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FEATURE Why Joe Schmidt cannot rely on the Brumbies' creaking tight five

Why Joe Schmidt cannot rely on the Brumbies' creaking tight five
1 month ago

It has been a bad week for Australian rugby. The man at number 10 in whom so much faith and development time had been invested, Carter Gordon, decided to join the Gold Coast Titans in the NRL. Anything, rather than take another spin on the roulette wheel with Rugby Australia.

Under the guidance of Joe Schmidt, Gordon might have progressed into the fly-half everyone in Aussie hoped he would become, but the cumulative trauma of his premature exposure at the World Cup and the demise of his club team has proven too great a cross to bear.

Gordon had been asked to stay fit in preparation for the first of Schmidt’s Wallaby camps in 2024. He dutifully trained last Wednesday morning in Melbourne, but flew to Brisbane to seal the deal with the Titans in the afternoon. That is typical of the contradictions in Australian rugby at present.

Carter Gordon
Carter Gordon endured a bruising Rugby World Cup last year (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

The terms in which Gordon described his departure sounded very much like a coming of age, leaving the world of the gifted amateur for that of the fully mature professional: “I was really impressed with the Titans and the professionalism they displayed in our meetings. I’ve loved my time with rugby as it’s given me the opportunity to represent my country, which I’ll always appreciate.” If Eddie Jones had picked Quade Cooper in his World Cup squad to mentor Gordon, the outcome might have been very different.

In other news, the Brumbies reinforced the status quo between Australia and New Zealand by going down to the Blues 34-20 at Eden Park, in the first semi-final of Super Rugby Pacific. The Brumbies were obliterated in the tight five by the Aucklanders, giving up another four penalties at the scrum to add to the six they conceded to the Highlanders the week before, this time without any barter of lineout steals in exchange.

For a club which has provided the bedrock of the Wallaby tight forward effort in recent times, the Brumbies’ glaring weakness at set-piece in 2024 is a major concern, and it gives Schmidt an unwanted headache before the series against Wales kicks off in July.

Two of the senior tight forwards, James Slipper and Caderyn Neville, are now 35 years old and in the twilight of their careers, while the biggest and the best young tight forward in Canberra, Nick Frost, has fallen behind Darcy Swain in the pecking order. Swain started 11 games in the second row to Frost’s four when both became available for selection after round four of the competition.

The scrum, for so long a penalty-winning machine for the men from the Capital Territory, has been a thorny issue. The Brumbies sit a lowly 10th in the tournament for scrum penalties won/lost [only the Force and the Tahs are worse] and rank dead last in own-ball retention rate.

The big worry is the major Canberra luminaries know there is a problem, but cannot do anything about it. Promises of improvement have fallen on stony ground. Listen to cornerstone tight-head Allan Alaalatoa after round 13, having conceded five scrum penalties to the Crusaders:

“We knew today was going to be a huge test for us, and we didn’t deliver again. It’s probably something ingrained at the Brums, that pride in the set piece. It’s something we always go back to, that’s probably going to get us out of trouble. What we’re delivering at the moment isn’t good enough.”

Both Slipper and Neville started that game, and it made no difference to the outcome. Prior to the round 15 match-up with the Force, hooker Billy Pollard was extolling the virtues of reserve loose-head Blake Schoupp, and another tomorrow that never came:

“It’s just his energy he brings to the scrum. That energy can make all the difference in the world, particularly in the latter stages of the game. We have a lot of guys who have that passion for the scrum, but hopefully we can just show it more going forward.”

Ahead of the semi-final, all hope was placed in the basket of Slipper’s return from a calf strain, but in the event Rhys van Nek was drafted in as emergency loose-head from his normal spot on the other side of the scrum. ‘Triple A’ again:

“In terms of a scrum perspective, it’s a lot of technical stuff, which the front-row are now clear on how we can make adjustments on the run. We’ll hit that hard this week and we know it’s going to be a great challenge which the boys will be ready for.”

I feel the Brumbies have invested a lot into their open-field play, and maybe taken a little bit off the set-piece.

It is unusual, to say the least, for the Brumbies to resort to smoke and mirrors, promising an improvement they cannot deliver, but that is the cold unyielding reality for Schmidt’s Wallabies right now.

It was left to ex-Australia midfielder Matt Toomua to provide a more objective appraisal on The Roar Rugby Podcast.

“I feel the Brumbies have invested a lot into their open-field play, and maybe taken a little bit off the set-piece.

“In Auckland, where it’s very windy [and wet] and you can’t predict where the ball’s going? Unfortunately, I think the scrum will be a bit of an issue

“That being said, we are talking about a Wallabies tight-head [Alaalatoa] and loose-head [Slipper]. I do feel like maybe, when push comes to shove – when it’s a big game – they will step up. You would certainly like to hope so.”

The tone of Toomua’s comment – hoping for the best, but none too convinced it will happen – encapsulates the problem in a nutshell. Where the Brumbies tight five used to supply certainty of work-rate and quality set-piece, now there is only a fog of doubt.

The issues begin, but do not end, with a weakness down the left-hand side of the scrum. Even when fielding their two most experienced operators at prop [Slipper and Alaalatoa] versus the Crusaders in round 13, that fragility was all too apparent.

 

 

It is rare indeed for any top-level professional scrum to be pushed off its own ball – most penalties occur when the opposition has the feed and therefore, control of both the tempo and delivery of the ball. It is rarer still for the drive to be delivered with the tight-head on point and no rotation around the loose-head side. When that happens, or when the opposing number one collapses as in the second clip, it is a sure sign the left side of the set-piece is under the most severe pressure.

With Pollard in for Connal McInerney at hooker and Harry Vella for Slipper, the impression was confirmed in the quarter-final against the Highlanders.

 

As soon as Vella shifts his outside leg further across, looking for an angle into the ribs of his opponent Jermaine Ainsley, the ex-Force and Rebels tight-head is far too good to let him off. He drives straight for the centre of the tunnel, folding Pollard in half in the process.

Van Nek was tasked with the job of protecting Pollard’s left shoulder in the semi-final at Eden Park, but he fared no better than Vella or Slipper.

 

Once again it is the left side of the Brumbies scrum which gives way first, and the screenshot shows it is Pollard under the most pressure. He is the first to lose form, popping up like a cork and bobbing helplessly on the top of the set-piece.

Fifteen penalties in three games against Kiwi opposition is way too much free field position to be surrendering, especially for a team which thrives on playing the percentages.

Matt Toomua’s comment about an obvious loss of edge at the set-piece was confirmed by the Brumbies’ poor organisation at kick-off receipts against the Blues.

 

 

The link between the receiver [Swain] and his back-boost [Van Nek] is loose and uncoordinated and lacking in the essence of that vital word which typically describes the essence of life in Brumby-land – cohesion. It got no better when Frost came on for the final half hour of the game.

 

The connection between Frost and his back-boost [#20 Jahrome Brown] is so flimsy the big man has no chance of competing with Caleb Clarke in the air. The aerial foul cost the 6ft 9ins colossus a yellow card, and any hopes of a Canberra comeback went with him.

If Schmidt is to get off to flying start, he will need a tight five which is at best dominant, and at worst reliable in all aspects of set-piece play. The trouble is, Australia’s most dependable source of props, hookers and second rows has lost its punch.

Slipper and Neville are nearing retirement. It seems Frost is still rated nowhere near as highly as he should be by his home state, and has not had the opportunity to develop the undoubted international promise he displayed in 2022 and 2023, when he frequently ranked top of every category that mattered. None of the rakes have the physical presence or technical nous of their forebears.

Wales may not have the heft to exploit the left side of an Australian front row missing Angus Bell and Dave Porecki, but Georgia [in the shape of Levan Chilachava], South Africa [Frans Malberbe and Wilco Louw] and New Zealand [Tyrel Lomax and Fletcher Newell] most surely will. With only three weeks to go before the Welsh arrive, the fixes cannot come quickly enough.

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Comments

177 Comments
j
john 32 days ago

Apparently Rodda has decided to quit the Force, refused to take up a top up contract with the Tahs and is off to France. Another terrible blow for Australian rugby.
How come these Australian players aren’t busting to play for the Wallabies while being coached by a kiwi living in NZ. I just can’t understand it …….

P
Perthstayer 32 days ago

provided the bedrock of the Wallaby tight forward effort in recent times

WBs are ranked 9th. The one constant has been Slipper.

I recall the endless penalties he coughed up on the NH 22 tour. Any other country and he would be dropped.

Vs Wales, Georgia and SA, his record says he will be pinged 3 times in each match.

Do you think it is better starting him on the bench? Replacement will be penalised but that would be happening anyway!

(Hope you are well)

M
Mitch 32 days ago

Did any of the Aussie sides have a strong scrum this season?

d
d 32 days ago

Are you looking at Hodgman for the loose head spot? Would you still consider Alalatoa at thp

It is frustrating that even at club level you understand the importance of a strong scrum but Aus rugby seems to forget it regularly.

F
Francisco 33 days ago

When penalties happen in self-feeding scrums, we are in real trouble. My club in Argentina is currently going through that dark corridor. Brumbies, like my team, should forget about this pride issue in the scrum and manage the ball immediately. Work for 2024/2025...?

c
carlos 33 days ago

Calling Patricio Noriega! (Too late) I remember his son was in Brumbies academy too. What happened to him? Pity there are no good Argie props these days that they can recruit. We are looking for them too.

D
Derek Murray 33 days ago

Swain and Neville together lacked grunt. I don’t think Frost is a massive step up on that front, albeit he’s a better rugby player. If we can get our best locks on the pitch and most of our best front row, it won’t be an area of problem:

  1. Bell, Sio, Hodgman
  2. Uelese, BPA, Faessler
  3. AAA, Tupou, Nonggoor (?) 4/5. LSL, Rodda, Canham, Frost, Skelton
Add a backrow with Swinton, Valentini, FMR, Hooper, Cale, Leota, Uru and we can compete at set piece and in the power game

A
Ardy 33 days ago

It is a big worry when the scrum has become a serious weapon for most top-tier International rugby teams over the last 10 or so years.
I am hoping Joe can get a scrum that can reduce the penalties and hold the weight on their put in. If he can build an outstanding backrow, we may be competitive in the forward battles.

T
Tommy B. 33 days ago

Let’s hope the WBs never change. An old pom like me can still get misty-eyed and nostalgic over thinking about Matt Dunning and Al Baxter.

M
Mzilikazi 33 days ago

Worrying situation you write on, Nick. It is perhaps 3, maybe now 4 years ago, Taniela Tupou could be ranked in the top 4 at TH in world rugby. His scrummaging alone was formidable, with probably only Frans Malherbe and the ageing WP Nel better. Look where he is now. And with Angus Bell out of contention, what should have been a world class pair of props is gone with the wind. It will be interesting to see what the Schmidt coaching team can cobble together as a workable scrum.

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