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FEATURE How Reds duo could give Joe Schmidt vital backline power

How Reds duo could give Joe Schmidt vital backline power
2 months ago

Make no mistake, Australian rugby is under siege as never before, and it is fighting a battle on two fronts. Insidious forces, internal and external, are threatening to tear union apart. From within, an NRL pricked into action by the baiting of previous chairman Hamish McLennan is looking to poach the very best players the rival code has to offer; from without, Japanese and European clubs are intent on carrying Australia’s most prized assets to far-flung fields in the prime of their careers.

It makes life very tough indeed for newly-arrived Wallaby head honcho Joe Schmidt. Like any top international coach, Schmidt wants to build strength in depth in every position on the field, knowing that strength-in-depth builds consistency. Injury or unavailability? No problem. One player drops out, and another with the same quality and a similar skill-set slots in seamlessly to take his place. The machine keeps purring without missing any gears.

That process cannot happen so smoothly in Australian rugby – and the latest signs suggest it cannot happen at all. Take the case of inside centre and right wing, which should by rights be two of the strongest spots in the national side. At number 14, by the end of last year’s World Cup there was a depth chart composed of upwardly mobile Mark Nawaqanitawase, supported by Jordie Petaia, Suliasi Vunivalu and the likes of Izaia Perese and Andrew Kellaway.

Tim Ryan Reds <a href=
Blues Super Rugby Pacific” width=”1024″ height=”576″ /> The Reds have been in hugely encouraging form since the return to Australia of head coach Les Kiss (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Nawaqanitawase promptly signed for the NRL’s Roosters in December, after providing one of the few bright spots of the campaign in France. Only six weeks ago, the jungle drums hinted Petaia might be following the youthful Waratah to the St George Illawarra Dragons. Both share the same agent, so a coincidence it is not. Perese has already confirmed his departure to Leicester Tigers in the English Premiership for the 2024-2025 season.

Naturally Queensland head coach Les Kiss wants to hang on to Petaia, even if his impassioned plea to Rugby Australia could just as easily have spilled from the lips of Schmidt himself.

“I think [the issue] is front and centre. When I talk about succession, I always put retention first, and recruitment second. Someone like Jordie is important [in relation to] who you want to retain. Keeping good rugby players is important in the game.

“There’s massive upside in Jordie. I know he can play [number] 15, [number] 13, [and] wing. Increasing other skill-sets are the things that excite him.

“Everything should be done in a sustainable way, but someone like Jordie is important to keep here. He is the type of player fans can connect with. He’s got something special. He’s super competitive, strong, big, powerful.”

The most intriguing option of all is Vunivalu, who was selected for the World Cup squad well before he was thoroughly ‘cooked’ by experience in Super Rugby. With Petaia out injured for the season, Kiss has been fast-tracking the Fiji-born Queenslander through a crash course of dos and don’ts for a modern wing.

Coach and player share a sizeable, sympathetic overlap with their rugby experiences in the sister code. The ex-leaguer has begun to move if not shake, with improved work rate and an evident desire to get stuck in and do the basics well. He has found the right coach to improve him at provincial level and he may yet discover the right man to polish an international diamond later in 2024.

Just like right wing, inside centre should read like a star column, but instead Australian rugby finds the print disintegrating in its hands like wet newspaper. World-class midfielder Samu Kerevi, who will turn 31 in September, has chosen to stay in Japan with the Urayasu D-Rocks, on a $1.5m AUD two-year deal. Rugby Australia was unable to match either the length of contract or remuneration needed to bring him home.

The next cab off the rank is Hunter Paisami, and he is being courted by that long-time centre of excellence for Australians playing abroad, Exeter Chiefs. With RA only offering a limited one-year top-up deal, the odds are stacked in favour of a move to southwest England.

Under Kiss’ tutelage, Paisami has finally developed into the kick-pass-run ‘triple threat’ first envisaged by previous Wallaby head coach Dave Rennie at the start of the last World Cup cycle back in 2020. Kiss again:

“[Hunter] tells me he can goal-kick, drop-kick as well. He tells me he can do everything. But he just hasn’t stopped surprising me. He’s a professional. He is a joy to have around the place.

Hunter Paisami was viewed as an important cog of the Australia midfield by former head coach Dave Rennie (Photo by PA)

“He still does that first job as a 12 by creating quick ball on the gain-line. He can be that target player, or a genuine second five-eighth.

“His kicking game has been exceptional. I don’t think it’s a revelation. It’s always been there. It is just the style of rugby you play [that] can open it up.”

If Paisami does leave for pastures new, it will leave only Lalakai Foketi among the top three 12s in Australia, and he is currently playing a losing hand in New South Wales. Both Kiss and Schmidt will be closing their eyes, and hoping against hope Paisami stays, and Vunivalu keeps making strides forward.

Vunivalu’s extraordinary, Folau-like leaping ability and body control in the air has always been a huge point-of-difference in his favour. Remember this try against France in the 2023 warm-up Test?

It is a straightforward one-on-one with a bona fide international full-back [Melvyn Jaminet] but Vunivalu makes it all look as easy as child’s play to catch the ball and walk across the goal-line.

He pulled much the same rabbit out of the hat against Blues in round 10 of Super Rugby.

 

It’s a set play designed to give Vunivalu the opportunity to beat one man in the air, and another on the ground, and he manages both tasks with sumptuous ease – the only problem was he forgot to apply pressure while dotting the ball down, knocking it on instead!

The biggest single difference with the 2023 and 2024 versions of the 6ft 4ins back lies in his attention to detail at the attacking breakdown. Earlier in the season, he saved a succession of potential turnovers after a Reds break had been made, a situation primed for defensive steals. The same was true of his contact work against the Blues.

 

 

In both instances it is that ‘big-wing’ ability to stem the Aucklanders’ counter-ruck at source on a second-man arrival which firstly, opens up a short-side for Harry Wilson to exploit; and secondly, creates quick ball for a Paisami cross-kick to the far side after a long break by Josh Flook down the right.

If Vunivalu’s accuracy at attacking breakdowns and his work rate on the opposite side of the field [he scored a try in the left corner in the 47th minute] should keep him in the frame for Schmidt’s July squad announcement, Paisami’s improved short kicking game will undoubtedly achieve the same aim.

 

The weighting of the chip over the front line of defence, and the instant all-in-one transfer after the regather is just too exquisitely-timed for newbie Tim Ryan to turn down the chance on the left wing. Kick and pass are two prongs of the triple threat, but it is Paisami’s dynamic power on the carry which remains the basis of his game.

 

 

Size is irrelevant. It just doesn’t matter it is the two Blues second rows – 6ft 6ins and 120KG of Patrick Tuipulotu and 6ft 8ins and 110KG of Sam Darry – opposing Paisami in the first clip, or 6ft 4ins and 105KG of centre Bryce Heem trying to drag him down in the second. Paisami’s dynamic power in contact counts for more. The screenshot shows the typical Kiss base-shape on attack, which will also be a Schmidt foundation stone. Paisami is at first receiver, his partner Flook hits on a short line outside and 10 Tom Lynagh is drifting around the back of the two centres to link the attack out wide.

The power threat has made Paisami the Reds’ most reliable ball-carrying back in 2024 with 74 carries and 23 tackle busts, and transformed him into a demon on defence, with 12 dominant hits and three breakdown pilfers when ball goes to deck.

 

Three good actions in the space of ten seconds: a well-timed rush on to the Blues 11 to force the initial error, then a follow-up strip on Mark Telea, with an instant pilfer to complete the sequence.

Kiss has already discovered Australian professional rugby is in a race against time. As quickly as he develops a good new one, that player is likely to disappear into the European or Japanese game, or even the NRL. What looks like excellent depth for both Kiss and Schmidt turns to dust too quickly for the liking of either.

The stocks on the right wing have been devoured. Suddenly, the continued progress of Vunivalu is a need not a luxury. Likewise, the extension of Kerevi’s Japanese sojourn and Paisami’s possible migration to Exeter has left the store at inside centre bare. It will test the well-seasoned mettle of even Kiss or Schmidt to find the silver thread in that labyrinth of uncertainty.

Comments

116 Comments
H
Harry 72 days ago

Cheers, Nick! How do you see the Reds’ Jock Campbell’s play this year? Not as strong a carrier as Andrew Kellaway or Tom Wright, but does avoid errors. Do you see Joe Schmidt as wanting safety first at 15 or a try-assisting counterattacker?

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Don M 72 days ago

Hi Nick. Thanks for your +++ ongoing analysis. Re Vunivalu, He’s been benched recently and it will be interesting to see what Kiss does with him as we enter the backend of SRP. I’m still not sold.

D
Derek Murray 73 days ago

And I’ve just seen RA has topped up the offer to Paisami and extended it beyond 3 years and he’s signed. Great news

D
Derek Murray 73 days ago

Nice to read something positive about Vunivalu; it doesn’t happen often.

I despair for rugby in Oz. Unless some form of compensation for the teams producing players is devised, there is no obvious way for us to combat poachers coming to grab players in their prime with bigger pay cheques.

A return to the SR crowds we were getting in 2010-2014 and a quadrupling of the TV deal would be a start but I don’t see how those things happen. Perhaps the government could be encouraged to deliver tax breaks like in Ireland?

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Nick 73 days ago

Nice one Nick. No doubt Vunivalu’s involvements and work rate are improving this year in attack, but I still think he is too raw on the defensive and backfield part of his game to be considered as a starter. Wales would just kick and run it to his side all night as the brumbies have done to good effect in the past. But, his size/power will keep him in the convo with Mark N leaving and Petaia’s injury record. Hunter definitely enjoying an injury-free run this season and being given the keys by Kiss - I have always been a fan of his. All I’d say is that his triple threat has been evident since 2020/21. I remember him making a grubber for a petaia try after the siren to beat the Brumbies in Canberra after the 80th minute in 2021. Lastly, Jock Campbell, who I know isn’t at the top of your list, I thought had alot of positive involvements in the saders game including both of Tim ryan’s tries and Mcreights

J
Jon 73 days ago

Good to here positive stories towards Aus Rugby.

Although that might be the case, and highers up are right about Jordie, I wouldn’t stress trying to retain him. What I have seen of him in recent times is that he’s not using that something special. I feel there a better ‘something special’ options coming through that they won’t have to compete with league for, hell even in Kerevi and Paisami (isn’t it great to finally see his ability getting recognized, probably taking this article in isolation too much here).

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Mitch 73 days ago

That loss to the Blues still stings! The Reds have fallen short in 4 of the 6 games decided by 7 points or fewer. Are they not fit enough to close out the close games or are there tactical issues when games go down to the wire?

The pleasing thing is no Australian side can better the Reds record of 3 wins from 5 against Kiwi sides but the Brumbies can match it. Les Kiss has instilled a belief in the Reds that they can match it with all the New Zealand sides.

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Adrian 73 days ago

Thanks Nick, and welcome back 😁

Vulavalu does look better this year, and about time.

I suspect Schmidt will knock the hubris out of him. That one handed put down was so embarrassing. Mind you, I had thought Kiss would deal with that.

Leaving aside the different games and skills, in NRL he had a very good (but no bullshit) type of coach in Bellamy, something he hasn't had in Union until this year. Bellamy would have roasted him unmercifully for an unprofessional put down.

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Mzilikazi 73 days ago

I watch the Reds now, and many of their players, and think back to watching London Irish in their last two years under Michael Kiss. I recall Nick Phipps looking a very competent scrumhalf, Rob Simmons a lynch pin in the lineouts. Both men writen off by many on the rugby sites.

There is no question in my mind that Kiss has a very different touch to any coach the Reds have had in years. It will take time, but this team could develop into a very good team, hard to beat by any one down here in the SH. You highlight two players especially, Nick. Vunivalu and Paisami are thriving this year, especially the latter. And so many others. The now heavier Fraser McReight, his great mate Harry Wilson, and the “Fardy” man, Liam Wright. That is only three, ut in reality every player is acroos the whole squad is the better for the new regime.

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d 73 days ago

Amazing what decent coaching can do! I always felt Folau never improved much as a player and never had a great coach using his talents. Suli seems different at qld this year.

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