With the game in the balance and the All Blacks holding a slim 12-6 lead, the Wallabies received a scrum on their own 40-metre line in the 51st minute.
Moments later, Beauden Barrett would score to stretch the All Blacks lead to 19-6 and the try would be a catalyst for a Wallabies collapse. This pivotal moment changed the game, so what went so wrong for the Wallabies?
The Wallabies tried to run a variation of a common backs play. Last year a number of sides ran the midfield screen (also known as an ID play) with a blindside winger attached as an inside option off the backdoor receiver.
Here, the All Blacks run a screen around 10 and 12 and Naholo looms inside off 10.
This year, a number of sides ran a slight variation of that play that has the winger injecting earlier, hitting the ball unexpectedly between the backdoor screen pass. In the above example, it would seem that Aaron Smith is passing to Sopoaga but Naholo would inject himself and split the two to take the pass.
This ‘Catfish’ variation, when run properly, disguises the true receiver and can be a great move to target a midfield defence.
The backdoor option of the screen (usually the 12) has the job of pulling or attracting the attention of the opposite centre as wide as possible. Here the Highlanders run the play perfectly against the Chiefs from a lineout.
Damian McKenzie defending at 13 initially rushes out and reads his opposite centre running a short line, so he slides out the back to take Tei Waldon only to be ‘catfished’ as Naholo pops up in between.
The play forces the defending centre to progress through three reads and on this occasion, McKenzie bites on the second one.
The Wallabies tried to run this play with Dane Haylett-Petty as the disguised option but he dropped the ball cold and Barrett kicked it ahead to score at the opposite end. The dropped pass was inexcusable, but the play was already busted by the time the ball was delivered.
The initial setup by the Wallabies has two key issues. The first one is how narrow all the inside backs are lined up which becomes a problem as the play unfolds. The second is Dane Haylett-Petty and Reece Hodge have far too much depth to start with.
Here are the projected lines that each player has to run to make this work.
Haylett-Petty’s line is already a bit too vertical, and by being too deep he can’t ‘pop’ around the corner horizontally with much surprise like Naholo does.
As the play develops, they never get out of the narrow formation they start with, failing to create the space required.
All players are running fairly vertical and Dane Haylett-Petty is already outside Foley’s left shoulder before he has the ball, which will immediately raise red flags with the All Blacks midfield that he is a likely option.
Compare that to the same time stamp with the Highlanders.
The Highlanders have a much flatter formation, with far more horizontal spacing between all the players. Naholo (14), our undercover recipient, is even frontrunning Sopoaga slightly and still a long way inside of him.
The Wallabies are too narrow and both Hodge (13) and Haylett-Petty (14) are too deep.
As we get to the point of release for the pass, Beale hasn’t even crossed out behind Hodge yet, with both runners inside of him. Beale’s job is to pull Goodhue as wide as possible, which is not going to happen at this point. Hodge coming from too deep delays Beale from completing the sliding run, as he has to wait for Hodge to catch up and then surpass him before bouncing out.
At the Highlanders point of pass release, Walden (12) has already bounced out behind the centre runner, who is also flat in line with Sopoaga. We can see Walden has successfully pulled McKenzie wider who is trying to adjust his assignment.
Goodhue has both Beale and Haylett-Petty inside of his eyesight making the read an easy one – whoever got the ball was going to be tackled but Haylett-Petty drops the ball and Barrett, the keen opportunist, makes the Wallabies pay.
The Wallabies set-piece attack has been plagued for years by the lack of detail required to manipulate Tier 1 defences. The problems evident in this play are all too common for Cheika’s side. Poor execution is not only limiting the Wallabies own attack, it’s costing them with opposition points.
Would you believe the same thing happened last year, with the same score in favour of the All Blacks by 12-6, at the same ground?
The Wallabies should be trying to run a diverse set-piece attack but they have a long way to go before they can start profiting from these plays instead of conceding big losses. Whether the players are getting enough detailed coaching and feedback is unknown, but given these issues rear their head time and time again the question has to be asked.
The spotlight has to go on assistant Stephen Larkham, who as great as a player he was, has coached sides that have not been proficient at scoring points through back play. The Brumbies were categorically stale at the end of his watch and as the Wallabies backs and attack coach since 2015, has failed to get a group of talented players to execute at a high level.
With Australia’s best players back playing for the Wallabies, there are no more excuses. They will need to bring their A-game if they are any chance at Eden Park this week.
Watch the Heineken Champions Cup Final live on RugbyPass throughout Asia and Australia.