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FEATURE Can Eddie Jones find a way for broken Wallabies to beat All Blacks?

Can Eddie Jones find a way for broken Wallabies to beat All Blacks?
1 year ago

Eddie Jones loves beating the All Blacks. In fact, he probably loves nothing better than beating New Zealand at rugby, especially when Australia are the underdogs.

One of his high watermarks as a head coach was the preparatory scheming that funded the Wallabies’ 22-10 semi-final victory at the 2003 World Cup, a match that New Zealand was heavily favoured to win. At the end of that game, Jones’ on-field skipper George Gregan memorably slipped in the stiletto: “Four more years boys, four more years.”

It could just as easily have been Eddie Jones talking. He doubled down and played the underdog card again in 2019, as the head coach of England. New Zealand were the world champions and looking for a three-peat after their triumphs in 2011 and 2015, but Eddie’s England upset the applecart in the semi-final in Yokohama.

Eddie Jones and Steve Hansen after the 2019 Rugby World Cup semi-final between England and New Zealand. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The time and energy Jones and his coaches had invested in finding a way to beat New Zealand over the previous four years arguably cost them the final against South Africa. England looked unprepared for that encounter compared to their previous game versus the All Blacks. The Springboks won the scrum and turnover battle and kicked their goals, and that was all she wrote.

New Zealand rugby will once again find itself in the cross-hairs of the Randwick man, now that he has returned to coach the Wallabies for a second term. First this, at the end of January 2023:

“We know [that] if we can take on New Zealand, we are in a good position to take the World Cup … They are in a pretty good spot, but we’re coming after them. We’ll be chasing them down the street, we want that rivalry to be tough and we’ll make sure we’re chasing them.”

Now, wind the clock on a couple of weeks later, to February 15th with Jones speaking to Newstalk ZB in New Zealand:

“Beat New Zealand, mate. That’s the only [target right now].

It’d be nice to have an Australian side win the Super Rugby final.

Eddie Jones

“It’s been 21 years since we won the Bledisloe Cup. For a two-team competition, the law of averages [there] isn’t right.

“We play New Zealand at Melbourne Cricket Ground. It’s the only ground in the world where Australia has a positive advantage in terms of wins and losses over New Zealand. So, it’s a great way to kick off. So that’s all we’re thinking about at the moment.”

Only two days later, and the same theme had been recast as a part of Super Rugby planning:

“The games against the Crusaders, or whoever the strongest New Zealand side is, they are the important selection games. That’s where you’ll see [the best] from the players. The expectation is they play well and consistently play well.

“It’d be nice to have an Australian side win the Super Rugby final.”

You get the picture. Eddie Jones wants to beat the All Blacks, and he wants to beat them badly. The big problem is that five Australian franchises have been unable to compete with their five Kiwi counterparts ever since the new version of Super Rugby (without South African participation) started.

The Reds suffered a sizeable defeat against the Hurricanes over the weekend – one of many against NZ sides in recent years. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Back in 2021, Australia won only two out of the 25 cross-border clashes and its champion club from the domestic Super Rugby AU competition, the Queensland Reds, were shattered in the first fortnight by consecutive losses to the Highlanders and Crusaders – two games in which they leaked 15 tries and 103 points to their opponents from the shaky isles.

It was not much better one year later in the 2022 iteration of Super Rugby Pacific. Australian sides won eight out of their 29 games against their traditional Kiwi opponents (excluding the two new Pasifika franchises, the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika). The Queensland Reds won seven of their eight games versus local opposition, but lost all of their matches against the five original New Zealand franchises.

A meagre 18 per cent win rate would be enough to give anyone an inferiority complex when the same group of players, more or less, ascend to the higher level of Bledisloe Cups, on an international playing field.

One of the main on-field issues for Australian teams in general, and the Reds in particular over the past two seasons, has been the relationship between the amount of ball-in-play time and the number of kicks they launch in a match.

Therein lies the Gordian Knot that Eddie Jones has to either cut or disentangle. Australian players do not really believe that they can beat their counterparts from across the Tasman consistently in Test-match rugby because they do it so rarely in Super Rugby competition.

One of the main on-field issues for Australian teams in general, and the Reds in particular over the past two seasons, has been the relationship between the amount of ball-in-play time and the number of kicks they launch in a match. The Reds like to kick: an average of 664 metres per game in the 2022 season, second only to the Crusaders. They are also used to a low ball-in-play time: an average of just over 33 minutes per game, compared to the Crusaders’ 37.

On the field, those stats translate into a struggle for Australian sides to sustain high-quality defence for the whole 80 minutes. This is especially so from unstructured situations like kick or turnover returns, where the effort needed to recover defensive shape quickly can be a lung-bursting exercise.

The only Trans-Tasman clash in the first round of this year’s competition occurred in Northern Queensland, between the Reds and the Hurricanes on a humid, energy-sapping evening in Townsville. For the first half hour, the home side managed to keep a lid on the Hurricanes’ potent counter-attack from changes of possession. They stayed strong during an early six-phase kick return:

The Reds are still maintaining good defensive width late in the sequence, with the edge defenders playing high to overlap the attack and forestall easy ball movement into the wide channels. There is no obvious way around the defence for the men from the North Island. The Hurricanes were forced to kick the ball away because of the roadblock.

On another turnover return, the Maroons even pushed their opponents backwards, all the way from their own 22 to the 40m line as the phases piled up, applying pressure which resulted eventually in a turnover for Fraser McReight:

After the first 30 minutes, the humidity began to take its toll and some tell-tale signs of fatigue surfaced:

In this clip, the Reds are forced to ‘jockey’ hard towards touch in order to defend the counter, trading 25 metres of territory in order to reconnect two cover defenders, No 4 Ryan Smith and No 9 Tate McDermott to the line.

It is an emergency measure and not the kind of tactic you want to become the norm:

This is a similar example only nine minutes later, with both McDermott and Smith once again committed to cutting off the wide attack deep inside the Reds’ 22. This time the Queensland scrumhalf cannot make up the ground to prevent Billy Proctor from scoring in the corner.

Only three minutes later, Ryan Smith was dismissed for ten minutes on a yellow card for a barge on Jordie Barrett as the All Blacks’ centre sped through the defensive line. The clouds were gathering for the Reds’ turnover defence.

Fast forward to the second period, and the Hurricanes were able to sustain their ball movement on the counter even with one man fewer on the field, 14 players to the Reds’ 15. The Queensland D wound down like a clockwork toy as the half progressed:

Replacement prop Peni Ravai throws a loose pass out of contact and the Hurricanes pounce on a free ball. There is no pressure on the pill whatsoever as the Reds slide meekly out towards their right corner flag and await inevitable execution. There are three Canes versus one Queenslander in the critical freeze-frame and both Ryan Smith and Kalani Thomas (Tate McDermott’s replacement) are well away from the scene of the action in cover:

The same pattern was repeated in the 72nd minute, with Hurricanes flanker Du’Plessis Kirifi still off the field for a yellow card:

The Canes have more than enough gas left in the tank to rip the ball free in contact and exploit the ‘jockey’ on the following phase of play, with support numbers at the point of contact again beating the cover defence into the corner flag.

Alongside the Brumbies, the Queensland Reds have been one of Australia’s top two teams for the past few seasons, but they have not enjoyed success against teams from New Zealand. At least one of Australia’s traditional ‘big three’ franchises (the Reds, the Waratahs and the Brumbies) has to find a way to beat their Kiwi counterparts consistently in the current Super Rugby Pacific season.

If they cannot, Eddie Jones will remain behind the 8-ball, scrambling to discover paths to success in the Bledisloe Cup with an under-confident group of players, too used to defeat in encounters with Aotearoa, at his disposal. It is huge knot of doubt but Eddie Jones has to find the new ‘Australian way’ to solve the dilemma with only seven short months remaining before the World Cup begins in France.


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