The Wallabies’ attack struggled to put pressure on the All Blacks defence on Saturday and a lift in performance in this area will be required this weekend.
One area there’s been a lot of discussion regarding is the Wallabies slowing their ball down from their rucks. I see Bob Dwyer criticised Will Genia in his latest article for G&GR for his ‘insistence’ on slowing down the delivery. Whilst I agree with Bob’s theme that the Wallabies need to play an up-tempo game and use fast ball to keep stretching defences, I think his criticism of Genia is wide of the mark.
Genia delivered the ball from 62 rucks on Saturday. Of those I rated 54 as delivered quickly. Most quick rucks will see the ball delivered from the time it’s clear of the ruck and available within one second, but I’ve allowed a maximum of two seconds for a ruck to be rated as ‘quick’, up to four seconds for an ‘average’ rating, and anything over that is ‘slow’. Actually I didn’t rate any rucks on Saturday as ‘average’. I’ve listed the rucks in the table at the end of this article.
Of the eight rucks that I rated slow, Genia slowed only one. Berrick Barnes called six to be slowed (two jointly with David Pocock) and Kurtley Beale slowed the other. I’ve included clips of each of those rucks in the accompanying video so you can see for yourselves.
Why would any of these players call for a ruck to be slowed when the ball was available to play? Is this an option the players came up with on the field, or is this something they’ve been practising and is directed by the coaches?
The main reason you may need to slow a ruck down is if you have no attackers with support ready to play – there is simply no point in passing the ball to a one-out runner who risks being turned over at the next breakdown. Every team should aim to not have this situation occur, and that requires players to realign quickly. However, if the situation does occur in a game it’s then a valid option to slow delivery down until players get into position and the attack can be restarted.
The important thing is that with delivery slowed down to allow players time to get organised, those players should be well enough organised to allow the next series of rucks to be quick. There is no argument for going into a series of slow rucks (unless you’re trying to run the clock down at the end of a half).
In the case of the ruck Genia slowed down at 72:16 on the game clock, it was because Barnes, Beale and Pocock were all in the ruck. But he had Sitaleki Timani, Rob Horne, Nathan Sharpe and Digby Ioane on the left side of the field ready to attack space, and he should have released the ball to them straight away. Instead he waited for Stephen Moore and James Slipper to move to the other side of the ruck, and that extra time gave the All Blacks time to organise their defence and take the space away. So for that decision of Genia’s, I think criticism would be fair.
The first ruck Barnes slowed down at 4:23 on the game clock came from a five-man lineout win where Pocock was at halfback. As you can see in the clip the backline was set with Timani in midfield as the extra man. There was no reason for this ruck to be slowed down but you can see Barnes holding play until Sharpe and Tatafu Polota-Nau come around and set up a screen and Sekope Kepu moves out into the backline to support. When Genia arrived at the breakdown the All Blacks were quite narrow in defence and were still short of the gain line, but by the time Barnes moved the forwards into the position he wanted them the All Blacks had got their defence set. It was then no surprise when the All Black defence simply ran the Wallabies over the touch line, in one of the least imaginative pieces of attack by a Wallabies team for a long time.
In the second ruck Barnes slowed down, at 16:26 on the game clock, it looked like he was taking the time to set up for a clearing kick — but in the clip you can see Barnes isn’t looking to Genia for the ball, he’s got his head turned to Beale outside him because he was setting up for a long pass to Beale for him to kick or to try an audacious wide play. Whatever the intention was, it went horribly wrong when the pass from Barnes went well behind Beale.
The third ruck Barnes slowed down, at 24:00 on the clock, was slowed by both him and Pocock when the Wallabies were just metres out from the All Blacks’ line, but having committed large numbers to the ruck were short of attackers. In the clip you can see that Genia is on the ground from the previous ruck; Pocock is holding his hand up indicating for everyone to slow down until Genia gets there, and Barnes is pointing where he wants the forwards to move to. This delay allowed time for Adam Ashley-Cooper to get out of the ruck and Sharpe to join a pod of forward attackers to receive the ball. Prior to the delay there were no glaring attacking opportunities so I’d consider this to be a reasonable decision to allow a restart of the attack, particularly as the next ruck was a quick one that enabled Timani to lead a raid down the short side.
However, Barnes had no attacking options again so slowed his fourth ruck at 24:19 on the clock. In the clip you can see him pointing to where he wants the forwards to move to take the next play forward. This allowed time for four forwards to set up as a pod for the next ruck, but it also allowed the All Blacks to make sure their defence was set and the Wallabies were turned over at the breakdown (although the referee missed a clear penalty with Ma’a Nonu not rolling away and impeding the Wallabies’ support players from cleaning out efficiently).
The fifth ruck Barnes slowed down came at 37:41 on the game clock after another lineout and a driving maul. In the clip you can see him directing the forwards to set up a pod of three to take the ball forward. Again, the ruck was slow but at least allowed quick ball on the next phase, which started the sequence of plays that led to Sharpe’s try. So this slow ruck was not detrimental to the Wallabies’ attack.
The sixth ruck Barnes slowed down, at 63:52 on the game clock, was also slowed by Pocock. In the clip you can see both Barnes and Pocock directing forwards into position to set up a pod of four with Pocock himself carrying the ball, which sets up a quick ruck and Barnes uses that to run a wide play with Ioane. There was no glaring opportunity in attack that the Wallabies missed by slowing this ruck down.
The ruck Beale slowed down was at 77:46 on the game clock. In the clip you can see him directing players into position to set up a pod of three to take the ball forward which then generated a series of quick rucks targeting the left side of the field, designed to draw the All Blacks’ defence in before Beale tried a wide play on the right. That wide play was poor but the slow ruck that started the sequence wasn’t the cause of that problem.
So in seven of the eight slow rucks, it was Barnes or Beale in the playmaker role who directed the slowing down of the ruck. When that happens you wouldn’t expect the halfback to override that call and play on quickly anyway.
If criticism is deserved, Barnes would be the player that should be looked at — not Genia. However, I don’t think this is a tactic the players have come up with on the field. The same slow ruck tactic was used throughout the series against Wales and if the coaches weren’t happy with it, they’ve had a few weeks with the team in the lead-up to this game to eliminate it.
The fact that Pocock was joining Barnes in slowing things down tells me this is a deliberate tactic that the Wallabies have included in their game plan.
The other telling sign is that every time this slow ball is called the time is taken to set up a pod of three or four forwards to either take the ball forward on the next phase or to act as a screen with the ball being passed behind them. This is intentional and part of the game plan, not something, Barnes, Beale, Pocock or Genia are improvising on the run.
Is it a good tactic? I think it has a place, and only twice when it was used on Saturday was there any alternative opportunity lost by the Wallabies. Is using it on eight of 62 rucks too much? I don’t think so – the All Blacks use a similar slow ball pattern, as do most teams in modern rugby — but I don’t think it needs to be used very often.
If this tactic is going to be part of the Wallabies’ game plan, I’d like to see the forwards get into that pod or screen position much faster than they were managing on Saturday.
|Ruck Number||Time on Game Clock||Speed||Genia Passes To||Quality of Pass|
|54||01:16:26||Quick||Barnes||Poor – Pen to AUS|