Wallabies' tactical evolution is both encouraging and discouraging | Bret Harris

Croak

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Authors: Rio Sports

The Wallabies have finally arrived at the party only to find the music has stopped and the revellers have finished their drinks and moved on to the next event. Are Australia doomed to continually play catch-up?

There is a long-standing argument that the Wallabies, as well as Australia’s Super Rugby teams, should be more alive to attacking opportunities from turnover ball when defence is unstructured, just as New Zealand sides do.

It was heartening when Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika and attack coach Stephen Larkham acknowledged the need to attack more from turnovers this year, but the results have been both encouraging and discouraging at the same time.

As a result of their new focus on attacking from turnover ball the Wallabies are co-leading the Rugby Championship in scoring tries from turnovers, which is a positive trend.

Australia and South Africa have both scored 27% (three of 11 apiece) of their tries from turnovers, while the All Blacks have surprisingly scored only 21% (four of 19) and Argentina 20% (one of five).

The problem is the Wallabies have won the least amount of turnovers (3.7) in the championship behind South Africa (9.3), New Zealand (7.3) and Argentina (6.7). It defeats the purpose of having a strategy of attacking off turnovers, if turnover ball cannot be secured.

Of course, the Wallabies are missing the best breakdown forward in the world, on-sabbatical backrower David Pocock, but winning turnovers is about more than just one player or even the back-row.

At the 2015 World Cup Pocock led the tournament in individual turnovers, but the All Blacks led the tournament in team turnovers. The reason New Zealand teams became such a potent force attacking from turnover ball was the fact Kiwi players from fullback to the front-row were trained to compete at the breakdown like openside flankers.

Interestingly, the two players who currently lead the Rugby Championship in turnovers won are both hookers – the Argentinian, Agustin Creevy, and South Africa’s Malcolm Marx, who have five each, while New Zealand’s leading ball-scavengers are halfback TJ Perenara (four), inside centre Sonny Bill Williams (three) and second-rower Brodie Retallick (three).

The Wallabies, conversely, continue to over-rely on their back-row to win turnovers with No8 Sean McMahon securing two and openside flanker Michael Hooper just one.

Australia were badly beaten at the breakdown in their 23-all draw with the Springboks in Perth last Saturday and need more physicality at the tackle contest, forwards and backs alike.

The greatest fear, however, is that even if the Wallabies manage to master the art of attacking from turnovers, they will discover that the game has moved on and they have been left behind yet again.

The All Blacks have demonstrated a renewed emphasis on the set-pieces this year, while this is precisely the area where the Wallabies are most vulnerable. The re-starts, scrums and lineouts have been major problems for the Wallabies and if they remain uncorrected the consequences could be quite dire.

For all their good intent off turnover ball, the Wallabies are still a team that relies on structure, scoring 73% of their tries (eight of 11) on the opening phase of possession, which is the highest in the competition, but they lack the platform to take full advantage of this attacking potency behind the forwards.

Australia will be favoured to beat Argentina in Canberra on Saturday night, having won 13 of their last 14 games against the Pumas. But Argentina’s traditional strength is the set-pieces, the Wallabies’ achilles heel. If the Pumas can dominate the scrum and lineout and accumulate points through penalty goals, they might just be able to cause an upset.

The Wallabies’ attacking potential is tremendous, but if they cannot stabilise their set-pieces and secure more turnover ball, the party will be over before they even arrive.