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FEATURE Why there's already reason to believe in Eddie Jones' Wallabies

Why there's already reason to believe in Eddie Jones' Wallabies
11 months ago

Eddie Jones will not have many fond memories of mountainous England prop Andrew Sheridan. The 2005 match between England and Australia at Twickenham will have left too many scars for comfort. First Sheridan’s starting opposite number Al Baxter was yellow-carded for persistent collapsing of the set-piece. At the scrum following Baxter’s departure, his replacement Matt Dunning was then horribly mangled by the English giant, and forced to leave the field on a stretcher with a neck injury.

Fortunately, there was no permanent physical injury to Dunning, but it took Australia more than a decade to repair the psychological damage done, and reverse the negative tide of refereeing opinion flowing from that set-piece debacle on the old cabbage patch.

As Jones commented ruefully after the shellacking, “That was a new level of scrummaging to compete against today. Sheridan led the way, he put enormous pressure on the right-hand side of our scrum, and technically we did not deal with him very well.”

By the end of the year, Australia had lost eight of nine games and Jones was out of a job.

It is fair to say that throughout his international coaching career, the ex-Randwick hooker has been on the receiving end of punishment dished out at the scrum rather more than he has had the pleasure of doling it out. It happened at the 2019 World Cup final against the Springboks, with South Africa winning five penalties off the England set-piece; a repeat against the same opponents brought the curtain down on his time as England head honcho in November 2022.

15 for 10 <a href=
Sale Sharks” width=”1920″ height=”1080″ /> Andrew Sheridan was a force of nature for Sale and England. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

It is not a happy symmetry, but the historical pattern could yet be turned on its head in time for the World Cup in September. Australia has some excellent tight five forwards returning from injury at just the right moment. Loosehead prop Angus Bell and second row Matt Philip were both restored, and played a part off the bench against Argentina, while the ‘Tongan Thor’, Taniela Tupou, started for Australia A versus Tonga shortly before the match in Parramatta.

Add those three to an existing core group of Allan Alaalatoa, Dave Porecki, Will Skelton, Nick Frost and Jed Holloway, and Eddie Jones may be able to give even the mighty All Blacks some pause for thought at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on 29 July.

Set-piece is one of the easier areas in which to make rapid strides. In a recent podcast, ex-Wallabies defence and breakdown coach ‘the Lord’ Laurie Fisher underlined both the challenges and the opportunities that lie ahead for the Australian forwards:

“It can be simple, [but] I don’t think it is with the Wallabies at the moment. There is a lot of change in coaching personnel – new attack coach, new defence coach, new scrum coach, new maul coach, new lineout coach, new head coach. There is a lot of change there.

“I think if you had a team that were well-honed in what they were doing, and you had a bad day, then it can turn around in an instant. But we are still discovering ourselves really, which is not an ideal part of where we are at the moment.”

It is the return of Bell, Philip and Tupou in the tight five forwards that offers the most immediate remedy.

“[But] just don’t read too much into one game [against the Pumas]. Eddie’s been coaching a long time. He’s got a fantastic record. He’s got a clear idea. He’s got a lot of good people around him. And he will have an unwavering belief in what he wants to do.”

Where were the green shoots of growth in the green-and-gold game between the thin air of Pretoria and the western suburbs of Sydney? Firstly, Australia upped its try-scoring total from two to four between South Africa and Argentina. In the backs, Quade Cooper enjoyed nine extra touches at first receiver in Parramatta after being starved of the ball at Loftus Versveld. His X-factor supporting cast – Marika Koroibete, Samu Kerevi, Mark Nawqaintawase/Suliasi Vunivalu and Tom Wright – had 16 more carries at home than they had managed away from Australia.

But it is the return of Bell, Philip and Tupou in the tight five forwards that offers the most immediate remedy. With those three added to the mix, the Wallabies’ scrum and maul can become a genuine threat. Australia improved from 0-3 in the scrum penalty count against South Africa to an even 2-2 versus the Pumas, and the lineout has already demonstrated that it can cope with a non-jumper (Will Skelton) starting in the second row, at least with Dave Porecki throwing the ball in. With the New South Wales rake delivering the ball, Australia has won 21 of its 23 feeds to the lineout.

Will Skelton has added a huge point-of-difference to the Wallaby scrum and lineout drive. With the La Rochelle lighthouse anchoring the right side of the Australian scrum, it freed tight-head Allan Alaalatoa to make 19 tackles at Parramatta, and move on to the offensive at the set-piece. Alaalatoa has probably been praying for a tighthead scrummager like big Will behind him for most of his professional career:

In both these instances, it is the right-hand side of the Australia scrum which is the ‘tip of the spear’ creating the pressure on loose-head Thomas Gallo and hooker Julián Montoya. Whenever you see a rake pop up like that, it is because the opposing tighthead has successfully split him away from the support on his left.

The second penalty was crucial: Richie Arnold was off the field on a yellow card and Marika Koroibete had moved in from wing to pack down on one flank, and the Wallabies scrum had to make a statement with their opponents poised to strike just before ‘oranges’. Now add the Tongan Thor into the mix over the right side and you can double the impact.

Skelton’s influence on the driving maul from lineout was no less impressive:

 

The lineout drive churns upfield all the way from the Australian 30-metre line past halfway with Skelton in the van. It is the big man splitting the Argentine defence at the sharp end before finally taking on the ball himself. The Wallabies won a penalty from the pressure they created, Mark Nawaqanitawase ran away on the tap, and Len Ikitau finished in the left corner off some clever interplay from Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi. Simple.

Skelton’s physical influence, compared to that of his partner in the second row, Richie Arnold, is easy to illustrate:

 When Arnold detaches from the drive, he only takes one Argentine forward with him (Tomás Lavanini). When Skelton peels away, he removes three defenders from the maul (Montoya, Juan Martín González and Francisco Gómez Kodela), and the drive jolts ahead with added momentum.

On defence, Skelton was one of the few Australian forwards who presented any threat in contact to the uninterrupted stream of Argentine phase ball:

No sooner has he stripped the ball in the screenshot (a ball Argentina were fortunate to recover) than he is back on-ball in the clip, on this occasion winning the turnover penalty.

Skelton may be huge, but he has quick feet for such a big man in D. Later in the half, he was trusted to make a one-on-one tackle on Pumas No 10 Santiago Carreras:

Skelton’s individual work again sends out some important collective ripples – it enables Carter Gordon to avoid committing to the tackle, and skip around the ruck to make a critical intercept on the very next phase. Gordon almost took that one all the way to the house.

The long-term injury absences of both Matt Philip and Angus Bell appeared to have done them no harm at all. They looked refreshed and ready for action:

 

Bell and Philip supply two more willing ball-carriers in the tight five, and Bell adds an extra on-baller at the defensive breakdown. Both these are areas of extreme need if Eddie Jones is to develop any impetus against the All Blacks, or indeed at the World Cup itself.

Core groups of James Slipper, Allan Alaalatoa, Angus Bell and Taniela Tupou at prop, with Will Skelton, Matt Philip and Jed Holloway behind them in the second row will prove to be the key that unlocks the door to progress.

That may require some blue-sky thinking, and the shift of Nick Frost from lock to the flank to make it work. Frost showed on the 2022 end-of-year tour that he has the work-rate and ability to man the spot. He was top among all Australian tight forwards in minutes played, penalties conceded (one on four matches), ruck clearances, tackles completed and ball-carries made. On top of all that, he won half of all the Wallabies’ lineout ball on the November tour.

What sets him apart from Holloway and Tom Hooper is his quickness and foot-speed. Remember this try from the Under 20s World Championship?

Frost can run with backs in the open field. The Ireland No 10 and No 14 cannot get near him to make a tackle. Holloway and Philip are both well-suited to work in the middle of the field, so why not let Frost play outside them?

There is not much that is going right for Eddie Jones in his second coming as Wallabies head coach. There are too many areas which are sub-standard at this level of the game. As Lord Laurie commented on the podcast, “From watching the game [versus Argentina], I don’t know that they [the Wallabies] have great clarity themselves at the moment.

“They have a new defensive coach [Brett Hodgson] who has never coached rugby union, [he] hasn’t played rugby union.

“I saw guys having a crack, but I didn’t see a designated policy of how we’re going to get some pressure on their ball.

“Even close to our line, I saw Jed Holloway pull out of a contest. For goodness sake, you’ve just got to go in and make a mess of it. It’s a non-negotiable. So I don’t know if that’s an area that they’ve addressed with any significance yet.”

Australia is crying out for more on-ball pressure in defence, and it needs more forward ball-carriers who can set up the cleanout on the front foot with ball in hand. By building a tight five around Will Skelton, and by seriously considering the option of shifting Nick Frost to the open No 6 spot, Wallabies forward selection can start to make some sense.

Whatever Eddie Jones says, the All Blacks will not be quaking in their boots at the prospect of facing Australia. It may not heal old wounds and banish the ghost of Andrew Sheridan entirely, but at least a newly-minted Wallabies tight five might cause Ian Foster and co to think twice.

Comments

208 Comments
R
Roderick 332 days ago

I would not bet my money on Tupou fixing the scrum. He is deadly dangerous with the ball in hand, but his scrummaging against the best looseheads is short of top draw. You might want to reexamine the footage of Tupou against Marler, Moody and Matawarira, and if I'm not mistaken, De Groot will have his measure.

A
Ardy 335 days ago

great article Nick. This is the one area where the Wallabies need to improve and once the pack have the power basics of scrum, maul and breakdown under control, then it's time to teach the rest of the team how to compete for turnover and securing the ball.
If we get all this right we will get back to the top 3-4.

m
mitch 336 days ago

Hopefully there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Some quality returning to the squad and others already back after serious injuries should improve with time. I like the idea of Frost to 6, McKellar played him at 6 for the Brumbies so he has played there. We need a guy with foot work, size, speed and workrate at 6 for sure.

F
Flankly 336 days ago

The analysis makes sense.

Why does Eddie say this: "In 10 days we can be a completely different team, and that's the aim"? It's not a great thing to say if you're convinced you're going to get pounded. He would be much better off saying that "NZ are currently well ahead of us, but that we think we can give them a bit of a run".

The cynic might say that he always promises imminent magic. But I think Nick is touching on what Eddie is saying. My sense is that Eddie considers the culture change and physical conditioning to be the critical-path tasks, including all the stuff about thinking rugby and traditional Wallaby strengths. And he considers the nuts and bolts stuff of selections, set pieces, defensive systems, etc to be things you can deploy more quickly. Not saying that settled combinations and grooved systems are unimportant, but he seems to be less fixated on them than on the mindset and mission.

He doesn't have much time, even if you include the pool games as ramp time. I know its not quite what this article is saying, but I do believe that the Wallabies can have a decent front five platform in place, along with competitive execution of set pieces and basic structures. We know that there is experience in the half backs and strength in the outside backs, with some questions to answer in midfield and back row.

The bottom line is that the Wallabies have a relatively easy path to the QFs, and then it will be about smart tactics. He's not bad at that.

I would not bet on the Wallabies against the ABs this w/e, but I would not be surprised to see that more of the holes in the boat have been fixed.

J
JD Kiwi 336 days ago

Good article Nick. Australia just being to compete up front against the top teams will be a big first step, if only Eddie lets Quade control the game and give Kerevi a fair share of the ball.

Great to see you building up the community here in a short space of time, top work.

c
cs 336 days ago

Good to see the appreciation of Big Will and Philips Nick.

f
frandinand 336 days ago

My major concern despite your hopeful thoughts is our defence which still looks very shaky and our work at the breakdown. Until these issues are fixed I am not hopeful of any vast improvements.

c
carlos 336 days ago

Nick, who WON the game? Asking for a friend. Also touting the Wallaby scrum against the weakest props in Tier 1…? Yeah, they’re awesome. Sure.

0
007 336 days ago

This current iteration of the Wallabies has a soft underbelly and powderpuff defence - to be expected from a team that has the Cadbury chocolate brand adorned across their jersey.
Sugar and spice and all things nice etc...

O
Otagoman II 336 days ago

Thanks NB, normally I would agree and give Frost a go at 6 but his form has notably fallen away from the latter half of Super Rugby. Something is not quite right with him and the Wallabies need to get it sorted soon as he could be a 10 year player for them.

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