Phil Blake has been around the block. During a 15-year Rugby League playing career between 1982 and 1997, he represented no fewer than eight club teams in three different countries – in the NRL in Australia and New Zealand, and in Super League in the north of England – while playing in four ‘specialist’ back-line positions: in the halves, in the centre and at the back. Blake could even have made it as a professional cricketer, had he chosen to apply his athletic talents in that direction instead of rugby.
His travels as a defence coach have been no less varied and colourful. He was Robbie Deans’ skills and defence coach for the Wallabies as long ago as 2010, and four years later he appeared in the same role for the Leicester Tigers in the UK.
It was the first of two coaching spells at the Welford Road club, sandwiching a successful stint at Wasps in which the relocated London outfit reached the final of the English Premiership in 2016-2017, largely on the back of a Blake defence which owned the highest tackle completion rate in the league.
Life in England was not without controversy. In 2015 Phil Blake was banned from all rugby activity for six months after a breach of the RFU’s anti-corruption and betting rules. He was found to have placed two bets on Leicester games when he was the defence coach in 2014-15, and won a grand total of £669 from them.
Blake was appointed as the defence guru for the Reds for the current Super Rugby Pacific campaign in late October 2022. His presence was felt concretely at the weekend, overturning the odds – this time legitimately with his Queensland charges up against the league-leading Chiefs in round 12 at Yarrow Stadium.
It looked like the Reds were on a hiding to nothing. They went in sitting in the bottom half of the table, with a record of four wins and six losses. They were playing a side in the eye of a perfect winning season, which had already doubled perennial competition winners the Crusaders in two local derbies.
It was a game of notable landmarks, featuring the highest amount of ball-in-play time of any match in the current Super Rugby season (just under 47’), with the Chiefs owning a massive 27 of those minutes on attack.
The Chiefs built 141 rucks and forced the Reds to make 220 tackles, and they got the ball into the hands of their main man, Damian McKenzie at first five-eighth, no less than 79 times. 43 of those occasions occurred when D-Mac was stoking the Chiefs’ attacking fires from first receiver. That is roughly three times the number of touches on the ball that a first five-eighth would typically get in a top-level contest.
Nonetheless, it was Phil Blake’s defence which carried the day. It restricted the Chiefs to three tries from 13 entries to the ‘red zone’ in the Queensland 22 (the other 10 were all turnovers) at a miserable average of 1.45 points per entry.
Despite a wealth of possession, his D also gave up a meagre five clean breaks over the 177 ball carries made, and just under 1,300 total metres gained by the home side. A ratio of one bust every 35 carries will not win you many games of professional rugby.
We don’t want Damian [McKenzie] or ‘Stevo’ [fullback Shaun Stevenson] playing with front foot ball, because they will kill you.
Queensland defence coach Phil Blake
Above all else, Phil Blake’s defence managed Damian McKenzie very well indeed. By and large, they forced him to go where they wanted him to go, rather than allowing him to play in the areas where he would have had the most impact. It was the kind of game that the Chiefs collectively – and McKenzie individually – needed in order to gauge their progress, and it brought together the threads of two recent articles I wrote on the effectiveness of Queensland number 7 Fraser McReight on defence, and McKenzie’s potential as a number 10 on attack for the All Blacks at the World Cup.
As Blake commented in a telly touch-line interview in the second period, “It’s our [defensive] line-speed, and getting in their faces.
“We don’t want Damian [McKenzie] or ‘Stevo’ [fullback Shaun Stevenson] playing with front foot ball, because they will kill you.
“Throughout the week, we said we wanted to get off [the line], and get in their faces, and that is what we’ve done today.”
They couldn’t stop the smiling assassin completely of course. He still created a couple of opportunities from long-range kick-return opportunities, when he could run his trademark outside arc towards the corner flag:
In this case, McKenzie has room to move and is already winding up to full speed when he hits the line from deep.
In more structured situations during phase-play, the Reds had a definite plan to shut the Chiefs’ play-maker down. It started with pressure from a ‘shooter’ – usually, but not always Queensland halfback Tate McDermott – designed to force McKenzie off his outside arc and back inside:
McDermott shoots out to cut down Damian’s space and decision-making time, either forcing him to take a first step back in towards the thick of the Reds D, or nudging the first five-eighth towards the lesser of two evils, the short pass on first phase in the clip. By the second phase, second row Connor Vest is taking on McDermott’s role, forcing McKenzie to track across field until he finds himself in a big hole, with his back to the defence and no dynamic support. At this point, all attacking momentum has been lost for the home side.
On other occasions, Blake had his play-side wing riding high in the saddle in order to shut down the wide options for D-Mac:
Queensland right wing Suliasi Vunivalu comes up to cut off the wide pass, and by the time McKenzie looks for a flat option, Luke Jacobson has already run past the ball and blocked out a defender. Penalty Reds.
As the game wore on, the Reds began to predict the step back inside and the telegraphed passes into the outside channels and profit from turnovers created off both:
One of the automatic reactions from a first five-eighth is to drop deeper in order to allow more time to get the ball into the 15-metre channels, but this very rarely solves the real problem:
When you stand as deep as that, as much as ten metres off the gain-line at first receiver, the extra space and time created will be eaten by a defence in cover even more quickly than it is by the attack on the pass. The desperation to move the ball wide can be clearly felt in the final clip, with the Reds defenders all predicting the pass behind the front option and flooding through on to Emoni Narawa to build a winning counter-ruck after the tackle.
It was a good game, and a great result for the defence Phil Blake is building in Queensland, and a tremendous filip to Australia’s Super Rugby aspirations in the broader context of the tournament.
Blake bet his chips on containing Damian McKenzie, filling the wide channels in which he thrives early and forcing him to take the short option instead, and over the course of the game, he won far more hands than he lost.
The Chiefs have reached their crossroads in the 2023 competition and it was just the timely test of their systems, and the kick in the backside that they needed in order to progress further in the knockout stages. At the same time, the match will re-raise the ghosts of Kiwi fitness to take on rush-type defensive systems, and reignite the debate on who should be wearing the number 10 jersey for the All Blacks at the World Cup.
Join free and tell us what you really think!Join Free