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Why Australian fans can be optimistic after Super...

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Why Australian fans can be optimistic after Super season

The Waratahs 77-25 win over the Sunwolves has set them up for the Super Rugby Finals very nicely.

They were in second gear last week against the Rebels, lucky to win 31-26, but all the structures are in place to prove their worth as a finals team.

I think the Rebels are a very well coached team but lack the punch in the tight five to be a serious finals contender. The Rebels scrum was outpointed by the Tahs last week and completely monstered by a Taniela Tupou-inspired Reds scrum in their 37-23 defeat over the weekend.

The scrum, so long a problem for the Wallabies and Australian Super Rugby teams, is looking very solid for once. The Wallabies scrum was excellent against the Irish and managed to exert a lot of pressure at times.

Over the weekend the Brumbies clearly outpointed the Chiefs in the scrum battle, even with All Black Karl Tu’inukuafe at loosehead. Watching Tu’inukafe smash up the Highlanders with his power scrummaging and big runs in Suva the week before, I thought the Brumbies would be in trouble up front. Allan Alaalatoa handled him very well and was often getting over Tu’inukafe in the scrum contest. Nic Mayhew at loosehead for the Brumbies also surprised with his strong scrummaging. The Brumbies were unlucky to lose the game 24-19.

In Brisbane, Reds tighthead prop Taniela Tupou put on a display of power scrummaging and made life hell for Rebels No. 1 Tetera Faulkner. Tupou was so dominant. Even when he hit the ground first in a scrum collapse, referee Paul Williams gave him the benefit of the doubt and penalised Faulkner.

Tupou’s scrummaging was a lesson in tighthead play. Dominant engagement and all the weight through the right shoulder, locking the loosehead in tight with the right hand, elbow slightly down. When the weight comes on Tupou likes the inside angle, driving the loosehead out with his right hand and putting the weight more through the opposition hooker.

This enabled the Reds scrum to break away completely from the Rebels pack at times – but they were unable to keep the scrum straight and the ball at the Number Eight’s feet. Tupou is great off the bench for the Wallabies and will play many more Test matches over the coming years.

The lineout is still a problem for all Australian teams, with the Rebels possibly having the most effective lineout of the lot over the last two weeks. The Wallabies also had problems with accuracy and defending driving mauls from five metres out.  So many times the Wallabies followed up a great scrum with a poor lineout over the course of the three-Test series against the Irish.

All Australian Super rugby teams have problems putting on an effective driving maul and defending a driving maul from a lineout. For a driving maul from lineout to succeed the jumper and two blockers have to be moving forward even before the jumper hits the ground, the focus of the drive has to be the ball and the maul can never be wider than the three players at the front.

So many times this season I have seen Australian teams trying to drive a maul that is four or five players across, too wide and no focus for a drive. New Zealand teams are generally defending the driving maul so much better and putting on a drive much more effectively. Maul defence and attack requires a narrow focus at the front and as many players directly driving on the ball or as close to it as possible.

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Watching the Blues beat the Reds 39-19 and the Chiefs beat the Highlanders 45-22 you really saw the art of phase play that New Zealand teams do so well – an art that has been lost in Australia. When quick ruck ball is required, New Zealand forwards really blow past the ruck ball in numbers, taking out all opposition players and going a number a number of body lengths past the ball.

This gives the attacking team a number of benefits, it removes all the jackals and any chance of the opposition slowing the ball down, it also moves the defensive line back. The main benefit is really quick, clean ball with the opposition removed.

I watched the Brumbies get stuck in the pocket behind the ruck for phase after phase against the Chiefs, going nowhere. There were one out runners, no one supporting the runner with a hammer or latch and everyone stopping at the breakdown and unable to get past the ball. At one stage the Chiefs had knocked them back 15 metres after three Brumbies hit-ups. We do not attack around the ruck anymore in Australia nor do we really clean out and blow past the ball when required.

When Australian backlines have space and time they look fantastic, as the Waratahs did against the Sunwolves. Flat backline attack works. The very accurate long cut out passes from Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale were great, as were the inside balls, and Israel Folau was given a free reign to hit into the backline anywhere.

The go-forward across the field is there, using the width of the field to make the line breaks. Best set play try so far goes to Dane Haylett-Petty last week against the Waratahs in the 36th minute from a lineout. Billy Meakes held the ball up as Tom English took an inside run towards him, Meakes then threw a flat pass to Haylett-Petty, hitting the line at full pace to score untouched.

Unfortunately, teams really know how to shut down this style of attack, as the Irish did in the third Test and the Chiefs against the Brumbies over the weekend, keeping them stuck in the pocket and moving backwards.

Australian backlines look great with space and time; we need better attacking systems to give them this. The old adage of ‘you must go forward before you go across’ comes into play, especially when playing very tight games against New Zealand and South African Teams.

Why not clean out instead of stopping at the breakdown every ruck, why not grab hold of the ball carrier and assist him through every tackle, why not just pick and go if you have cleaned out the ruck well. Why not double team the one pass off the ruck and put the go-forward focus here. All of this designed to break down the defence, get in behind them and let the backs do their thing.

Regardless, I can honestly say I am lot more optimistic at this stage of the season than I was at the start. Australia has some good young and tough forwards coming through, which we have not had for a while. It’s great to see the scrummaging across the board improve and gain some much-needed respect. Some good hard running backs are coming through – Jack Maddocks from the Rebels impresses with every outing. Still a lot of work to do but I definitely think Australian Rugby fans can feel a lot more positive than they did at the start of the season.

In other news:

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Why Australian fans can be optimistic after Super season