Ashley-Cooper logged 82-minutes in his Super Rugby return for the Waratahs and, despite being beaten once on the outside by a younger Jordie Barrett, showed why he is a world-class player who looks like he will pick up from where he left four years ago.
Form is temporary, class is permanent
It cannot be understated what the experience of Ashley-Cooper can bring to the Waratahs. Intelligence, organisational skills, decision-making, well-timed line running – all honed from a long international rugby career brings back a reliable lynchpin to the Waratahs back line.
Dropping back in at centre, said to be one of the hardest positions to defend, Ashley-Cooper showed his ability to play the position well, despite not possessing the same athletic ability as, say, ten years ago.
Statistically, his game doesn’t seem impressive – he missed three tackles while inside centre Karmichael Hunt missed four, and he finished with nine metres on nine carries, but there a number of things Ashley-Cooper did that won’t show in stats.
With a wealth of experience, his understanding of attacking patterns and what the opposition is trying to do is so advanced he’s able to make up for a lack of youthful athleticism with good decision-making and off-the-ball work.
The Hurricanes, with strong ball carriers in Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso, use a lot of patterns with midfield carries off set-piece to create initial gain line/momentum and then work the same way, battering away and reducing the numbers to create space.
After two or three phases from the set-piece, the Waratahs are under pressure to fold, but Adam Ashley-Cooper is caught up ensuring that the latest runner is down.
The Waratahs are in desperate need of open side defenders, so they ideally want Ashley-Cooper to reset. Being the closest man to Alex Newsome (14), he can get there fastest.
Ashley-Cooper ensures the runner is finally down but never loses his footing, staying up and is able to bounce out and reset the line.
Hurricanes fullback Jordie Barrett decides to try to clean him out to ensure this can’t happen, but whiffs on the cleanout and ends up on the ground himself.
This little moment is big, as one of the Hurricanes ball-players is taken out from the next phase, and with Ashley-Cooper staying alive, there is really no advantage to the left-hand side anymore where the dangerous Ben Lam is left all alone.
Ashley-Cooper shows he is consistently able to stay alive and not get taken out of play on defence, and is smart when deciding when to initiate contact off the ball to take away options for the attack.
Here he only has eyes for Vince Aso (13) and decides to initiate contact, ‘checking’ the runner and stopping his momentum.
The ball carrier, Laumape, is stopped in a two-man tackle, and Hunt does a good job of wrapping the ball so no offload can be made.
However, Ashley-Cooper’s work ensures that no lane is available outside him either.
Ashley-Cooper checks and forces Aso back inside, while being able to reset himself as a defender on the next phase.
Again, on another Laumape carry, Ashley-Cooper is caught out a little bit looking at Fletcher Smith out the back, but still recovers to disrupt Aso’s line and prevent the offload being an option.
This time, though, Laumape bursts through and has the arm free, but Ashley-Cooper has a hold of Aso’s left arm and is all over him, buying time for halfback Jake Gordon to get across and take Laumape down.
To finish the job off, Ashley-Cooper has all the outside leverage and uses this again to channel Aso inside, right into traffic and into the forming ruck.
Aso trips over and seals off Laumape on the ground, while Ashley-Cooper stays alive and is able to reset the defence on the far side. Again, he is left standing while an attacking player has been put on the ground.
With Aso lying over the ball-carrier in a vulnerable position, Michael Hooper has an opportunity to contest and already has a head start on Savea, but he is too committed to folding and misses the opportunity.
Ashley-Cooper is a wise fox that has seen just about everything in the game, and it’s the cumulative effect of winning all these moments that helped disrupt, and ultimately stifle, the Hurricanes attack.
Aso was held to one carry for 16 metres and Laumape just 20 metres on eight carries, with zero line breaks between them, leaving them completely shut down. The two centres power much of the Hurricanes scoring, so neutralising them was a big part in controlling the majority of this match.
In contact, Ashley-Cooper showed more than enough bite to prove Super Rugby is not beyond him, and combined with his knowledge of the game, made some great reads.
The Hurricanes have been running this ‘split’ play variation out of a three-man pod for the better part of two years.
The back sitting in the boot, this time Jordie Barrett (15), splits the second and third forwards on a delayed line and is played a pop pass from the middle. The forwards need to commit the defenders and open up the hole.
Ashley-Cooper and Hooper play non-committal defence, waiting for the play to unfold before swallowing up Barrett in a dominant two-man tackle.
On the second time the Hurricanes run the play, the Waratahs are in a much more compromised position with more space between the defenders.
The Waratahs’ centres push up initially but hold their ground faced with four players in the short space.
Hurricanes’ prop Chris Eves (middle runner) draws Hunt into contact and is forced to pass, but Ashley-Cooper plays off a little bit longer and is able to identify the ball-carrier before closing in to make the tackle.
Ashley-Cooper makes contact shortly after the pass, hitting Laumape across the chest and forcing the ball free for a knock-on.
Having Ashley-Cooper at outside centre is a great foil for Hunt, who often commits into contact unnecessarily or shoots up out of the line to provide pressure. The calm composed presence of Ashley-Cooper will bring stability outside Hunt in the Waratahs’ backline.
The Hurricanes had an opportunity to exploit this early in the match, but a bad pass from Fletcher Smith (10) allows the Waratahs to recover.
The ball is well past Hunt, into the hands of Smith (10), but he continues into contact with Laumape (circled), taking himself out of play. Ashley-Cooper begins to play jockey coverage and buy time, but the Hurricanes aren’t able to execute.
Smith’s early pass out the back to Barrett takes Aso out of contention, allowing Rona (11) and Ashley-Cooper to push outward and remove the overlap.
Rona is able to pressure Barrett and force him back inside, where a trailing Ashley-Cooper is pushing up in support to make this a negative play for the Hurricanes.
With Hunt out of play, Smith needed to straighten up, hold and commit Ashley-Cooper and Rona, preserving the space for Barrett.
With no inside pressure, he has all day to take the ball at Ashley-Cooper. Making a late decision on the pullback pass would potentially force Rona to commit to Aso, freeing up Barrett on the outside with a two-on-one against Folau.
The biggest risk facing the Waratahs with Ashley-Cooper is speed mismatches to the outside. In this match, he was beaten by Jordie Barrett on the outside on one occasion and missed a cover tackle on Ben Lam on the sideline.
On both occasions, however, he wasn’t out-and-out gassed, just slipped off the tackle proving he was able to get there in the first place and make some initial contact. With the speed and power that Barrett and Lam possess, this is a promising sign that shows it won’t be gas alone that leaves Ashley-Cooper clutching on the rare occasion, and perhaps concerns about his athleticism are overblown.
Unfortunately for the Waratahs, Adam Ashley-Cooper may miss the next game due to a head knock, but given that it will be the Sunwolves, it won’t be too much of a concern.
The time off may help manage Ashley-Cooper’s body over the increased rigours of Super Rugby, but any suggestion that he can’t handle it when on the field is hyperbole.
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