Australia have been under a fair bit of pressure in the media in 2016 and Michael Cheika hasn’t dealt with it all that well. A series loss to England in June, three comprehensive defeats to New Zealand, tactical failure against South Africa in Pretoria and one-score victories over Scotland and France (two of the poorer sides in the Six Nations) are not what you’d expect from a team that is currently ranked as third-best in the world. Two comfortable wins against Argentina and a demolition job on Wales aren’t much of a reprieve, but the fact that Australia are in a corner and chasing a Grand Slam makes them lethal.
Before the Autumn Series started, this game looked like it had all the makings of a dead rubber for Australia, whereas for Ireland, it was expected to be a chance at redemption after two losses to New Zealand. In the context of Ireland’s win in Chicago (and the knock-on effect that victory had in terms of world rankings), and Australia’s pursuit of a Grand Slam, Saturday’s Test has taken on great significance for both teams.
Unlike New Zealand, Australia have as many weaknesses as they do strengths. Even with the injuries to Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw, Ireland do have the personnel to beat them; whether or not they do so will come down to how much they have left in the tank after playing the world champions twice in the space of 14 days.
Inferior set-pieces have long been synonymous with Australian teams, and the current Wallabies side is no exception. Scott Sio’s emergence as a Test starter has shored up their scrum issues somewhat, but it’s still an issue. None of the Australian props are standout technicians, and they are not helped by their back rowers not staying bound properly to give them the push that they need. This combination of factors means that they often struggle to retain their own ball, get penalised, get driven back several yards, or give the opposition front foot ball to work with:
The lineout has been one of Australia’s biggest downfalls as well. They had the lowest success rate out of touch in the Rugby Championship and there’s more than one reason for this. Stephen Moore’s darts are inconsistent to begin with, and the alternatives at hooker are inferior throwers to their captain. The other deficiency in the Australian lineout is that there is little in the way of animation or movement up or down the line on the part of the lifters or jumpers before the ball is thrown in. Because of this, the other pack can identify the different pods that the ball could go to and not have to worry about rearrangement of them prior to the lift:
Australia have also shown themselves to be vulnerable against mauls. There are different approaches to counter-mauling, each with their own benefits. Some teams pile numbers in as soon as the jumper comes to ground to deny the opposition easy yards; some put minimal numbers in, allowing the opposition a gain for the sake of not conceding a penalty and having enough players out in the defensive line for when the ball goes wide; and others don’t engage at all, instead sending one of their players around the side to sack the ball carrier (like Ireland have done so many times with Jack McGrath).
It’s unclear as to what strategy (if any) that Australia have in mind when it comes to stopping opposition drives, and they have looked all at sea when repelling mauls. They are at a disadvantage because the forwards in the other southern hemisphere sides are bigger than them, but they don’t do themselves any favours by going in high and getting splintered from each other:
Ireland took New Zealand to the cleaners at maul-time in Chicago, and even though they didn’t have anywhere near as much success in the Dublin fixture, it would be unwise not to take advantage of a weak point.
Identification Of Roles
Imbalanced selections have been a feature for Australia throughout this year and an examination of the roles assigned to each player demonstrates that compensating for shortcomings and an attempt to develop an advantage in certain areas are the reasons behinds this. Playing David Pocock and Michael Hooper together does give Australia an edge at the breakdown, but it leaves them short of a proper ball carrier at number eight. Although Pocock’s yards after contact aren’t bad and Hooper excels against fractured defences in wider channels, neither player makes the big carries in-close that require two or three tacklers the way someone like Wycliff Palu or Ben McCalman would, and neither does newcomer Lopeti Timani.
It’s a weakness that becomes even more evident when you consider who they have selected at blindside flanker. Playing Dean Mumm at 6 strengthens their lineout and adds bulk to their pack, but he doesn’t make big yards after contact. Using a 32-year-old second rower at 6 also hinders Australia in scrums; by nature, a lock is slower to unbind from a scrum than a flanker, and Mumm was exposed in this area in the second Bledisloe Cup Test:
This is something that Joe Schmidt has targeted against other teams in the past; with pre-planned backline moves involving a full back taking an inside pass to have a cut at the gap between the scrum and the start of the backline:
The switch-back play that led to Henshaw’s try in Chicago is designed to capitalise on this space, but Australia will no doubt be prepared for it, so if it is to be used, a variation will be required.
A lack of dynamism in the back row can be made up for in other places, for example, the front five. However, few of Australia’s tight five forwards are proficient at getting over the gain line either. Sekope Kepu is always good for a couple of decent carries per game but he’s not a wrecking ball like Cian Healy or Mako Vunipola, and can’t be expected to take on all of his pack’s ball carrying responsibilities.
Australia have other tackle-breaking options in the second row, but each of them have flaws. Despite being the most destructive front five player available to Australia, Will Skelton’s scrummaging technique and indiscipline are a liability and his size counts against him in several ways. He can’t get low quickly at ruck-time, he’s too heavy to lift with ease in lineouts, and his substandard fitness levels make him ineffective beyond the 50-minute mark. These imperfections are why Michael Cheika opted for rounded workhorses like Rob Simmons and Kane Douglas in the starting XV earlier in the year. Adam Coleman has added dynamism to Australia’s carries tight to the ruck, and himself and Rory Arnold have developed a strong partnership in recent weeks, but both are finding their feet at Test level.
In Australia’s backline, the duties of making hard yards and getting over the gain line are also assigned to specific players. Will Genia showed against Argentina in Perth that he’s still a line-breaking threat, but he doesn’t take defences on himself as often as he did back in 2011. With the limitations in Quade Cooper’s kicking out of hand, Genia has had to take on a lot of the game management and tactical kicking responsibilities in the same way that French scrum-halves do. Bernard Foley regularly makes half-breaks and Quade Cooper has a habit of running cross-field, but both players are in the team to act as distributors, not to carve defences open.
Australia’s current starting wingers, Henry Speight and Dane Haylett-Petty, are not bulldozers that can smash holes in midfield in the same way that Julian Savea, Waisake Naholo, George North or Alex Cuthbert do. Speight is fairly strong and can be a handful, and Haylett-Petty is a tall, lean, sidestepping full back who is best suited to exploiting space that has been created in the five-metre channel using dancing feet. They do take passes from 10 or 12 in the middle of the pitch from time to time, but when this happens, it is so that they can run around defenders rather than through them.
Up until two years ago, Israel Folau could be relied on for line breaks or magic offloads every time the ball got into his hands, then video analysts and defence coaches recognised his class, and began loading their defences against him.
It’s at 12 and 13 where Australia really generate go-forward ball. Reece Hodge played on the wing in the Rugby Championship, with Quade Cooper and Bernard Foley operating a classic Australian two five-eighths system, but his selection at 12 has added another string to Australia’s bow. The versatile Melbourne Rebels back isn’t an absolute monster in the mould of Jamie Roberts or Ma’a Nonu, but his big frame has been used to good effect in midfield, and he’s creative and skilful enough to identify space and get others running into it.
Tevita Kuridrani was brought into the team back in 2013 to give Australia ballast in midfield. After a drop in form and the emergence of Samu Kerevi saw him lose his place, an injury to the Queensland Reds centre made way for him to return, and unfortunately for Ireland, he seemed to hit his stride against France last week. Kuridrani has shown himself to be more than a battering ram at club level, but for Australia, his primary role is to carry hard and barrel through tacklers:
Australia don’t have only one or two individuals who can get over the gain line; nearly every player in their team made yards at will against Wales three weeks ago, but recognising which players to put to ground early is going to be key for Ireland.
Australia’s defence has been, on the whole, second-rate this year. It’s unusual for a Cheika-coached team to be so lax off the ball, as he has a reputation for being a strict taskmaster, and his Heineken Cup success with Leinster in 2009 was built on a well-drilled, aggressive defence. His Australian team have conceded 38 tries in 13 Tests since the start of 2016, though, and while 16 of those have come against New Zealand, it’s a staggeringly high number.
One of the biggest problems that Australia have without the ball is reorganisation once the opposition make a line break, allowing mismatches with tight forwards defending out wide and leaving holes along the line:
In this example, Australia make life tough for themselves following a Julian Savea line break by stacking the blind side with backs (Tevita Kuridrani, Nick Phipps, Adam Ashley-Cooper), with Michael Hooper, Allan Alaalatoa, Kane Douglas, David Pocock, James Slipper, Dean Mumm and Israel Folau left to cover the open side. Defending a space that size with mostly forwards is trying anyway, but the standing so narrow and moving from out to in when the New Zealand attackers hold their width makes matters worse.
The only player in the front line of the New Zealand attack between the ruck and Kieran Read is Beauden Barrett, and although Ben Smith is lurking in behind the ruck as a possible inside support runner and there’s always the possibility that TJ Pernara will snipe, it’s too many defenders to commit to that space. The line speed from Mumm at the edge is quick, and Barrett decides to kick anyway, but if New Zealand put the ball through the hands, Folau would be faced with a two-on-one situation against Liam Squire and Dane Coles (who comes into view right at the end of this sequence).
Realignment after kicks has been a source of woe for Australia, with their players slow to get into the back field and spread out evenly across the pitch once either team put boot to ball:
Ireland’s propensity for using the high ball wasn’t that rewarding last Saturday, and it would have been exciting to have seen Simon Zebo or Tiernan O’Halloran picked at 15 to counterattack against the space that Australia afford teams following kicks. However, the prospect of big territorial gains and the selections of Jared Payne and Rob Kearney, mean that kick-chase it’s probably going to be a big part of Ireland’s game plan.
Defending the blind side has been problematic for Australia, too. Numbering up properly and reacting swiftly when the opposition decide to change the direction of the attack are difficult at the best of times, but even when it’s obvious that their opponents are going to have a go at the short side, Australia have been caught out by not having enough defenders:
There are also problems with Australia’s defence on an individual level. Their players tend to go high in the tackle, letting the ball carrier make yards after contact:
This is a something that would be worth Ireland’s while to target with the ball carrying options that they have in their pack. The likes of Sean Cronin, Cian Healy, Iain Henderson, Ultan Dillane, CJ Stander, Seán O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip could easily get their team on the front foot against this type of tackling.
It’s not just poor tackle technique that Australia are guilty of, either. They have had a tackle completion rate of 81% across all of the Tests that they have played so far this year. Again, it’s worth noting that five of those games have been against New Zealand and Argentina, but it’s not a statistic that reads well. Their first-up tackling is reasonably good; it’s when the opposition get in behind the first line of defence that they seem to drop down to first gear:
In terms of focusing on specific individuals, the worst defender in the Australian squad is Quade Cooper. Even in his world-beating 2011 form, he shied away from defensive duties and had to be babysat by his forwards. To reduce the influence of his defensive failings, Cooper was kept in the backfield in this year’s second Bledisloe Cup Test to keep him out of the firing line. This proved to be costly as he was found to be vulnerable under the high ball. New Zealand applied a lot of pressure on him through well-executed kicks, which resulted in him either losing aerial contests or getting isolated when he did catch the ball.
The Australian management then moved Cooper into the front line as the shooter at the edge of the defence to avoid him tackling forwards in-close, but that had its own drawbacks. Being the shooter in any defensive system is challenging; it requires correct decision-making on a consistent basis and an innate ability to anticipate what the attacking team are going to do. Sound judgement on the timing of the rush is also critical, as leaving the line early creates a dog-leg in the defence, while delaying the run gives the opposition time and space on the ball. These are qualities that Cooper doesn’t have, and he was caught out a number of times:
In this example, Argentina switch the direction of the attack, Australia are caught defending narrowly, and Cooper makes several defensive errors. He pushes up and in, giving Argentina room on the outside, but he hesitates after pushing up, so he’s not putting pressure on the pass. Then he stands off Joaquín Tuculet, allowing him to throw an accurate pass to Agustín Creevy.
Cooper could have atoned for these mistakes with a big hit but instead he puts in a weak tackle on the Argentinian captain, barely holding on until Dane Haylett-Petty joins to assist in putting Creevy to ground. Lastly, he stands behind the ruck without hitting it, so he’s not slowing down the Pumas’ ball or making his way around the corner to join the defensive line. This instance is one example of how when Cooper is on the pitch, Australia are basically short a defender.
For all their faults, Australia are still a dangerous team, and when they click, they can make a mess of any defensive system. They have scored an average of 2.6 tries per game this year, which is impressive, especially against the stingy South African, English and Welsh defences that they have had to break down.
A predominant feature of Australia’s attack is their use of one or two triangle patterns across the pitch to narrow up opposition midfield defences and create space at the edges. This attacking shape is highly effective because it gives them so many options: short passes to a player at the front of a triangle, inside passes to a support runner, pull-back passes in behind decoy runners to fix defenders, two distributors getting hands on the ball in one movement, wraparounds, and opportunities for interplay between forwards and backs:
One way for Ireland to defend against this shape would be to push up and out. If the player at first-receiver runs cross-field, then the rest of the Australian attackers will be inclined to alter their running lines to follow suit, thereby bending the triangle patterns out of shape.
The use of inside passes from 10 and 12 has also been fruitful for Australia. The ability of Cooper and Foley to feign passing out and then throw no-look passes back inside accurately is remarkable and the excellence of the running lines from the recipients of those passes have allowed Australia to lacerate defences off set-pieces and during phase play:
It’s been more than just complex structure that has seen Australia flourish with ball in hand. They have gifted individuals in their squad who can trouble anyone, even without Matt Giteau’s playmaking brilliance.
On top of being a menace at the breakdown, Michael Hooper is often used as a link man out in the Australian backline when they are on the charge. With incredible gas (especially for a forward), a good awareness of where his support runners are and the necessary skill levels to get the ball into their hands without taking time out of the pass, it’s easy to understand why the Waratahs flanker has been played at inside centre during injury crises.
As mentioned earlier, Quade Cooper has many blemishes, but he can be an elusive runner when he does decide to straighten up. Notwithstanding his proneness for trying Hail Mary offloads when they’re not on, he does have exceptional handling skills, and he stays alive and runs a support line after giving a pass.
Tevita Kuridrani’s strength in contact was discussed already, but he’s not a one-trick pony. When given freedom to roam, he has displayed pace and footwork:
Ireland’s untried centre pairing will have their work cut out for them containing Australia’s attack, and the aforementioned abilities of Hodge and Kuridrani will be a huge test for the out of position Garry Ringrose in particular.
A lot of people have described Australia as underperforming based on their win/loss ratio this year. When assessing any team, it is important to remember the quality of their opposition. England are a much better team under Eddie Jones, South Africa are a stronger set-piece team than the Wallabies, Argentina are improving all the time, and New Zealand were on a different planet to everyone else for the majority of the year.
When the mood strikes them, Australia can put it up to the best teams in Test rugby. If there are any slight drop-offs in intensity or defensive misreads on Ireland’s part, Michael Cheika’s team will be quick to remind them what they’re capable of. No more than three years ago, a misfiring Wallabies side turned up to the Aviva Stadium and put on an attacking masterclass against a passive Irish defence. Consistency remains a problem, though, and the outcome of Saturday’s game will, to a certain extent, be determined by which Australian team turns up: the one that put 32 points on Wales, or the one that fell over the line against Scotland.