrow by hitting in the 10 channel knowing they only have to deal with Harrison and Horton (watch how they get the low high wrong and get bounced).
Kuridranis run on Simone’s shoulder brings Hunt through and then watch how Kuridrani pushes Hunt to the opposite side of the breakdown. If Hunt doesn’t engage there he reloads on this nearside making the impact of the under fold less of an issue. Instead both Hunt and Hooper are now out of the immediate picture.
Additionally the Brumbies forwards don’t have to fold around, immediately we can see the vast majority of them are reloading on the blind side, Whereas the ‘Tahs have to defend both sides of the ruck. What this means is that the unit that folded around for the Brumbies on the same flow is essentially a 3 man unit linking up with Lolesio and Muirhead.
The simple flow of the game is using up their resources and that being a half of the step of the Tempo gives the Brumbies an advantage all the way through. Just 3 men folding around has generated a misload in the Brumbies favour as the ‘Tahs can only get Simmonds and Swinton around the Ruck and that Ramm is getting isolated on this near Edge.
Brumbies soak up Swinton and Walton with another carry and Simmons now has to work double hard to get around the ruck, with Hooper having to work underneath as well.
The devil is again in the details with the Brumbies, they are eating up defenders and making the defence work much harder than the attack to reload and we find ourselves back with that near side overload.
Brumbies lose momentum and spill the ball and Waratahs move the ball to the opposite side and kick with it eventually going into touch.
Making the Most of the Oppositions Mistakes
Here the Tah’s make a big mistake when they should have been in a position to attack deep in the Brumbies half.
They’ve been lucky enough to get out of jail due to a Brumbies error and instead of killing the ball and the quick throw watch how all the ‘Tahs start to line up on the Touch Judge and no one tracks the ball.
Because there is no urgency the Brumbies have all this space to work in before they meet any resistance:
One pass has gotten them back into the Waratahs half and turns almost all of the Waratahs team.
There is no way that should be happening at this level. Pretty much every schoolboy is taught to stay alive for the quick throw in.
As the ball comes back the Brumbies start to create one on one opportunities with their interpassing with the pull back and tip on this should have been a two man hit but instead it’s 1vs1 and slipper can ride the ball and all tackle and keep driving those legs long after the contact.
In one phase the Brumbies have gone from their own 10m to just outside the opposition 22m and the Waratahs haven’t even fired a shot, are stuck in transition and unable to get an effective set and pressure back on the Brumbies.
The Brumbies are continually able to get through the Waratahs defence:
Here we can see a well set ruck defence, that’s opened up by Valetini:
No one should be getting through there, least of all an isolated ball carrier. From here on it’s easy for the Brumbies who finish this attack with a penalty and a kick to the corner. The next sequence finished with a 12 phase try for Cusack from a cross field kick under penalty advantage.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the ‘Tahs defence here. No structural issues, no lack of understanding they just continually get picked off by the Brumbies, making small errors that allow them to get a foothold, dominance in the contact area that stops the ‘Tahs from being able to slow momentum or challenge for the ball.
It takes all the rhythm out of the defence and whilst I really don’t like using the term soft when you’ve got 110kg guys smashing each other the defence here, is well, a bit soft.
Back to the Future
But, hold that thought and come back to the very first comment of the piece. Scoring more points than the opposition, or in the context of the ‘Tahs more points than your defence concedes. The ‘Tahs attack does the job, it creates and finishes good chances, but then you’ve got to defend leads and a lead is always easier to defend than to acquire (perhaps).
Let’s fast forward through to 75 minutes and the ‘Tahs have won the game, well almost, yet we get an all too familiar sequence of play.
Again it all starts with a lineout. Brumbies set up with Miller in at halfback, and you have to question if Fines and Hansen are 10 here. Waratahs this time leave Abel defending the 5m and Swinton is in at halfback. McDonald is defending back in the pocket.
Swinton and Harris (tail of the lineout) are quite important here as the ball comes down Swinton comes straight in and Harris also joins leaving Hooper to defend the void alone.
Does Swinton or Harris really need to go in there? Miller sweeps around, pulls in Hooper leaving that space completely undefended and Kuridrani takes the short ball having hovered in that position for what seems like an eternity and eats up the insanely easy yards.
Someone has to come and meet both Miller and Kuridrani. Miller is allowed to carry on in support of Kuridrani without a hand being laid on him, allowing him to make about 5-6m before Donaldson finally comes to meet him, with a soak tackle.
This is where the Waratah’s really needed someone to put in a dominant tackle.
A brief diversion for the discussion on dominant tackles – the perception is a dominant tackle is a front on drive them back hit. But in truth it’s anything where you significantly influence the runner’s momentum to your advantage.
Donaldson should have all the advantage here. He has the angle, the pace and he should be able to hit and drive across and through Kuridrani – he has to come and meet him and not allow himself to be walked backwards. If he does then Hooper can most likely attack the ball.
Donaldson instead sits and rides the contact and Clark does well to stop Kuridrani. It all looks impressive but the damage is already done and Brumbies are moving forward and Hooper’s chance to attack the ball is gone.
McCaffery carries and again the tackle is solid but on the advantage line and look at how he is able to ride and stretch and make an extra meter by simply moving onto the defenders shoulder and then extending post contact.
That coupled with the Tah’s standing off the breakdown means the ball is clean and quick when the recycle comes. McCaffery’s carry is on the final forward in the defensive line, everything on this near side is backs and the ‘Tahs forwards are having to chase around behind and up whilst the Brumbies come onto the ball.
Sio folds around to carry and even though Hooper and Abel have managed to get around he gets a shot at Abel
Notice all the Waratahs Forwards on the far side?
Also, please note how Hooper’s work rate here. It’s insanely hard, the guy isn’t getting a shot in but he’s constantly there, involved waiting for a chance which never comes because the Brumbies constantly work away from him keeping him out of the game. On the next re-cycle Valetini gets a run at Hunt, Walton and Ramm barreling straight through them for a few extra meters.
4 phases and the Brumbies have gone from the 22 to 10m line and dragged the ‘Tahs from one touchline to the other compressing the ‘Tahs backline into this near 15m channel.
They are racking up phases sure, buteEvery single carry has been through the contact, bending the defensive line and as we scan across we can see that it’s all Waratahs forwards defending this open side. 76 minutes and an exhausted pack has been dragged across the pitch and is now defending the width against the Brumbies backs. Additionally watch Hunt, get up and walk around and defend the short side instead of getting behind the line and working out to the width to defend there they are shattered.
Things slow down a bit here, as the Tah’s start to go up a gear in their own 5m and we see our first ineffective carry from the Brumbies. The problem is it has little impact on the Brumbies flow as the ball is free and presented nicely. Look how hard the ‘Tahs are working to show they aren’t killing the ball etc… that’s great but it also creates a quick ball for the Brumbies. Keep in mind this is inside the ‘Tahs red zone, with minutes on the clock and a converted try needed to win the game, game management has to come to the fore.
It’s a similar issue at the tackle Hooper and Harris get a good hit in. The current application of the laws stops Harris rolling through the 9’s line and instead he does the right thing and releases and gets back to his feet to try and disrupt.
I think the game is lost here for the ‘Tahs.
It’s a difficult one you don’t want to advocate cheating but to the same degree if you’re going to bring defensive intensity this is the place to do it if you’re going to give away a penalty to stop pressure now is the time to do it and if you’re going to kill the ball now is the time to do it.
Kill it, stop their attack’s momentum, eat the clock up and get a reset.
Yeah sure you’ll likely be a man down for 3 minutes but surely you’ll take that chance, they have to score a goal to win, they are likely to go for a lineout which hasn’t been firing perfectly (63%) and you defend that infield drive hard and make sure if they score they do so in the corner. A scrum will be a man down, again you take that chance, surely?
If we like it or not, gamesmanship is there and a good team understands when to use it to their advantage. Win that game and no one is remembering that penalty was given away. The next few breakdowns play out like this: Another carry and another single carrier eating up 3 Waratahs defenders with Simmons and Staniforth in close attendance then another two carries through the contact back to the near side. Stop the Tah’s folding infield and preserve space on the openside. Then as the final ruck comes we can see Fines scanning and seeing the space he wants to attack.
He picks and darts and despite having to negotiate traffic he knows where he is going the whole time:
It’s all too easy for the Brumbies and this ability we saw earlier for them to play through the ‘Tahs defensive line is the crux of how they score this try.
We can see throughout this and in the first clip that inability to get a good start to the defensive set and then that inability to slow the Brumbies so they can find their rhythm is hugely detrimental here. Watching the game you can’t help but feel the Waratah’s are a young side finding their feet, and the Brumbies are a far more settled prospect.
Well drilled and connected throughout the squad, McKellar, Fisher and Hewat have this team performing very well. Now the good news for Waratahs fans, Defence is far easier to fix than attack. The Waratahs seem to me to have a good team ethos, they seem to be a young team a little unwise to the rigours of Elite Rugby and will be able to get these defensive sets down relatively fast.
Gilmore will be confident he can get some more aggression into the defence and fast.
At the same time they won’t be hugely upset by this, yes of course losing a game sucks but we’re constantly seeing these young Waratahs grow week on week. Super
Rugby Aotearoa maybe further along than AU but on this trajectory I think we can expect some exceptional Rugby from the Waratahs further down the track.