Don’t be deceived by appearances. Despite his playing antecedents in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, Eddie Jones is a Brumbies coach. He cut his teeth under World Cup winner Rod Macqueen in Canberra, and the double coaching ticket morphed seamlessly into a more singular mentoring role with the Wallabies after Macqueen left the scene in late 2001.
The shift was in evidence in one of the early grenades Eddie tossed gleefully into the media bunker after his sensational return as national coach at the turn of the new year.
“There’ll be a hundred thousand people there, right? We kick the ball 70 times and we beat New Zealand, everybody is going to be happy.
“[If] we kick the ball 10 times and we get beaten 40-10, they’re going to walk out kicking stones.
“So, we’ve got to be junkies for winning, not junkies for possession. Possession rugby is dead. It’s dead for the moment and it’s probably going to be dead for a long period of time.
“The game’s about being fast now. You’ve got 75 per cent of tries being scored in three phases – 75 per cent!
“So why would you keep the ball for 10 phases?
“That’s just stupid to even think like that anymore, and unfortunately there’s that thinking still in rugby.”
Possession rugby can’t be dead when the number one ranked nation in the world still plays it.
The Wallabies head honcho went on to explain why possession rugby no longer fits the Australian rugby-playing demographic:
“You look to the playing population of Australian rugby now: 60 per cent is Pasifika, 40 per cent’s white.
“So that means the 60 per cent of Pasifika, we’ve got to play power rugby. Like, we can’t play long-phase, hold-the-ball with different sorts of gene pools.
“We’ve got to play smart; we’ve got to play to what the laws are now and we’ve got to play to our strengths, which is about being smart, being really fast and aggressive on the first couple of phases and then be able to kick constructively to get the ball back.”
Possession rugby can’t be dead when the number one ranked nation in the world still plays it, however. Ireland scored the bulk of their tries (55 per cent) after fourth phase. Meanwhile, 56 per cent – not 75 per cent – of all the tries in the tournament were scored in phases 1-3.
It sounds very much like Eddie Jones is suggesting that Australia adopts a similar pattern of play to their best provincial side – play for three phases, then go to the kick-pressure game. Let’s take a look at the Brumbies’ stats in some key areas in the regular season, compared to the other three semi-finalists from across the Tasman:
- The Brumbies are the only one of the semi-finalists to come in below the regular season time-of-possession average of 17.5 minutes per team, with 16.9 minutes and only 48 per cent of possession. The Chiefs, Crusaders and Blues averaged above the mean, at 18.4 minutes per game.
- The Brumbies scored 77 per cent of their tries from the set-piece, compared to 57 per cent by the Chiefs, Crusaders and Blues.
- The Brumbies scored 65 per cent of their tries within the first three phases, as opposed to 59 per cent by the three Kiwi sides.
The teams from New Zealand are playing a different, more ‘Irish’ form of the game within the same competition – more willing to keep the ball and jump over the 3+ phase hurdle to explore opportunities on attack; less dependent on set-piece starters to make their scores.
Even with the evident progressions made by Stephen Larkham this season, the Brumbies’ focus still revolves around set-piece, defence and the kicking game – the three-and-out football Eddie was lauding as the most realistic option for his ‘smash-and-grab’ raid at the World Cup. The key notes are intensity and high work rate in defence, accurate contestable kicking and an all-powerful driving lineout in the red zone.
Will Cooper be happy spending so much time kicking from the backfield, or Samu Kerevi chasing the punts ballooning back and forth over his head?
But how many players who are likely to play a significant part in the Aussie World Cup campaign are really suited to the Brumbies’ game plan?
The likes of Taniela Tupou, Will Skelton, Jordan Petaia, Marika Koroibete, Mark Nawaqanitiwase, Quade Cooper and Samue Kerevi are more effective with ball in hand than they are without it. Will three phases of attack offer enough scope to get them into an attacking groove?
Another, overlapping query tags along: what part does individual ‘X-factor’ play in an overall strategy based on honest endeavour and defensive work rate? Will Cooper be happy spending so much time kicking from the backfield, or Samu Kerevi chasing the punts ballooning back and forth over his head?
Eddie Jones never resolved the enigma of Marcus Smith with England, and it probably cost him his job. He paired his ‘Cavalier’ at No 10 with an experienced, powerful international ‘Roundhead’ at No 12 in Owen Farrell and the two never gelled. Smith was too often shouldered out of responsibility for the attack by Farrell’s personality, and Marcus was asked to kick too early and too often for comfort. It simply did not work, despite admirable persistence by Eddie in selection.
That point was amply made by the performance of Tom Wright in the semi-final against the Chiefs in Hamilton. Wright is the one X-factor back in the Brumbies’ back-line, but in a tight game against an evenly-matched opponent in difficult conditions, he began to flounder. His performance visibly withered on the vine, a fast-forward flicker of decay.
The Chiefs won the lion’s share of the kicking duels. They won five out of the six contestable punts launched off either No 9 or No 10 by the Brumbies, and that neutralised the impact of their main man, Nic White. It also added to the pressure on Wright to step up in the kicking game:
The fullback stabs a short kick through deep in the Chiefs’ red zone, but Shaun Stevenson is in perfect position to send in a booming return which takes play 60 metres downfield. It was a harbinger of things to come.
At the beginning of the second period, Wright hesitated fatally between running or kicking out of defence, only to find himself directly in front of the biggest man on chase (Brodie Retallick) when he finally made his choice of play:
The ball cannons into Retallick and it could have dropped anywhere on the ricochet.
As ex-Wallaby turned telly pundit Drew Mitchell commented on Stan Sport:
“We just saw there, Tom Wright coming from the backfield – the kick, it was poorly executed, they got away with it.
“Sometimes you miss your executions because you’re trying to think between two different decisions.”
Tom Wright was doubling down on a big mistake he had made with a goal-line drop-out at the end of the first half:
With the Brumbies emerging from a long period of outstanding goal-line defence, the last thing his forwards would have wanted to see was Wright giving the ball straight back to the Chiefs only two metres from the whitewash. They would have been silently cussing under their breath. All Wright had to do was kick long and trust the chase, instead of nibbling off more than he could chew.
How does X-factor thrive, or even survive in match conditions favouring the more prosaic traits of hard work and tenacity? What happens when you double, or even triple the number of X-factor players in that situation? For Tom Wright, failures with the boot first spread to the pass, then seeped into his running game:
In the first clip, the ball goes straight into touch, in the second Wright’s outside arc leads the defence straight onto the receiver outside the Brumbies No 15, and the Chiefs are primed to turn the ball over.
By the end of the match, the cascade effect had knocked down its last and most important domino, Tom Wright’s running game on the counter:
In the mental rush to do something – anything – positive on attack, Wright is held up in a choke tackle and a maul turnover inevitably results. Game, set and match to the Chiefs.
The final act in the play was symbolic of what had gone before. The Chiefs calmly collected another Ryan Lonergan box-kick, and Damian McKenzie showed why X-factor sometimes has to be patient, to bide its time and wait for the right moment to strike. The Chiefs pocket rocket made his mark on the kick return:
A whole brood of truth-telling chickens came home to roost with the Brumbies’ loss to the Chiefs in Hamilton in the second Super Rugby semi-final. If any further confirmation was needed that New Zealand’s top teams are a cut above the best Aussie can currently offer, this was it.
The men from Canberra were beaten at their areas of speciality. Their kicking game was first defused, then dismantled. Their lineout drive got no purchase in the opposition 22. The Brumbies are never less than tough and tenacious and they hung on until a very bitter end – but therein was the winning, and the losing of the game.
For a new Wallabies’ coach who has previously heralded the Canberra approach as the way forward, it was a sharp slap on the wrist. The Chiefs, like their semi-final Kiwi cohorts the Crusaders and the Blues, were not afraid to keep the ball when it was given to them, even in bad weather.
There is a sense that New Zealand are a step or two ahead of Australia in their tactical appreciation of the game. ‘Hold-the-ball’ is far from dead, after all.
How Eddie Jones goes about melding the best of Canberra with the X-factor options from around Australia is another matter. If he keeps the bulk of the Brumbies together, with for example Allan Alaalatoa and Caderyn Neville in his tight five, he’ll get the tenacity and the toughness and the bristling, game-long intensity.
But where do the likes of Cooper, Kerevi and Koroibete fit into that strategy? Will they be content with 70 kicks per game, watching the ball sail back and forth in the air? What price would Tom Wright pay in that scenario?
If Eddie goes full-fat France with Taniela Tupou and Will Skelton, and ever more prodigious X-factor in the back three, the picture shifts but problems remain. Can the forwards last the course, or will they wind down like a clockwork toy, like Les Bleus against Ireland in that coruscating final quarter of the Six Nations match in Dublin?
The balance is not easy to achieve. Three-and-out doesn’t cut it for X-factor players – just ask Marcus Smith. They want to go Randwick, and gallop like the greens of old. Cooper wants the chance to out-fox the defence through phases, Kerevi and Koroibete need those 15 or 20 carries per game to drag them towards the beating heart of the action. Tupou and Skelton just have to rumble with the ball in hand.
Is there a way to find the best of both worlds? Karma has chased Eddie Jones across half the globe, all the way from England to Australia. All the issues he thought to leave behind in the interminable English outside-half debate have followed him home in another form, to his country of origin. Now, it’s payback time.