In the first four games of the season the Wallabies have used a relatively young back line with some new combinations. There’s been plenty of discussion elsewhere about how the individual players have been performing and what the makeup of the back line should be.
What I want to focus on is how the back line has been combining and more importantly, what directions they’ve been receiving from the coaches. In this video we look at a sample of the plays the Wallabies have been using – some with success and some not.
With modern defences being so good, teams have to use use more than inside switches, quick hands across the back line and simple run arounds to ask questions of the defence. A good back line will have a number of starter plays to use from set pieces and another set of plays for subsequent phases. They’ll practice these over and over again in training until they become second nature and every player knows their role exactly so when the play-maker calls the move, it can be implemented quickly.
One of the reasons for having these moves is to take advantage of a hole or an opportunity in the defensive line. This is why it’s important for players to “play what’s in front of them”. If there’s a hole in the defensive line, simply passing the ball to the player nearest the hole may not work because defences will adjust to plug that hole but running a move with a decoy runner to hold defenders out of that hole may preserve the space and lead to a line break. It’s also important to “play what’s in front of you” by identifying mismatches in the defensive line, so that for example if a slower prop gets caught in the back line you take full advantage of the opportunity that creates. Again simply passing the ball to the player the prop’s marking may not be enough to take advantage of the opportunity so a move can be used to deceive the defence into thinking the play is being targeted at another section of the line by using decoy runners, meaning that defenders don’t focus on supporting the prop and the player who actually gets the ball gets into a one on one situation with a much slower, less agile defender.
The other reason moves are such a big part of back line play is that quite often the defensive line is intact with no major mismatches, partcularly from a srum or lineout where the defence has had time to get set. In those cases, “playing what’s in front of you” would be negative because there’s a solid wall in front of you, so you use one of your arsenal of plays to “move what’s in front of you”.
A well designed move that’s been practiced and is executed well can unlock even the best defence. If a particular move doesn’t work, you try another option. Once you’ve used a move you may choose to not run it again so the opposition can’t get a read on what you’ve done or you run a variation of that move to fool the defenders into thinking they know where the ball’s going. You may also run a double bluff on the basis that the defence will think you wouldn’t use the same move twice in a row, which you go ahead and do!
Regardless of your strategy, back lines need to keep asking questions of the defence using their moves, particularly from set pieces. It may be too complicated to run moves regularly from subsequent phases.
So, has the Wallaby back line been asking questions of the defence in the first four games of the season? The answer is – absolutely not! Of the 86 times the Wallaby back line has been in position to run the ball without forwards being in the line, they’ve used a one out crash ball runner 10% of the time, the first receiver has run the ball 20% of the time, they’ve used a short runner (normally one of the wingers) off Quade Cooper’s hip 24% of the time and have shifted the ball wide through the hands 46% of the time.
Only once in those 86 possessions have the Wallabies used a move – for the first try against England in Sydney. This relatively young back line with individuals like Quade Cooper, Matt Giteau and James O’Connor in it (who can all create something from nothing) has been playing extremely conservatively.
What has created this conservatism?
Is it that the back line has been getting poor ball from the set pieces? That has been an issue from some of the scrums against the English but lineout ball has been quite good. I haven’t seen an instance where the Wallaby back line had something planned and had to cancel it because of poor set piece ball.
Is it that the quality of the halfback’s passes have been so poor that they’ve decided they can’t rely on quality ball so should just wait and see what the pass looks like and then decide what to do. This may be part of the issue but whilst there have been too many poor passes from Luke Burgess and Will Genia, there haven’t been that many that this should have changed the way the back line plays.
Is it that players are still getting used to Quade Cooper? Again, that may be part of the problem but in their one attempt at a move this year the Wallabies got it exactly right, opened a gaping hole in the English defence and scored a good try. The players didn’t seem to have any issues working out where Quade would be and where he’d throw the pass.
Is it that Matt Giteau is playing so poorly that he’s interrupting the flow of the back line? That may also be part of the problem – I certainly don’t think the Cooper / Giteau combination is working at the moment. Whether that’s Cooper’s or Giteau’s problem, it is an issue that needs to be resolved. Certainly the Cooper / Barnes combination looked better in the game against England in Perth so that would suggest Giteau is the one that needs to adapt to Cooper, not the other way around.
Whilst I think all three of these issues are contributing factors, I don’t think any of these issues would lead to the players making a decision on the field to stop running moves. If they’d tried ten moves and nine went wrong, that may happen but the reality is they’ve tried one move in the second game of the season and nailed it perfectly!
As I’ve already noted elsewhere on the site, there were no moves practiced by the back line in the two training sessions I attended before the Ireland test. So the only explanation I can come up with is that they’ve been told by the coaches not to run moves. Who would give them those instructions? I can’t see Richard Graham taking that sort of decision without telling Robbie Deans so this must be a directive from the head coach.
So why would the coaches implement this policy? The only possible explanation I can think of is that they want to keep their moves away from the Springboks and All Blacks so they can spring a great surprise on them in the Tri Nations. No, scrap that idea – it would make absolutely no sense not to use the last four games to practice their moves ready to be used as a weapon in the Tri Nations. At the end of the day knowing a move is coming is one thing but with variations of the same move, you can never know for sure which runner is the decoy and which one will be the striker and the success of any move is more about how it’s executed than the design.
So I’ve got no answer for you! Help me out – why has the Wallaby back line not been asking questions of the opposition?