Beware The Wounded Wallaby

Ireland v Australia - Match Preview (Beware The Wounded Wallaby) Header Photo
No Quarter Given: Jack Conan bowls over Pete Samu in June of 2018. Ireland’s last meeting with Australia was a series decider in Sydney as they were about to reach their summit under Joe Schmidt. It was a hard-fought match against a team with plenty of Michael Cheika’s trademark grit that Ireland just about came out on the right side of, paving the way for their historic win over the All Blacks five months later. Fast forward four years, and Ireland are in a similar state of good health whereas Australia’s fortunes seem to change every time they take to the field. The Wallabies have numerous blemishes, but Ireland have racked up a lot of injuries before and during this November campaign, so finishing this series on a high will be no easy task.

Australia have been something of an enigma under Dave Rennie since the Kiwi took charge of them after RWC 2019. New faces were introduced to freshen up a squad that had become stale under Michael Cheika, and their performances in the 2020 Rugby Championship seemed to represent the breaking of a new dawn, but this year, they finished 2 from 6 in The Rugby Championship, lost a Test series at home to England, endured a loss to Italy, and are staring down the barrel of a dismal November campaign if Ireland replicate the performance levels they displayed against South Africa.

It doesn’t help that their identity isn’t entirely clear. They still attack expansively with complex pod structures and struggle up front, but whereas Robbie Deans’ Australia were superstars who were sometimes flaky and Cheika’s Wallabies were industrious and hard-edged, Rennie’s team doesn’t really fall into either category. They have plenty of solid if not spectacular players, but they don’t function well as a unit to the point of being better than the sum of their parts the way squads like that tend to, and they have no real gifted players who produce moments of magic that win them games.

That doesn’t mean that they are an easy team to beat; New Zealand might have obliterated them a few times since the end of 2019, but they have no shortage of physicality and spikiness in their squad, and have regularly beaten the reigning world champions. Test rugby is definitely a more level playing field now, but wins over southern hemisphere opposition don’t come cheap, and after results not going their way the last couple of weeks, Australia have their backs to the wall, so there has to be an angry reaction at some point.

Danger Close

As mentioned previously, the addition of the South African franchises to Ireland’s domestic club competition has benefitted them greatly, but by the same token, their absence from Super Rugby has hurt Australia and New Zealand badly. Huge packs and blitz defences are more difficult to contend with when you only come up against them a handful of times a year compared to every second week, and Dave Rennie has recognised this, because there are several features of Australia’s attack that appear to be designed to outmanoeuvre big forwards and aggressive defensive lines.

Tip-on passes were a go-to tactic from them in the Rugby Championship, and even though they haven’t used it as frequently in this November series (probably due to expected poorer weather conditions which would make the ploy riskier), it works a charm when it is rolled out:

It makes sense to do this against teams who are eager with their line speed because it draws defenders towards one target before shifting it to another, thereby taking advantage of the space left behind overzealous would-be tacklers, and the same principle applies to their use of the inside ball.

Joe Schmidt’s patented outside-inside move is very much in vogue now, with Scotland scoring a try against New Zealand by using it as recently as last week, and Australia use it often and for good reason:

Both of the above types of plays are aimed at exploiting the space closest to opposition forwards, which is smart thinking when said forwards have slow lateral movement and their team’s defensive philosophy is based on shutting down space out wide at the expense of sometimes leaving dog-legs tight to the ruck.

Putting scrum-halves up in the defensive front line isn’t exactly innovative at this point; most teams do it now in order to have extra defensive numbers, but what is remarkable about it is that they continue to do so in spite of their back three having to stand deep to cover long punts due to the 50/22 rule.

The net result of this is acres of space directly behind the ruck, and Australia routinely put short kicks into this zone so that the defence are forced to scramble back in a panic:

Hugo Keenan’s coverage of the backfield is world class and Jamison Gibson-Park is a canny operator, but even they will need to be on high alert to the ball being stabbed in behind their pack in the above manner.

Problem Position

Out-half has been something of a revolving door for Australia since the start of this World Cup cycle. Bernard Foley’s international retirement initially looked to have created an opening for Noah Lolesio, but after a hammering at the hands of the All Blacks in Round 1 of the 2020 Rugby Championship, Dave Rennie lost faith in him, reverting to the tried and trusted Reece Hodge. The immediate result was positive; Australia narrowed the losing margin to two points the following week, but there weren’t any benefits in the long run.

10 is a confidence position, and in hindsight, being dropped for an able utility back hasn’t done Lolesio or Australia any favours, and neither did turning to James O’Connor or Quade Cooper, two experienced players with buckets of talent but who never convinced in the position at the top level and had been out of the Test arena for years. Trying to use these short-term solutions for a long-term problem has led to a dilemma at out-half for Australia, as has not showing faith in a young player with a bright future ahead of him.

Lolesio is still in Rennie’s plans, but the Wallabies head coach has instead turned to the aforementioned Bernard Foley in an attempt to generate some stability at half-back. The veteran stand-off has arguably gotten Australia’s back line running more smoothly than any of his competitors, but first-up tackling still isn’t his strong suit, and the knock-on effect of him being taken out of harm’s way to avoid defensive duties just causes trouble elsewhere.

Deploying him in the backfield leads to him being bombarded with up-and-unders, and he has demonstrated that he is far from comfortable in dealing with them:

The other option Australia try out is positioning him at the edge of the defensive line, but this then means that his defensive reads and tackling efforts put Australia under serious pressure off the ball:

Garryowens from Ireland are par for the course, and they have an abundance of explosive carriers in their forwards and backs to test out Foley in the tackle if they do get a clear run at him, but what is of more interest is how they worked the Fijian midfield defence last week, especially with the above clip in mind.

In the first half of their clash with the Pacific Islanders, Ireland used short pop-passes from McCloskey to Caelan Doris in midfield off first-phase to tie in their defence. It’s a move that has its own merits; putting two of your most dynamic carriers side-by-side means that multiple tacklers are committed, and if the defence don’t make the right call on which one is going to carry, then they’re going to get well beyond the gain line:

This, however, turned out to be a trap that Ireland were laying for Fiji, as later on in the game, they used the same pattern, except this time, McCloskey put the ball in behind Doris to Jack Crowley. The young Munster stand-off’s arcing run allowed him to attack the space created by the compression of the Fijian defenders, and Ireland’s decoy almost made a clean line break:

It’s a mirror image of the move used by Scotland for Ollie Smith’s try in the clip showed earlier on, and it would be no surprise to find out that Ireland used the Fiji game to fine-tune it ahead of tomorrow.

Source Woes

Set-piece failings have been a thorn in Australia’s side for as long as anyone can remember. The prevalence of rugby league in the country might have a lot to do with it; scrums and lineouts don’t feature in the 13-man code, and its brutally direct nature lends itself more to muscle-bound carriers rather than rangy lineout operators in the forwards, so anyone who plays it in their developmental years is going to be heavily influenced by this in terms of the style of player they become.

Add to that the fact that Australia’s main strength has always been what they do in open play as well as the make-up of their current back five, and you get a clearer picture as to why they are not particularly solid out of touch. Michael Hooper isn’t really an option given his height and heavyset build, and Rob Valentini is a powerful ball-carrier who never quite looks at ease when jumping.

That leaves Jed Holloway as a decent jumper at 6 on top of some fairly tall timber in the second row, so three legitimate targets should make life relatively easy for Australia in the lineout, but their setup and lack of animation in the build-up to the throw make them wooden and predictable. When their forwards walk to the lineout, their jumping pod bunch together from the start, so there is no misdirection involved.

Everyone stays still until the signal comes for the throw, with no movement up or down the line or shaping to jump from those who aren’t the intended recipient, so it’s not hard to figure out where the ball is going:

Ireland’s defensive lineout hasn’t been overly productive in this series thus far, but I think that has more to do with their opponents than anything else. You’re not going to get much change out of competing in the air against a three-lock Springbok pack, and considering the pace and width that Fiji like to put on the ball, it’s wise to keep defensive numbers on the ground against them. With Tadhg Beirne and Peter O’Mahony back in tandem tomorrow, though, you can expect to see Ireland contest every Australian throw to prevent them from getting quality possession for their potent back line.

On the other side of the ball, Australia’s maul defence has been their Achilles’ heel, too. Struggling against the likes of England, France and South Africa in this area is one thing, but when you see them failing to counter the New Zealand drive (a team who aren’t renowned for turning the screw on their opponents in this department), it’s cause for concern for them.

In the below example, their forwards are too upright so have no chance of generating any sort of power, and they are too loosely connected to one another. They also seem to fall somewhere between trying to form a pincer around the All Black maul and building a strong, tight nucleus at the front to match New Zealand’s force and deny them momentum:

Ireland have scored three tries off the back of mauls in this series, so they will certainly look to squeeze Australia with catch-and-drives, it remains to be seen if their visitors can withstand what Ireland throw at them any better than they have done heretofore.

The scrum has never been a strong suit for even the World Cup-winning Australian teams down the years, and while being squeezed at the coalface by South African and northern hemisphere sides is something they are used to, they are now leaking penalties in this phase of play against New Zealand, and like the maul, dominant scrummaging isn’t something New Zealand have a reputation for.

Despite being their captain and a proven, seasoned operator, James Slipper’s height is a significant part of Australia’s woes at scrum-time. In the below example, Tyrel Lomax gets right underneath him and drives up, forcing the Brumbies loosehead to pop up and concede a penalty:

We haven’t seen the best of Tadhg Furlong yet this season, mainly because he has only played 130 minutes of rugby since it started because of constant niggles, but hopefully the stint he had against Fiji was enough of a workout for him to blow off the cobwebs, because if a 6’4” tighthead like Lomax can cause the kind of destruction to the Australian scrum seen in the clip above, then an in-form Furlong could be a point of difference for Ireland in this fixture.

The Two Ronnies

Consistency has eluded Australian teams for years, and the current edition are no exception. Their admittedly second-string side are coming off the back of an ignominious defeat to Italy, but no more than two months ago, they were knocking over South Africa and Argentina and going down to the wire against New Zealand. Blooding younger players has contributed towards some of their losses during this World Cup cycle, and although that will bear fruit in time, there have been some drubbings that make you question their concentration levels.

Notwithstanding the flaws highlighted throughout this post, it’s worth remembering that this Australia team were much closer to a win in Paris two weeks ago than Ireland were back in February, so they are not to be taken lightly. The talent is there, but it’s hard to know if their inconsistency can be attributed to application/fitness issues or some other factor.

To borrow an over-used adage normally reserved for the French national team, tomorrow’s result will largely be determined by which Australia turn up, but Ireland would be best-suited to preparing for a backlash from their loss to the Azzurri. They will have to do so without the services of Rónan Kelleher, Iain Henderson, Ryan Baird, Joey Carbery, Robbie Henshaw and James Lowe but knocking over one of the top sides in Test rugby without so many marquee players is a challenge they are all but guaranteed to face in France next year, so there’s no time like the present to learn how.

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