The Wallabies desire to play two of their best players who both play the same position manifested again in the latest edition of ‘Pooper’, this time with Pocock wearing the six jersey instead of the eight.
He responded with another standout performance, a game-changing force at the breakdown that the Irish couldn’t stop from influencing their flow. Joe Schmidt conceded post-match that having him back made a big difference for the Wallabies.
“Pocock put a lot of pressure on the ruck. He always makes a big difference to the team,” he said.
His first contest on the ball resulted in a nine-second recycle for Ireland, yes that’s nine seconds. A three-man cleanout could not effectively wipe him off the ball on that occasion. His next jackal attempt took a four-man cleanout to arrest his grasp on the tackled player and it still took five seconds for Murray to get his pass away.
Here in lies the effectiveness of having the greatest fetcher ever on the field. The player numbers required to secure the ball when Pocock is around starts to influence Ireland’s attacking structure. Like a black hole, he sucks in surrounding players that would otherwise be lining up for the next carry, putting the opposition out of sync for the next phase. The extra time Pocock creates also allows the defensive line to get set and turn up the dial on line speed, which we saw the Wallabies use to pull off some huge hits.
With this double-headed snake, the Wallabies openside duo is able to just focus in on what they each do best. It seems that by not playing Openside, Pocock is actually competing at breakdown more and the Wallabies want it that way. With Michael Hooper taking on a large load of frontline contact work, Pocock is able to spend more time roaming and striking at isolated victims.
“We talked a lot this week of how we wanted that to work (back row combination),” captain Michael Hooper said.
“I’ve played with Dave a lot now, it was no surprise to me some of the stuff he was doing out there.
His early form in Super Rugby at the Brumbies showed a preference to strike the breakdown on first phase, averaging around 7.5 attempts to jackal the ball per match. Against Ireland, he had eight in the first half alone and 13 in total, with most coming after the first phase.
There were two reasons for fewer attempts on the first phase – at scrum time Hooper is still latching as the openside, so he has the fastest line of travel to the first ruck and will compete instead. Pocock will set up at number eight and follow in behind, but often stays out of it. In full 7-man lineout packages, Pocock is jumping at ‘two’ towards the front, which takes him out of play if the ball is moved to the middle of the field. As a result, Pocock tracks wider and looks for opportunities later on.
Positioning on the edges has two benefits. The first is matchup advantages against backs. They are often spreading the ball wide after two phases of forward pods in the 1-3-3-1 pattern which provides ruck contests against weaker wingers and fullbacks, and possibly only 1-man or 2-man cleanouts. The second benefit is, Conor Murray often runs switch plays back to the short side, which plays right back into Pocock’s hands by potentially giving him another crack at the ball. One more than one occasion he had two ruck contests in less than a minute. With Hooper and Timu adequate defenders in close ruck channels, he can spend less time in the trenches and more time wider.
He won four clean steals (two were nullified by penalties conceded) and won one further penalty for a player not releasing. In all of those situations, Ireland was only able to get two or fewer cleaners to the ruck. In order to keep the ball more, they are going to have to be much more aware of where he is and play away from him as much as possible, especially in areas where points are on offer. Two of his turnovers probably took points away from Ireland in the first test.
Another reason the Wallabies want Pocock attacking the breakdown as much as possible is this – when he does eventually win a turnover it creates a transition phase to attack from which Ireland struggled to defend against.
The Wallabies created two tries from turnover ball, the first was from loose possession on a box kick which was secured by none other than Pocock. The Wallabies spread it wide to expose the scrambling defence and Foley scored in the corner two phases after. The disallowed ‘Folau’ try was created by flooding a ruck with defenders and winning turnover ball, with Beale catching Ireland scrambling again.
Michael Cheika will know now after the first test that Ireland simply cannot stop Pocock, only attempt to minimise him. However, Cheika holds one trick up his sleeve he can play to really cause havoc for Ireland – double down and start Pete Samu at Number 8.
The Crusaders loose forward came on as a blood/HIA replacement and immediately made an impact – winning a ruck penalty for not releasing on his first jackal attempt. When he did finally come on as a substitution, he constantly found good contests and made a nuisance of himself.
A back-row of Pocock, Hooper, and Samu would be a nightmare for Ireland with three superb ball pilfers.
Ireland was not far off in the first test, and both sides will make adjustments for the second. If Cheika stays ahead of the game, the Wallabies will go along way towards a two nil lead.
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