The wallabies have opted to take more wingers to the World Cup than hookers and scrum halves combined. Clearly Cheika is having trouble deciding who will start there and I don’t blame him. There are quite a few decent wingers in Australia, but none of them have put themselves into a position where they are instantly picked, well except maybe Adam-Ashley Cooper (Yes, yes, I know you love Rob Horne and that he is deceptively quick… in fact he is so deceptive, that no one can fucking see it).
Because defense is boring and I’m sure it won’t be important at this World Cup, I’ll be looking at different times in the past 2 years where Wallaby wingers finished, squandered or created try scoring opportunities. Now in order to keep things interesting I’ve done a fair bit of cherry-picking of plays to highlight what certain aspect I am talking about. If you think I’ve picked on a player unfairly, I don’t really care.
note: sarcasm is depicted in italics.
One of the key aspects of playing on the wing is the ability to finish opportunities. Generally defenders get drawn in and space is created out wide. In addition to this, you tend to get a natural overlap on the wing because the fullback should drop back to guard against kicks. Defenses will therefore employ a slide defense system and/or the back three will rotate with the blind winger moving around to cover for the fullback who joins the line.
Therefore, situations on the wing tend to be very fluid and wingers will often get the ball in space. There are times where the defensive system misses a beat and leaves open an opportunity for the attacking winger to exploit. And there are also times where the defense has done everything right but the winger has created something from nothing. I’ll be looking at a whole bunch.
Backing yourself down the sideline
Joe Tomane does nothing special here in the Brumbies’ Super Rugby semi-final this year against the Stormers (despite a 24 min hat-trick). He positions well and backs his speed to beat the man on the outside. The Brumbies have a clear overlap and any winger should be able to finish this off.
But it’s not always that simple and it’s good to see this year that Joe Tomane has learned from his past mistakes.
In 2014 vs the Springboks, the Wallabies force a great turnover and Joe Tomane takes off down the wing with Francois Hougaard (who is no slouch) covering. Tomane appears to get psyched out by the covering defense and decides to angle in and take the tackle. I really think this was a missed opportunity as Tomane should have tried to beat Hougaard on the outside and put the onus on him to make a try-saving tackle. At the very least he should have transferred the ball to his outside arm so he could fend off Hougaard.
In the Wallabies win vs the All Blacks this year, Adam Ashley-Cooper gets the ball with very little time and space with Ben Smith right on him. Maybe he could have tried to stop and cut back inside to avoid going out, but that would have robbed him of all momentum. Instead he decides to back himself for the corner and put the onus on Ben Smith to make the covering tackle.
Cutting back inside
But you can’t always go down the sideline, sometimes you have to cut back inside.
Most Wallaby supporters (and Irish) will remember this gem by Nick Cummins against Ireland in 2013. Stephen Moore gives Cummins a brilliant offload into a little bit of space and the Irish cover defence cocks it up. When Cummins gets the ball, he is relatively well covered and the sideline is still a good option, both Rob Kearney and Eoin Reddan also know this and are working hard to close it off. Too hard though. Cummins sees that the inside player Reddan has turned his hips too far towards the sideline and opts to cut back inside him. The most important part of this is that he maintains his speed while doing so. There are defenders scrambling from behind and if he overdoes it with the step, the Irish players chasing will get him instead.
Another good example is Rob Horne’s try to win the game vs South Africa in 2014.
Rob Horne gets the ball with Morne Steyn in front of him and Marcel van der Merwe chasing from behind. Steyn overcommits to defending the sideline and leaves space in behind. Horne does a fantastic job of stepping inside of Steyn whilst maintaining his speed so van der Merwe doesn’t catch him. It was good to see from Horne because sometimes he has the tendency to try and overdo the footwork (to no effect)…
Speed and footwork
The most important thing when it comes to using fancy feet is maintaining your speed.
In this year’s game against the Springboks, Tevita Kuridrani and Israel Folau combine beautifully to get Rob Horne into a 1-on-1 with Willie le Roux, who is not known for his defense. Rob Horne attempts to put the footwork on by faking right and left a few times before cutting left nicely. However, this stutter step cuts down on his speed quite a lot. So much so, that Schalk Burger is able to keep up with him even though he is jogging. It’s something that I see Horne do a fair bit and he should have committed to heading toward one side of le Roux and then stepping back the other way.
Drew Mitchell shows how it’s done in this year’s Top 14 final vs Clermont.
After his initial break with a great left foot step, Mitchell has one man to beat. He heads for the space down the sideline to make the defender move there, leaving space back on the inside. Because he didn’t overdo the footwork, he has enough speed and power to keep on his feet when the chasing defender dives at him. The last covering defender hesitates because he is wary of over-committing and leaving room back on the inside. Mitchell gladly accepts his offering and steps right to finish off a sensational try.
Mitchell’s main priorities are speed and power. He doesn’t try gimmicky footwork to win a 1-on-1, instead he heads towards space and changes direction when that space is closed off.
A lot of these examples so far have been when players have been given great opportunities. However, sometimes the ball gets shoveled out wide with nothing on and you have to make your own luck.
I know it’s cheating because Israel Folau plays fullback now, but it’s a good example of a winger creating something from nothing. Folau is well marked here, with Jonathon Sexton in front of him, Alex Corbisiero sliding across and Leigh Halfpenny at fullback. Folau heads for the sideline to commit Sexton to defend it, then steps left and fends off Corbisiero to break the line, and then burns Halfpenny on the outside. It’s done with speed and power, not gimmicky footwork.
It would be fantastic to have a winger that could produce magic like this and one candidate that springs to mind is Henry Speight, highlighted by this fantastic effort in the Brumbies’ 2013 Super Rugby semi-final against the Bulls.
Similar to Folau, he has Bjorn Basson in front, Francois Hougaard sliding across and Zane Kirchner at fullback. Speight angles inside Basson (who admittedly puts in a piss-poor effort) and fends off Hougaard. He then has Kirchner to beat, who positions himself well and is on his toes ready for Speight’s next move. Speight opts to go down the sideline but is pulled down by a great tackle from Kirchner. However, Speight gets a brilliant offload away to Jesse Mogg who supported well.
Again, the key feature here was speed and power, not deceit.
If Quade is picked, be ready for anything
Cheika prides himself on doing the unpopular, so don’t be surprised if Quade Cooper is picked for a few games. If that is the case, the wingers will need to expect the unexpected.
Adam Ashley-Cooper has worked well with Quade over the years (eg. Quade’s long ball to AAC in Dunedin 2013), so I was surprised when I saw this in the 2nd Bledisloe this year.
I think most people would tend to agree that it was a silly and unnecessary offload. However, if Quade is going to start, this is what the wingers should be expecting. They know that if he goes into contact, he is going to look for an offload once defenders swarm in. Nick Cummins got a great sneaky try vs Italy in 2013 and Joe Tomane also benefited from two offloads vs Wales a few games later.
We can see here that Quade takes the ball into contact, but Tomane is ready for the offload and holds his position out on the wing. The offload isn’t too friendly to Tomane, being high and behind him, but since he was ready, he pulls it in and passes back inside to Christian Lealiifano for the try.
This wasn’t a one off because later in the same half, they do the exact same thing again, except Will Genia drops it cold (though it was probably too far out in front of him).
The key thing to note here is that Tomane is only able to beat the covering tackles of Sam Warbuton and Flash Gordon because he didn’t slow down when Quade went into contact. He was expecting the offload. Tomane also does well to quickly move the ball back into two hands and find Genia on the inside. It’s just a pity that Genia couldn’t reel it in.
So who do the Wallabies pick on the wing? Have we learned anything today? Have I managed to subtly imprint my own bias onto you?
Unfortunately there is more to playing wing than just scoring tries. I’ve completely ignored defense in this analysis so we can’t draw too long a bow from all this. There is also the beast of positioning and kicking to take into consideration.
I’ll go through each individual candidate briefly and give a few thoughts on their overall game.
Adam Ashley-Cooper – Most experienced, is consistent, and solid in both attack and defense. Always shows up when he puts on the Wallaby jersey.
Joe Tomane – Great speed, strong runner and combines well with Quade Cooper and Israel Folau. Little shakey on defense though.
Rob Horne – Fantastic defender and plays his heart out. Has really improved his attacking ability in recent years and can defend in the centres, allowing the team to bring Kurtley Beale on. Lacking in raw talent and athletic ability compared to the alternatives though.
Drew Mitchell – Powerful runner with big left boot and can cover fullback. Has experience in Northern Hemisphere conditions. Has lots of Wallaby caps but lacks experience in the current setup.
Henry Speight – Perhaps the most devastating in attack among the candidates, but has never really gotten/taken the opportunity in his Wallaby games. Can be ferocious in defense (a little too much at times).
Personally, I’d select Adam Ashley-Cooper (R-wing) and Joe Tomane (L-wing) with Drew Mitchell on the bench. That way you have one solid winger in Ashley-Cooper and one attacking winger in Tomane, with a spare fullback/winger in Mitchell on the bench. I’d love to play Henry Speight but it’s my understanding that he prefers the right wing and so does Ashley-Cooper, who is one of my first picks for the Wallabies.
Rob Horne is great and could perhaps be on the bench instead of Drew Mitchell as he is reliable and can cover both centre positions and wing. But we have the centres covered already in Ashley-Cooper, Kuridrani, Toomua, Giteau and Beale. What we don’t have is a strong backup for Folau. There is Ashley-Cooper and Beale, though I don’t think either has played fullback for few years. Still, Rob Horne might be on the bench in combination with Beale to bring on later in the game.
Personal bias aside, this article was mostly about looking at the decision making and execution required by wingers out wide. Don’t try to read too much into each player using these examples because that’s just what they are: 10 sec clips taken from hours/days of rugby over the last 2 years to present some interesting scenarios wingers are faced with and how they overcome them.
If you learn nothing else from this article, please remember that for a winger, speed and power are better than overly fancy footwork. Sorry Shane Williams fans.