Over the course of the Rugby Championship, the Wallabies attack began to improve after an average opening performance in South Africa.
Following the Springboks loss, the Wallabies promoted Christian Lealiifano to the starting flyhalf role, and for both Bledisloe tests used James O’Connor at centre to partner with Samu Kerevi.
On the back of these changes, the Wallabies’ set-piece attack started to click, looking much better with much tighter, more direct play. The choice of playmaker and midfield made a massive difference in the success of the same plays, most typified by this complex wrap play run against the Springboks and the All Blacks.
At Ellis Park, the Foley-White halves connection looked noticeably out of sync.
White’s passes struggled to lead Foley onto the ball, and Foley often remained stationary at the point of the pass release. This allowed the Springboks rush defence to fly up and disrupt play frequently.
On this occasion, White is ready to pass but Foley has not moved. This results in White’s passes arriving directly where Foley is standing instead of into the path of a moving flyhalf. Foley’s catch point (CP) is a little more than a metre ahead of his starting position. His release point (RP) is a little further ahead than that.
This is a complex wrap play with the 10 looping off the centre, so perhaps the depth and stationary ball to start with is warranted, but this occurred frequently on other plays as well.
Foley’s first inclination is always to catch from a stationary position and turn sideways before passing, facing the sideline rather than the try line. He rarely plays square and, therefore, is never a real running threat to the line.
As mentioned, this might work on a wrap play like this, but on other plays it immediately tips the defence off to focus on other runners.
The Wallabies run the loop play with 10 wrapping around 13 trying to overload the far side. The 12 is supposed to bounce out behind his centre as well as his fullback Tom Banks.
After getting the ball back from 13, the 10 has the option of 15 short or 12 out behind on a screen pass.
Foley’s static start means his outside runners don’t find the right timing either. Like halfback White, they also don’t look to have much cohesion with the flyhalf.
Tevita Kuridrani (13) is the pivot point of this whole play and hesitates into his line. He doesn’t run directly enough or hard enough to enable Foley to enact a loop, staying too wide and drifting slightly wider.
Like Foley, he waits for the ball to come at him as if he is going to stand and distribute, using short stutter steps to slow himself down, instead of on a hard angled line back towards the traffic, running at pace. He catches the ball reaching forward, instead of steaming onto it.
As we will see later with Leallifano at 10, Kuridrani is much more assured with his timing against Argentina. Given their connection playing with the Brumbies, this isn’t unexpected but its clear things aren’t clicking here.
As such, the loop takes way too long to develop and is way too wide with the oncoming out-to-in rush defence of the Springboks.
In order for Foley to get around Kuridrani he has to run backwards, as does Kerevi to get out behind fullback Tom Banks. Banks has no timing on his run, stuttering and jogging through his line also.
Three Wallaby backs are almost running in the same direction as the Springboks.
Makazole Mapimpi (11) collapses in and shuts down Foley’s passing lane, while Jesse Kriel (13) swims past the chip block of Kuridrani (13) to provide inside pressure.
There is no opening here yet Foley opts for a risky pass to Kerevi, hitting him on the back shoulder. A more experienced winger could tip this ball for an intercept, while the Wallabies only get to the outside based on the ability of Kerevi to break a tackle.
In the second half, Foley is intercepted by Jesse Kriel just outside his own 22, by pushing another pass that isn’t on. That easy attacking possession led to a crucial try to the Springboks.
The far wing Dane Haylett-Petty is flat-footed, a sure sign that things aren’t right. No open side winger should be standing still one pass away from the ball on a set-piece play.
The play failed to commit any defenders and open up a gap, with mistimed stuttering runs, backtracking over-lateral play and an overall lack of intent.
What’s crazy about this play is the Springboks are already down a man in the backline, with inside centre Andre Esterhuizen in the sin bin. Even with a man down, the Wallabies couldn’t find a way to open up the Springboks’ backline here.
At Eden Park with a different flyhalf and midfield, they run the same play. With James O’Connor in the lineup and Toomua at flyhalf, things work much better even against a full-strength All Blacks backline.
The Wallabies actually switch the roles of the two midfielders, enabling Kerevi to do what he does best (carry hard and straight) and O’Connor to be the playmaker out wide.
We see O’Connor (13) lined up at inside centre and Kerevi (12) at outside centre.
This time they run the play from a throw to the tail of the lineout instead of the middle, allowing for an extra split second of time to get the loop play completed.
Matt Toomua (22) plays a little more direct than Foley but it’s the midfielders timing their lines to perfection that makes this play work, especially with Kerevi performing the centre role this time.
Everyone doing their job at the right time makes everything click.
Kerevi at centre and Kurtley Beale (15) at fullback reach top speed very quickly, we can see the blurred movement of their legs.
Kerevi is moving at full-speed onto the ball and running back into traffic, making it easier for Toomua to get around him on the loop. He is at full stride catching the ball, and the vertical separation between him and O’Connor is clear.
O’Connor began to bounce out almost immediately, allowing him enough time to get underneath and past the centre and fullback.
Toomua gets the loop pass from Kerevi and has the option to play Beale short or O’Connor out the back.
Beale’s timing is perfect on the second hard option, flying through under Barrett’s gaze at the exact time the pass by Toomua is delivered out the back to O’Connor, freezing Barrett in no man’s land.
George Bridge (11) shoots up on the Wallaby centre but a smart tap inside finds Marika Koroibete for the incision, who makes a half-break downfield.
With Kerevi as the hard-running centre and O’Connor as the silky playmaker, the play worked much better than in Johannesburg, holding the inside defence and trusting the timing of each man to do their job.
Direct play off 10
The promotion of Leallifano into the starting line up for the Argentina test straightened and improved the Wallabies set-piece attack, allowing the side to make plays directly off 10.
Where Foley usually adds no pace to the ball, Lealifano sets his backline in motion well. From depth, he times his runs well to hit the ball flat at pace.
With the ball in two hands and running direct at full stride, Lealliifano is challenging the defence with flat options inside and out. Should he feel the defence sliding, he also has the option of running through himself.
This tight ‘skinny’ play requires Kuridrani to run a hard line to be a flat and tight option on the outside for Lealiifano.
Koroibete starts inside but then floats to the outside as well, to take a pass out the back on the outside of Kuridrani.
From the high angle, we can see just how angled Kuridrani’s line is, and he times it perfectly to attract the attention of Argentina’s inside centre Jeronimo De La Fuente, while Lealiifano’s direct play keeps the attack square and preserves outside space for when the break is made.
In contrast to the botched wrap play against the Springboks, the cohesion is far better and so is Kuridrani’s execution. Using three numbers in tight space, the Wallabies manipulate Argentina’s inside backs to create a line break.
Koroibete explodes through the 12-13 channel, links with his outside support and the Wallabies strike in one phase.
The next week for the first All Blacks test in Perth, Lealiifano took command of the backline with a new midfield pairing, Samu Kerevi and James O’Connor.
As they run the switching procedure with the midfield, it’s Kerevi that has to adapt to playing centre with Lealiifano and perform the same line as Kuridrani above.
Running the same ‘skinny’ play from the lineout, the backs lose touch with Lealiifano’s urgency, falling behind and losing the shape they need.
We can see just how direct Lealiifano is, from his starting point (SP) to his flat catching point (CP), his timing is cued on the jump from the lineout coming from way back deep at pace onto White’s pass.
Nic White (9) is able to hold the interest of tail gunner Dane Coles (2) enough, while Lealiifano’s timing is on but his options are not.
The depth of Koroibete and Kerevi is too much and Lealiifano is going to get to the line without the flat options he had against Argentina.
As the ball is released Kerevi isn’t there to challenge the defence and draw the inside centre, while neither is Koroibete. Superimposed on the second image is where they ought to be.
The pass has to be floated and the All Blacks defence can now swarm the Fijian winger while James O’Connor tries to adjust to get behind his teammate.
It didn’t take long for the Wallabies backs to get back on the same song sheet, as in the second half they were in sync with Lealiifano.
This time Lealiifano uses Kerevi as a flat crash option with a one-on-one matchup against All Blacks flyhalf Richie Mo’unga. The Wallabies pierce the line and begin to build pressure from which they score multiple phases later down inside the five.
Leallifano and White showed a much better ability to ‘lead’ run onto the pass as the 9 and 10, with Lealiifano trusting that White would put the ball in the right spot following a long runway by the flyhalf.
This gave the rest of the Wallabies a better platform to run off and play direct, rather than sit back and wait to be hammered.
With a direct flyhalf in Lealiifano running the show, they look much more effective. He is undoubtedly their best option at 10 for the World Cup, and there isn’t a close second. When Foley and Toomua are on the field or, worse, both on the field at the same time, the play is stationary and extremely deep.
With a strong ball-carrier in Kerevi and a ball-playing midfielder in James O’Connor, the Wallabies have far more options to vary the set-piece attack, using Lealiifano as a playmaker at 10 or using O’Connor slipping out wider as the playmaker. Both are adept at staying square, committing the defender and putting someone else in a gap, something that has been lacking over the last few seasons.
Their best 10-12-13 combination just needs time to gel and execute with a higher level of consistency than shown in the Rugby Championship but with pool play set to start, they may have missed that window to really nail down this new and improved Wallabies’ set-piece attack.
If they can continue to improve this could be a vastly different Wallabies side in Japan, one with the potential shown in Perth and in flashes across the other games.
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika after first training run in Japan:
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