What a difference a year makes. This time last year, Australia were coming to terms with a 38-13 loss at home to the All Blacks. Having led 6-5 at half-time, Australia were blown away by an All Blacks second-half performance that combined aggressive defence and ruthless finishing. Roll forward a year and suddenly Australia are winning Bledisloe games again.
So, what changed between 2018 and 2019? As this analysis argues, it started at scrum-half, with Nic White coming in for Will Genia and a change of approach to how the Wallabies 9s attacked with the ball at the ruck.
Before looking at the difference between how both Australian 9’s used the ball, I think it’s important to explain how New Zealand usually defend these situations at the breakdown.
Different teams will have different names for the roles but generally the first 3 defenders either side of the ruck will have specific jobs. For the purpose of this article we are going to call them D1, D2 and D3.
D1’s job is to protect the edge of the ruck and largely stay put in case the 9 has a run or plays a Gregan pass i.e. a pass to a player running off the 9’s inside shoulder made famous by the legendary Australian scrum-half George Gregan.
D2’s first job here is to watch the 9 too. The forwards who generally defend the edge of these rucks aren’t as quick as 9’s, and Will Genia circled in the picture below is pretty quick, so D2 has to support D1 in case the scrum-half tries to have a dart into a gap between them. D2’s eyes are only supposed to look away from the scrum half once the ball has been passed by the 9.
Finally, D3’s job is to keep an eye on the person the 9 is passing to and try to tackle them before they get a head of steam up.
If you were to look at the picture above with these roles in mind, you might say that D1 is doing his job but is a little narrow to the ruck, D3 is already running to close the space but as the arrows indicate, D2 isn’t even looking at Will Genia and has left a gap. So why isn’t D2 worried about Will Genia?
I believe that the answer to that question, and a big reason why Australia didn’t win in 2018 but did in 2019, is the lack of a direct running threat from 9 around the ruck. The photo above was only the second time in the game that Genia ran with the ball from the base of the ruck, the first time being almost 17 minutes beforehand in the 49th second of the game.
Here in the 49th second we can see both D1 and D2 looking at Genia before he makes a move. Even Owen Franks defending at D3 is looking at him. With the game in it’s infancy, the All Blacks are mindful of Genia’s running threat and giving him their full attention. The knock-on effect of this is that Sekope Kepu-circled in red-is in a great position to take the ball flat to the line between Franks and Retallick and get the attack moving forward. Genia’s running threat is creating opportunities both for himself and his teammates.
When Genia does run with the ball in the picture above, he ends up using Kepu as a decoy runner and passing out the back to Foley. Although it’s a more complicated passing option, Genia’s running threat keeps the All Blacks defence honest, creates a disconnect in their defensive line and Australia still get a little further up the pitch from the ensuing play.
As the amount of time between the 1st minute and the 18th minute would suggest, Genia didn’t run the ball around the ruck a huge amount after that. According to ESPN stats, Genia would carry the ball 5 more times for 6 metres gained in that 2018 Bledisloe game, with approximately 4 of those metres coming from a try-saving intercept in the 47th minute. When you compare this with Nic White’s stats of 14 runs for 43 metres in 2019’s game, you start to get an idea of why the Wallabies were victorious in 2019 where they weren’t the year previous.
Having a closer look at that first Bledisloe of 2019, Nic White made his intentions to run clear early.
Despite both D1 and D2 looking at him, you can already see White-circled in red-looking into the gap between them. With a similarly sized Aaron Smith at D1 ahead of him, the Australian 9 fancies his chances of winning the collision and makes a dart.
As the next picture suggests, White gets approximately 5 metres up the pitch after winning the collision against Smith and some good work on the ground to eek out a few more metres. New Zealand’s Jack Goodhue-in the white boots-comes in from an offside position to try and halt the Australian’s momentum in attack and suddenly White has won his team a penalty to get them out of their own 22.
White would win Australia another penalty advantage with his next ruck snipe in the 4th minute and would make ground with every carry he made from the base of ruck thereafter. He even ran from the back of the lineout to put Reece Hodge through a gap in the 24th minute.
But what really is the true benefit of a scrum-half making these incremental metres around the base of the ruck? If we look at Lukhan Salakaia-Loto’s try in the 46th minute we might begin to understand.
Remember how the All Blacks like their D2 to defend and see where Ngani Laumape is looking in the photo above. Also keep in mind that this is close to the try-line, much like the first example of Will Genia’s play earlier .
Instead of the All Blacks ignoring White as in 2018 and rushing up to tackle the threats of Micheal Hooper-plus Rory Arnold and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto out of shot-White has Laumape’s full attention here. The running threat that White has established distracts Laumape and allows Arnold the time to juggle the pass as it reaches him and still have time to put Salakaia-Loto through for a well deserved try on the wing.
With his night’s work done, Nic White was substituted in the 68th minute for Will Genia. A great deal of this article’s analysis has been critical of Genia’s performance in 2018 but when he come on in last weekend’s game, instead of reverting to type, Genia would adopt White’s more aggressive approach to running the ball himself as the image below shows.
Spotting the lack of a defender in the D1 space, Genia-circled in red-makes a dart that gains three metres for his team. Genia’s running threat narrows the New Zealand defence and allows his next pass from the following ruck to help set up a try for Reece Hodge on the right wing.
In conclusion, there were many different factors that contributed to Australia’s record win on Saturday; the muscular performances of Samu Kerevi and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, the direction of the inspirational Christian Lealiifano at 10 and of course, the All Blacks’ red card. However, before all of that happened there needed to be someone or something that sparked Australia’s revival.
With the World Cup looming and the increasing dominance of rush defences in international rugby, the rediscovered running threat of Nic White and Will Genia at 9 for Australia might just be that spark that continues to make their rivals defences stop and think.
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