Last year I gave you the History of the Wallaby Backline video series. That project actually started out as an exercise to try and compare the structures of Wallaby backlines over time but that idea got overwhelmed by editing more than 100 hours of footage to a workable viewing length.
Now I’ve found the time to return to the original idea. Comparing the great Wallaby backlines of the past to that of today is obviously difficult. There are so many differences in how the game is played, with the biggest changes coming with the advent of professional rugby in 1996.
The first impact of professional rugby was an increase in the skill level as players had more time to devote to the basics of the game and coaches had more time with the players. That increase in skills in areas such as passing allowed wider, more expansive backline plays to be considered.
The second impact was the vast improvement in defence, largely influenced by the hiring of rugby league defence coaches who brought with them new ideas on structures and improvements in technique. Again this was only possible as the coaches and players had more time to work on skills. With backlines facing much better defences, new ways of breaking through the defensive line had to be developed.
I’m all for keeping things simple and often the simplest attacking play, executed really well, is just as effective as a complicated play. However, as special as it was to watch the likes of Mark Ella running amuck using a simple loop play in the 1980’s, would those types of play work as well today against modern defences? Maybe they would and certainly many of today’s best attacking plays are just extensions of what used to work so well in that era but there’s the dilemma – how can we ever really compare one era to another?
The other issue which makes it difficult to compare eras are changes to the laws of the game.
The first to consider is the current law regarding how far back players have to stand at scrum time. Today both the defence and attack have to be back 5 metres from the last feet of the scrum, which opens up some room in which to attack, whereas that restriction wasn’t in place in earlier eras which allowed the defence to start at the last feet of their scrum, significantly reducing the space and time available for the attack.
The second is lifting in the lineout which provides the opportunity to secure clean ball for the halfback and give the backline more room to operate in. When lifting wasn’t allowed the delivery to the halfback was often scrappy and while the halfback was scrambling around for the ball, the defence was moving forward further reducing the time and space available to attack in.
Following is a short video that shows some clips from three periods in Australian rugby based on who the flyhalf was so we can compare the typical way the backlines attacked. The first is the Mark Ella / Michael Lynagh era. The second is the Stephen Larkham era and finally Quade Cooper in 2010 even though it’s a little too early to be calling Quade’s involvement an “era”.
Watching those clips it’s noticeable how much further Larkham and Cooper stand away from the halfback in comparison to Ella and Lynagh. The improved passing skills of halfbacks since the inception of professional rugby would have had some impact on this as will the fact that in the Ella / Lynagh era leather balls were in use, which were much harder to pass and catch. When Wally Lewis (who was an Australian schoolboy rugby player) used to throw his long spiral passes with the leather ball we were amazed, whereas today those long looping passes look positively slow.
The increased width the flyhalf has today opens up a range of possibilities for backline attack that don’t exist without that width.
The width factor doesn’t just apply to the flyhalf with the centres and the open side winger in the Ella / Lynagh era also starting in a very compressed line so that the passes are short and quick. Whilst I’ve only included a small number of clips, my recollection from the Ella / Lynagh era is that with a compressed attacking line the defence compressed as well and the majority of the attack was designed to take advantage of the space that was then available outside the #13 channel. Once David Campese came into the team that would have been even more relevant as he was a player you wanted to get the ball to in wide one on one situations as much as possible.
It’s noticeable that there were far fewer spiral passes than there were with the Larkham and Cooper backlines. Again the type of ball being used would have played a part in that.
By contrast to the earlier eras the backline players with Larkham and Cooper at flyhalf start attacking phases positioned much wider, partly because they both have such good long passes that can move the ball wide quickly. The wider structures today mean that the defence also spreads. As a result there is usually less space outside the #13 channel. The other feature of modern defences is that a lot of teams use drift defence patterns to force attackers towards the sideline and effectively take away their space to operate in. Accordingly whilst a lot of backline attacks today start with a wide structure a common feature is the use of runners in motion running different angles with the aim of stopping defenders drifting and opening up space in between defenders. There are of course plenty of exceptions to that structure but I would say that in general today’s attack structures are much wider than in the Ella / Lynagh era.
Another point from those clips is that Ella and Lynagh’s first reaction most of the time was to catch and pass immediately, then loop in behind in support. Ella once said that “If I touch the ball once anything can happen; if I touch the ball twice my team will probably score and if I touch the ball three times I’ll probably score”. Regardless of backline structures used today those words are still extremely relevant and any young inside backs should take note and work hard on that aspect of their game. There also seemed to be a lot of plays that involved a loop to receive the ball back which worked brilliantly on many occasions. It’s pleasing to see loops being used a little more in modern back play.
You’ll also notice how flat the backline was compared to modern day backlines. The narrow, flat structure with quick short passing was associated by most people with Randwick. In the 15 year period from 1978 to 1992 Randwick won 11 Sydney club premierships. They were coached by Bob Dwyer to six premierships and produced backline players such as the Ella brothers and David Campese. They were clearly the dominant club side in Australia at the time so it was natural that their style of play would have a major influence on how the Wallabies played.
Of course many of the same principles in backline attack that applied in the Ella / Lynagh era still apply today and are still used but the structures in the game have changed.
It will be interesting to see how the current young Wallaby backline continues to develop and whether Quade Cooper ends up having his own era (provided of course he stays in rugby).