How the Wallabies deploy their open-side flankers might determine their fate at rugby's main event.
The Wallabies and All Blacks were lined up for their first game of the year, and the big talking point during the week was the one that had reverberated around the rah-rah salon for a year. Selection issues always generate chatter, and more so with much experimentation ahead of the Rugby World Cup, but this debate still had energy to it. Michael Hooper or David Pocock, Pocock or Hooper, in many estimations two of the three best rugby players in Australia, yet also posing a fiendish conundrum – they both excelled at the same position, open-side flanker. The Wallabies, so often starved of quality at particular spots in the XV, had to choose one world-class talent over the other.
But against the New Zealanders in the Sydney Test, it would be resolved as Hooper and Pocock, as they were both chosen in the starting side, Hooper as the open-side, Pocock designated as the no.8. The choice was seen as a roll of the dice, although Wallaby coach Michael Cheika played it down. “I don’t think it’s a gamble,” he told Fox Sports’ Rugby HQ. “We’ve got the two players, who have probably played the best over the first two games, playing together.”
So the pair of open-siders were in the run-on, arrayed against the rival it had not beaten in four years, a side led by the most enduring no.7 in the game, Richie McCaw, in possibly his last Test in Australia. The matches of this year’s Rugby Championship, truncated because of the World Cup, had a strange sense of prelude to them, and the opening to this contest was, by Bledisloe standards, somewhat low-key. Four minutes into the game, McCaw made a short offload to prop Owen Franks, who was brought to ground. Pocock was over the ball quickly, in a position of power that McCaw described as something you can’t do much about, once he’s there. Pocock forced a turnover, and his Aussie team-mates spread it out wide on the counter, but a poor last pass was knocked on.
Scrum. Rugby’s signal act, a highly choreographed meeting of vectors that has outsized psychological impact on the game. The Wallabies have stressed over it for years, aiming for mere parity, hoping that it doesn’t devolve into a backward-shuffling, penalty-conceding morass that the scrum-loving Northern Hemisphere sides would seek to exploit at the World Cup.
The Aussie pack held neatly, enough to make you wonder what the fuss was about. The All Blacks went promptly into a backline move, with debutant wing Nehe Milner-Skudder firing through the middle. Hooper made the tackle, and Pocock was right over the ball again. Another turnover. It all looked rather scrappy, especially compared to the five-try fireworks that came in the second half. But what was going on early was critical – enough so that it might just determine a World Cup.
HERE’S FOR OPENERS
Over its history, rugby union has crafted its positional archetypes: the galloping fullback, the slick fly-half, the beastly prop. But our current epoch could well be described as the age of the open-side flanker.
Every good team has a good, and sometimes great, open-side. “He’s often a leader in the team,” says Wallaby scrum-half Nick Phipps. “He’s a bit like a scrum-half in a way – the seven will pick various areas he wants to go, he’s obviously got a lot of roles to do, but is quite a free-range player. So it’s interesting to see how they read the game.”
From the rovers and wing forwards of old, the players binding onto the scrum with the larger part of the pitch behind them have become specialists. What they do may look chaotic, and it often seems like the main requirement of the job is a willingness to be first to the pile. But their skills are essential to the function of modern rugby, serving as the key cog in creating continuity from breakdown to breakdown.
The World Cup tells the story of this evolution. World Rugby, as the sport’s governing body is now known, conducts an extensive statistical review of every World Cup that serves as a snapshot of rugby at that point in time. Its review of the last tournament in 2011 remarked upon the big difference that had emerged since 1995, the last Cup before rugby abandoned its old amateur order. Back when Mandela was pulling on a Springbok jersey and the All Blacks were looking suspiciously at the waitress, matches would have as many breakdowns as it would set pieces (scrums plus lineouts). In 2011, there were four times as many breakdowns as set pieces; the ratio of breakdowns to scrums was ten to one. As World Rugby’s game analysis team put it, in a wonderful bit of report-speak: “The focus of the game has moved therefore.”
Many of rugby’s rule changes over the last two decades have revolved around the conduct of the game’s new focal point. Speaking earlier this year on an NZ television show titled, appropriately enough, The Breakdown, McCaw spoke about how ruck play had changed since his career began, noting how the concept of coming through “the gate” didn’t exist or staying on your feet was treated rather leniently. “Now it’s more strict, and it needed to be, because it’s become a real contest,” he said.
The breakdown is now the subject of the kind of psych warfare once reserved for the scrum. As set pieces became highly regulated tests of execution, with teams drilled to retain possession on their feed or throw, the ruck became the place where possession could be contested and won. If open-side flankers are principally responsible for creating continuity, they are also the key figure in disrupting it. A rich vernacular has grown around the open-side: fetcher, pilferer, jackal.
“The capability to generate turnovers in the game is huge,” says Fox Sports analyst Rod Kafer. “It changes the context of the game. So often we see crucial turnovers that change the direction a game is heading.
“So I like to see players who compete. And it’s not just back-rowers, it’s about inside backs, sometimes your hooker, the guys who make most of the tackles. Guys who find themselves in positions where they can make a difference by turning the ball over.”
Creating turnover ball is a defensive act, but also creates a dynamic attacking opportunity. It reorients the 15-man code’s customary fixations on possession and territory. Shaun Edwards, the former British rugby league international turned union defence coach, wrote in his blog during the last World Cup that it was a key difference between the two games. A league side with 30 percent of possession couldn’t hope to beat an evenly matched opponent. “But in union it can be harder, more exhausting having the ball and keeping it than trying to win it,” he wrote.
Rather than having it all the time, you can create better opportunities by grabbing it at the right time. It is why entire game plans hinge on the style and the substance of the no.7. Kafer brings up this season’s Super Rugby match between the Waratahs and Brumbies in Canberra, a match of Hooper versus Pocock. “The Waratahs kept the ball away from Pocock,” Kafer says. “There are ways you can do it, because the open-side comes into the game around first-phase ball. So you make a choice: if you want to punch the ball up into the middle of the field, if you’re going to run the ball in the 10-12 channel and get across the gain line, the open-side is going to be right in that game.
“If you elect to say, ‘We’re going to spread the ball to the sideline, first-phase’, all that happens is that the open-side chases a lot of fresh air. He’s running across, can’t get to the first breakdown, the ball’s already won. If you spread it across the other side of the field, he starts heading across the other way, breakdown’s won. You keep him out of the breakdown. The Waratahs did it really effectively for about 25 minutes. David Pocock, sight unseen. Kurtley Beale threw a dummy, went himself, ended up getting tackled right next to Pocock. Pocock turned the ball over. It took 25 minutes before Pocock was even seen in the game.”
SEVEN + SEVEN
The question naturally follows: why not play them together? There are two flankers on the field after all, as well as the No.8, which seems like another spot to fit a talented forward. A lot of people advocate picking both, Wallaby great and Fox Sports’ Tim Horan among them. “My old coach John Connolly always used to say: ‘Pick your eight best forwards, then you work out where they can play'," Horan says. "Pick your best 15 and then find out.”
It’s a question that Australian rugby has been able to duck for the last couple of years. The Zimbabwe-born Pocock had established himself as the Wallabies’ first-choice open-side by 2010, was twice nominated for the IRB’s International Player of the Year and assumed captaincy of the team in mid-2012. But successive knee reconstructions wiped out his next two seasons entirely. Ready to step in was his immediate back-up, Hooper, who similarly excelled, winning the John Eales Medal for best Australian player in 2013. At the end of 2014, the then 22-year-old became one of the youngest Wallaby captains ever.
Pocock’s successful return to the Brumbies during the 2015 Super Rugby season, along with Hooper’s strong play for the Waratahs, set up the divide-seven dilemma. Hooper started the Test against South Africa, Pocock the Argentines, and each made a convincing case. Having started together in the victory over the All Blacks in Sydney would seem to be the most compelling argument in favour, but the question remains unsettled going into the Wallabies’ opening World Cup game against Fiji.
“I’m concerned with seeing them both on the field together, yes, because it places undue pressure against the team who can kick really well,” says Kafer. The dilemma is one of balance – the ideal back-row not only needs to win the breakdown, but also provide strong ball-running and a jumping option in the lineout. The model, as is so often the case in rugby, is the All Blacks and their trio of McCaw, Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read. For the Wallabies, the two open-siders remove a jumping option in the lineout, and limits the make-up of the team further in not being able to start Will Skelton, their biggest impact runner but another non-jumper.
As Wallaby second-rower Rob Simmons, one of the Aussies’ primary lineout jumpers, explains it, the composition of the back row becomes a choice of how your team wants to play. The player should play to his strength, no matter which number is on his back. During the 2013 spring tour, the two metre-tall Simmons was moved to blindside flanker. “It’s more what the coach wants – if he wants two pilferers on the field, the no.6 might be a usual open-side as well,” he says. “For instance, the time I moved to blindside, we wanted a bigger pack that could scrum for a long time. Coach basically said to me, ‘I don’t want you to do anything different.’ But because of where you break off from the scrum, you’re going to get your hands on the ball more. So in the stats it might look different.”
The Hooper-Pocock decision revives memories of a previous Wallaby debate a decade ago, over George Smith and Phil Waugh. Both superb open-siders who had drafted off each other since the junior level, they made their international debuts in 2000. They often played in place of each other – Waugh’s Test record of 79 caps, 35 of them as a substitute, attests to that fact. The two made their first start together against New Zealand in the Tri-Nations Test in Sydney in ’03, a notorious 50-21 beatdown at the hands of the All Blacks only months out from the World Cup on home soil. But paired together through the tournament, they drove the Wallabies past NZ in the semi, before losing to England in the final. The then Australian coach, Eddie Jones, recently recalled for a South African magazine: “I remember being widely criticised by the great forwards coach Alex Evans for not picking a jumping no.6 and he was right ... If Jonny Wilkinson had missed the drop goal in the final, it would have been a brilliant selection.”
The firm of Smith & Waugh operated for another couple of seasons, dragged out for the last time by Robbie Deans in 2008. While their pairing is associated with some great Wallaby successes, from their 22 Tests starting together, the record was 12 wins and ten losses. But a point in favour of the new-age seven-plus-seven is a better mix of skills.
Roughly speaking, Pocock has great physical presence in the close-quarters action; Hooper is a classic link player, able to keep attacks going, and is a strong defender. “There’s a great deal more diversity between Hooper and Pocock than what there was between Smith and Waugh,” Kafer says.
“Smith and Waugh were similar stature, both good on the ball, George a very good skill set, Phil tough. With Pocock, you get a very good carrier, and there’s no question he’s the best over the ball in the world. Probably one of the best we’ve seen at that pilfering technique, so strong over the ball. And Hooper’s more athletic than Smith or Waugh, faster, probably a similar skill set to George.”
Perhaps it’s wrong to think of this question as and/or rather than with. The old trope about Northern Hemisphere rugby is how it’s a ten-man game rather than 15. But could this World Cup be about 22-man rugby?
If there was a trend to be discerned during the Rugby Championship, it was the impact of bench players. The coaches might have been airing out their playing squads primarily to get a better idea of World Cup selections, but the capability of bringing on fresh legs in the last 20 minutes had decisive effect in close contests. One of them was Pocock, who came on in the second half of the Brisbane Test against the Springboks and proved influential in the Australians’ rally from 20-7 down to win 24-20.
Kafer likes the idea of either Hooper or Pocock being brought off the bench, if they’re going to be used together. “To me, that’s an option because you get such a boost from a guy like Hooper coming on,” he says. “In some ways, we need to think about the reserves being less ‘you didn’t make the starting team’ but more ‘you’ve got a real impact to have when you come on the field’. The Wallabies won their first two Tests [in 2015] off simply the impact their bench gave them. That’s it. If they didn’t have that, they wouldn’t have won those games.”
Cheika, in a neat bit of salesmanship, has rebranded his reserves as “finishers” – guys with integral roles to play even if they start the game sitting down. Phipps, well-steeped in the Cheika method from the Waratahs and Wallabies, believes this is the way the coach will go with his pair of open-siders. “Cheiks is a big believer in using people’s skill sets. If he wants a particular style, and even if that player’s deficient in a few other areas, there will be someone else in the team who will be good in those areas to cover them.
“It can definitely work in the last 20, easily,” Phipps says. “It’ll be interesting to see what happens, because you can definitely have two sevens on the field, but then you’d need to make sure your locks are both ball-running options.”
Every Rugby World Cup is something of a reference point for the state of the art. It began with William Webb Ellis famously picking up the ball, and here’s where the rugby world has run with it. There are general expectations of a dour-minded Cup, with the heavy ground conditions in England leading to lot of kicking and set-piece play. But this year’s Six Nations, and its crazy last day in which 27 tries were scored over three matches, points to the possibility of more expansive play.
If the leading team is the one who defines the style, the All Blacks’ approach is certainly game-changing. As Kafer describes it, there’s been a shift in New Zealand rugby in its tactical kicking to an emphasis on contestable kicks. Rather than the static game of kicking for touch and biting off chunks of territory, the All Blacks will keep the ball in field and alive, often trying to create trade-off situations in loose play such as pinning a right-footed kicker in the right-side corner, or yes, selective opportunities for quick turnover ball. Their style of conceding the first two phases and then challenging heavily at the third has become the industry standard at the breakdown.
“In order to win the World Cup, you have to have the capability to play different games,” Kafer says. “The All Blacks are going to stretch every team. What they do well is utilise that full width of the field. They’re prepared to get the ball to the winger, to leave the winger with an opportunity, prepared to take the risk of allowing him to have a go and knowing he might get turned over. But their breakdown work is very precise. They play with these back-rowers sitting way out wide all of the time, that’s their style, they’ve got a back-rower on that 15m line every time.
“The flow-on from using the width of the field is you pull the opposition wingers up and then you can isolate a full-back with a clever kicking game. One of the reasons why Dan Carter will be an ever-present feature, apart from being such a great footballer, is he’s also a left-footer. They’ve got a left-footer, a right-footer, they can kick into any part of the field accurately. Then they can stretch the ball wide, pull the opposition wingers up, and then they’ve got a much easier kicking game. They’ve got variety, and that’s what defines them against everybody else.”
But the thing about World Cups is they’ve been remarkably resistant to favourites winning them, as New Zealanders will attest, once they exhaled after the 2011 final. Even the couple of times the Wallabies have been favoured pre-tournament, they underwhelmed. The contest for the Webb Ellis trophy would seem to be the ultimate examination of rugby proficiency, but the best nation doesn’t always rise up.
Which leaves a chance for the team, the pack or maybe even the duo versed in the art of the steal.