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Return of the Brumby: the strategy all the top international teams will be copying

By Conor Wilson
George Gregan and John Eales of Australia are congratulated by Coach Rod MacQueen. (Photo by Nick Wilson / Allsport)

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“Winning is an important thing, but to have your own style, to have people copy you, to admire you. That is the greatest gift – Johan Cruyff


In the video rooms of International team HQ’s and the brains of their coaches, ideas are forming and concepts emerging, new weapons designed to combat the defensive structures shown by teams like South Africa. If they can flummox the best and their judgment when to rush is so accurate, then how does one beat them?

The fact is that new innovation may not be the way. Some coaches will be thinking back, as there is one particular style of play that’s starting to wake up. Having gone to hibernation long ago when the era of wide rugby came to the fore, it’s stirring its head again, growing ever and ever more restless, knowing its time is nearly here.

Ben Smith has mentioned it previously, whilst I’ve referred to this style of play and team in my articles so much that people could be forgiven for getting sick of it.

Sorry not sorry.

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Today’s article will show that elements of the Japanese game plan, as well as the motions of particular players, are starting to follow a style of play that’s over 20 years old – a style of play that achieved a win rate of over 70% against New Zealand, and very importantly for later; just below a 60% record against South Africa.

This was the style of play espoused by the ACT Brumbies.

The History

When Rod MacQueen took over Australia in 1997, he knew he had a job on his hands.

His immediate priority wasn’t to generate wins, but to develop a style of play that would allow them to consistently beat the best teams in order to achieve the main goal of winning the 1999 RWC.

This meant a massive spike in fitness levels, a change in culture and a buy-in of the players into the Wallaby style of play. Therefore, they took the old ACT game plan, changed and modified it to suit the players they had, and then together began launching it on the world.


Whilst we don’t know for sure, I believe this style of play was designed to beat New Zealand. MacQueen would’ve thought the biggest obstacle to his team winning the world cup, was New Zealand. As such, he brought his Brumbies style of play, a style designed to target the weaknesses in Kiwi teams and got to work.

The Brumbies Style

If there was ever a team that could attack like water, it was the Brumbies. At their best, they were innovative and unstoppable. When they had the go forward, they didn’t stop or wait for options for the next phase. The objective was to go again before the defence was even back onside, overwhelming the opposition with numbers and intensity until the gap appeared.

They played what they saw, over the safety and comfort in structure.

They were a possession-based team, working through the phases and relentlessly attacking the fringes of the ruck with speed and intensity. This was done with the use of pick and go’s, “unders” lines from their centres, the speed of Stephen Larkham, switches and use of inside options in the form of back 3 strike runners and dynamic forward carries.

It was attritional, but the variety and creativity in their targeting constantly confused the defence. They would drag the defences out to target back inside, and run scoots to the openside to actually target the blind. However, the key take-away is that it kept the attack funnelled, attacking a particular point over and over, thinning and exploiting the channel before the defence had time to re-enforce it. Once the numbers were sucked in, the Brumbies would use an assortment of decoy runners, innovative clever plays and the distribution skills of George Gregan and Larkham to move the ball wide.

This proved particularly effective against Kiwi teams due to their preferences to defend from the outside in, keeping spread as that’s how they like their teams to play.

As such, Brumby style play was very effective. When Greg Smith was sacked as Wallabies coach in 1996, which ironically was caused by his public abandonment of the approach MacQueen had taught him during their time at the Waratahs. It was clear the job needed to go to the best coach in Australia, of whom MacQueen was the obvious choice.

This led to his hiring as the Wallabies Coach.

The Wallabies’ Style

The cattle that MacQueen was allowed to call upon, on appointment to the Wallabies, was greatly improved.

He was able to call upon the brilliant locking combination of John “Nobody” Eales and David Giffin, and players like Toutai Kefu, Tim Horan and Matt Burke, which enhanced the potency of his attack even more so.

Whilst the players were varied, the attacking pattern remained much of the same as the Brumbies. As such, we saw the same repeated targeting of the fringes “off-9” and “off-10” that we saw with Japan.

More importantly, however, we’ve started to see the abandonment of structure in modern day rugby, in preference of individual runs targeting this gap. This leads me to believe not only are more professional players aware of it, more coaches are happy with their players targeting it.

Above we see two players, both converted 15’s who can play 10, targeting this gap with their speed and agility. If this is being followed and gaining ground, it means we may see teams’ mimic structures and style that exploited this area better than any other.

The Modern-day Brumby Influence

In cases, it’s already happening. The Brumbies of yesteryear were notorious for launching their key strike move off the 3rd phase in play. This is something that Eddie Jones and Stephen Larkham as Australias’ former attack coach was also very well known for.

The Brumbies would run two sequence carries, before running their strike runners against the weakest parts of the opposition line.

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Where the strike move was run was down to prior analysis on the make-up and dynamics of the opposition defensive system. This usually meant attacking the inside shoulder of the 10, or more frequently getting their speed men to target the slower more cumbersome forwards on the blindside.

This is partly the reason Eddie Jones loves targeting the 15m blind on the 3rd phase, and where Larkham learnt the dynamic to pass on to his charges during his time.

Eddie Jones

Jones, being the Brumbies coach who helped develop this, regularly uses this framework to distort the line before switching to target the weakest point, the evidence of which can be seen to this day. However, Jones has varied this to not only strike at the fringes of the ruck as is classic with Brumby style rugby, but with overlaps and against specifically positioned players.

South Africa 2015

Target: Pat Lambie

In this instance, we can see the length of the passes used from Tanaka in the 2nd and 3rd phase in particular. On the 2nd phase, the crab run is designed to drag a mass number of forwards over to the midfield.

This means that the long switch pass on the 3rd phase circumvents most of the forward pack, the loop pass is given back to Tanaka, who used Tatekawa (12) to hold the last of the forwards in Tendai Mtawarira and Bismarck Du Plessis to isolate Pat Lambie.

They are successful, resulting in Lambie being forced into making a one on one tackle with Japan’s Hensuke Hatakeyama, a very powerful prop. This was designed to strike Lambie as he’d been identified as a weakness, and Jones hasn’t given this up.

Ireland 2019

Target: Johnny Sexton

Jones definitely likes isolating 10’s in his Brumby style sequences.

In this instance, Manu Tuilagi is used on the scissors run to keep the pack on one side of the pitch, allowing a very slow fold over of the forwards. On 2nd phase Maro is kept tight in standard brumby play to take out the folded forwards and isolate the backline for the strike play.

Now that they’ve done this, on 3rd phase Farrell uses a screen run to send one of England’s most dynamic and powerful carriers in Prop Mako Vunipola, against Johnny Sexton, making a 10m gainline advantage and momentum for the next phase out wide.

Whilst the sequence is different, the framework and intended targets in both were identical.

Stephen Larkham

As discussed, Larkham, one of the greatest Brumbies of all time, had this philosophy coached into him too.

He and Michael Cheika had key disagreements on the philosophy of Australia’s attack, and due to the lack of harmony between them, the attack did not get a chance to fire the same way it had in the past.

But when it did, it was incredibly effective. His strike moves often followed the same sequence of his old club and mentor, which were used to devastating effect.

England 2015

Target: Ben Youngs

This move was designed to target Ben Youngs in England’s league style of pillar defence. In league, the open or blind pillar defence are meant to move over to re-enforce the opposite side of the ruck once the ball is passed out in said direction.

This plugs the gap for the inside pass, but if the defence don’t remain connected, this can leave one fringe highly suspect to a switch of direction, especially if the smallest player on the pitch is manning it.

Australia gambled on this to information to launch their 3rd phase strike move.

The speed and direction of the switch means not only are England’s fringe pulled over, but the speed of which Beale and Foley run to exploit the gap means they can exploit this movement.

Wales 2016

Target: Samson Lee

This game is the perfect example to see that Australia have adopted this sequence. All through the game, they used their “21 patterns” to very good effect.

They managed to successfully target Samson Lee (3) in this move. With the switch play stacking up Stephen Moore and Scott Sio in very close proximity to the fringes. This held Lee, with Foley’s speed dragging out Luke Charteris (4) opening the gap between them.

Being a natural disconnect doesn’t help, as Hodge goes straight through between the last pillar defender and the rest of the defensive line.

Joe Schmidt

Target: Fringe underfold

Stephen Larkham may have got the idea for his move against England from the Irish in this case.

We’ve stated before that Joe Schmidt may have taken some inspiration from the Wallabies of yester-year. With the moves used and the sequences we see here. It does lend credence to the assumption.

They use the Wallaby dummy loop move from the MacQueen era to put Rob Kearney straight up the fringes of the ruck, with Jamie Heaslip holding the attention of the first pillar defender in Dylan Hartley.

More Importantly, Paul O’Connell goes beyond the ruck, holding back Joe Launchbury who is trying to fold over to fill the gap that Kearney’s line is taking him through.

The time is bought, and the try is scored.

South Africa

This game plan depends on a few factors, but the key one is simple. Win the collisions.

New Zealand were susceptible to this attack pattern due to their fringe defence philosophy. The pillars are vulnerable to switches and chaos around the ruck due to their inclination to remain spread.

South Africa are a totally different beast in their defensive setup and quite importantly, are very difficult to dominate physically.

This was the reasoning the 1999 Wallabies semi-final win against South Africa had to go to extra time, it’s the reason England weren’t able to get the same momentum they generated against New Zealand in 2019.

South Africa have to gamble on cutting the opposition for a reason. Their incredibly fast out-in rush can get them in a lot of trouble. Yet this means the last man in the line is often very close in when compared to other defences.

This means while possible, it’s very hard to get “through” the South African defence. To get to the edge via hard carries off-9, the key principle behind the Brumby style of play, they have to get over the gain line. This is made harder by the constriction of the South African line, which trains for 2-man tackles.

If the opposition do suck the defence in and then spread the ball, they are at risk of South Africa’s high-risk “wing rush” cutting them off.

As we can see, South African SOP seems to rely on the 2 last men blitzing the backline to cut off the wide play. When the 2nd to last man rushes, the inside defence start sprinting across in the case of the ball getting outside of their wing rush, as we can see above with Pollard leading.

Ben Smith’s position here is inherently compromised, whilst taking the scissors option with his footwork and speed, could lead to one of the most elusive runners in the world targeting Mtawarira. a huge mismatch.

This is why the deception will need to be greater in this style of play to attack constricted defences. With the switch above happening at 2-out play (off McKenzie) as a minimum to stretch the inside for the scissors option. Not to mention the use of tracker runners against the “wing rush” off 1-out play, as we saw with Jonny May in 2018.

Exeter Chiefs have a tactic that is tailor made for exploiting the edge of this defence. The flexibility of “the Stack” means that a shadow can operate as a tracker, as a scissors, and even as a catch and pass option as above if they start their line early enough.

This style relies on dominating the collisions and overwhelming a singular channel with speed, physicality and deception before moving wide. All three are needed to succeed, and if one is stopped, it fails.

Going forward, we can expect to see a whole range of trickery as coaches try to find the nutcracker to combat the infuriating rush defence. With a little adaptation, this could be a big step in the right direction.

WATCH: England attack coach Scott Wisemantel is likely heading to the Wallabies after parting ways with Eddie Jones.

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