There was a hell of a lot wrong with the Wallaby play in Wellington, but in the footage below, I want to focus in on one key aspect – the breakdown. Please note that my objective here isn’t to bemoan another interesting refereeing performance by Craig Joubert. Rather, it’s to do what I’d sincerely hope the Wallabies are doing – learning and adapting. Unfortunately, in the past few years there’s been precious little evidence of that happening.
What mystifies me is that as the ex-coach of Richie McCaw and the Crusaders, Dingo Deans hasn’t managed to pass on the secrets of contesting the breakdown. So here are a couple of basic ones.
1 – Get over the ball.
Not “on the ball” but over the ball, as on over a line – in other words past the ball. Here’s a direct quote from Adam Thomson, one of the chief architects of the Wallabies’ demise in Wellington:
“We got a lot of go-forward and we talked about winning that metre. This means making the tackle, getting up on your feet and getting over the ball. Most of the time we were doing that and getting the turnovers.”
The reason why this simple tactic is so important is that it effectively seals off the ball from the opposition, giving ace scavangers like McCaw and Hore the time and space to pillage the ball. Pocock and Horwill consistently were on the ball throughout the match, but without other Wallabies getting ahead of it, they were sitting ducks to the next AB clearout.
In the video I’ve also drawn attention to Nonu’s charge into Chisholm (1:34), offside and off the ball. While it looks fairly innocuous – which is why he got away with it – it delays Chisholm from rescuing O’Connor for that second that yields the turnover. In effect, Nonu has again got over or past the ball.
The only Australian I saw do it effectively was the monstrous Berrick Barnes, and it resulted in a turnover to the Wallabies (5:27). The AB back-row worked together and hunted as a team. Thomson and Read using their strength and speed in balance to aid McCaw. Pocock was a lone ranger that Smith didn’t have the bulk to protect, and Elsom didn’t have the speed or will to. This is not a balanced or functioning back row. We’ve just re-learned the painful “Smith at 8” lesson.
2 – Hit hard, and with numbers
Surely it’s simple: you can’t win if you don’t compete. Within seconds it was obvious that the All Blacks were out to win the battle of the collision area, and the Wallabies rolled over. Both in and effort and numbers, the breakdown was conceded time and again.
At 1:04 on the video, the ball is left almost unattended as Woodcock struggles with Adam Ashely Cooper on the ground. Turner, but more importantly Chisholm and Robinson, look on and wait, more concerned with marking up in defence then getting hold of the ball.
You might just say that they were picking their battles, but an unforgiveable example happens at 2:24. Benn Robinson makes a fantastic dominant tackle on Nonu, driving him backwards. Surely this is the time to force a turnover? Instead only two other Wallaby forwards can get engaged, while five All Blacks manage to circle back and dominate yet again.
Around the 70 minute mark, at a crucial time in the game, it becomes surreal, with Giteau, O’Connor and Barnes more heavily involved in clearing rucks on New Zealand’s try line than the 5+ members of the pack standing in mid-field. With that opportunity squandered through two farcical line-outs, the All Blacks are simply given 11 phases to make their way down field into Wallaby territory without any real counter-charge being mounted.
It is here that the capitulation is complete, the two ensuing tries to New Zealand are the icing.
The conundrum in all of this is that surely it can’t be a surprise that the breakdown is a crucial contest, so why were the Wallabies sucker-punched yet again? Deans once more has made noises about players thinking ahead to the next task before completing the one at hand, but surely you can coach and practice these priorities?
It isn’t rocket science, why aren’t the Wallabies doing it?