BEING SUCCESSFUL IN rugby, like any other sport, is highly dependent on having good players.
That said, at the very top levels of the game – where individual quality is generally more uniform from team to team – the influence of the coaching staff can often be the key factor in deciding whether or not that side is going to be a winning one.
Most teams bear distinguishable traces of their coaches’ input, be they tactical, technical or mental. We were given an undeniable demonstration of that last weekend in the two Super Rugby play-offs involving the Brumbies, the Chiefs, the Highlanders and the Sharks.
Jamie Joseph’s ’Landers counter-attacked as superbly as they have all season, striking from deep and causing the Sharks much pain in broken play. The South Africans, steered by Jake White, looked to their set-piece power to steam roll their way to victory.
The Chiefs – with Dave Rennie, Wayne Smith, Tom Coventry, and Andrew Strawbridge coaching – showed their incredible mental strength and ability to adapt in battling back from a 22-10 half time deficit to run the Brumbies extremely close.
It is the Australian franchise we focus on here, and in particular the influence of Director of Rugby Laurie Fisher. Head coach Stephen Larkham should of course share in the credit for victory, recognising as he did the benefits of moving the Chiefs’ defence around the pitch so demandingly in the first half, as well as ensuring the ball got into Henry Speight’s hands as early and often as possible.
Fisher’s coaching has been hugely important to the Brumbies since his return from Munster in 2012, leading the forward pack to the improvements that saw the franchise rewarded with a Super Rugby final under Jake White in 2013.
On Saturday, Fisher’s mark was all over the Brumbies’ effort once again, with two tries created by their excellent driving maul. As pointed out by Nathan Sharpe on Fox Sports’ commentary, maul defence has been an area of weakness for the Chiefs, but that does not take away from the Brumbies’ excellence.
Away from the set-piece, Fisher’s influence over the last three seasons has been clear in the Brumbies’ breakdown work, where the Australians again excelled last weekend against the Chiefs.
The 56-year-old coach impressed Munster’s players during his time in Ireland with his technical knowledge and understanding of the breakdown, as well as the various drills he used to teach in this area.
In Canberra last weekend, the Brumbies showed that they too have been listening to Fisher’s advice around the breakdown, as they repeatedly frustrated the Chiefs and sapped their momentum with steals on the deck.
The Kiwi side have attacked increasingly narrowly as this season has developed, while maintaining their ability to strike intermittently and clinically in wider channels. However, that tactic of carrying short from the preceding ruck played into the Brumbies’ breakdown strength on Saturday.
Scott Fardy has developed into a breakdown leader for Fisher’s men, willingly accepting the role the Brumbies have pushed him into. The GIF above provides a typical example of Fardy’s strength over the ball and alertness is recognising opportunities.
It’s not just Fardy who excels at stealing the pill at the breakdown, with the likes of Scott Sio, Ben Mowen and Sam Carter all having improved notably in this area over the last number of seasons.
Above, it’s hooker Josh Mann-Rea who wins the turnover penalty, but it’s interesting to note the supplementary work of Fardy after Mann-Rea clamps down on the ball.
We can see above that Mann-Rea is straight into an excellent jackal position to win the ball from opposite number Mo Schwalger. However, with Jamie Mackintosh and Brodie Retallick arriving to ruck, there is a danger of Mann-Rea being cleared off the pill.
Fardy’s reaction [or perhaps pro-action is a better description in this case] is to engage into the ruck over the ball, shielding Mann-Rea from the arriving Retallick. That distracts the Chiefs’ lock into clearing Fardy and buys Mann-Rea enough time to win the penalty.
It all happens in a brief time frame, but shows the work the Brumbies have put in at the breakdown, working to understand that turnovers are not just about the first man in.
The Brumbies’ good breakdown work against the Chiefs was not all about stealing possession on the deck though; they did lots of good spoiling too.
Above, second row Carter attempts to ‘win’ the space beyond the ball at the breakdown, resisting the brief temptation to pop down into the jackal position. While there is no resulting turnover for the Brumbies, it means scrappy possession for the Chiefs as Carter gets a foot to the ball.
Carter was not the only player who looked to disrupt in this manner for the Brumbies, and it served to frustrate and, at times, slow the Chiefs’ attacking phase play.
Like with the turnover attempts, there were times the Brumbies were not successful, as in the example below, where Carter concedes a penalty for not ‘coming through the gate’ before taking the space beyond the ball.
Even when rucks had formed, the Brumbies remain focused on disrupting. While counter-rucking was not a constant feature of their defence, when the Australians did look to use the tactic, it was effective.
We see one such instance in the GIF above, as Nic White, Sio and then Mann-Rea look to counter-ruck against a poorly-resourced Chiefs ruck. Again, there is no turnover of possession, but it slows the Kiwi side’s attack and adds that little element of panic for them.
All in all, Fisher’s Brumbies side delivered an excellent breakdown performance on the defensive side of the coin, as well as clearing out efficiently when on attack. This strength of theirs is likely to be vitally important if they are to overcome the in-form Waratahs this Saturday.
Michael Chika’s ’Tahs, with their range of effective ball carriers and incisive backs, absolutely thrive on clean ruck ball, so it seems clear that the Brumbies will look to deny them that in Sydney.
Fisher’s diligent work around the breakdown since returning to the Brumbies in 2012 has set them up well for the task. His move to Gloucester at the season’s end will deprive the Australian franchise of one of their most important elements in the near future.
How will the Waratahs negate the Brumbies’ breakdown work in this weekend’s local derby? Will the impressive form of the NSW and ACT Super Rugby forward packs transfer into the international arena?