In the unbearably frustrating England Test series earlier this year the Wallabies had a strangely familiar appearance and at first I was not sure why this was the case.
Then I realised that they reminded me of a team that would be brilliant to watch in an unopposed team-run.
In Rugby the tradition is to have a training session a day before each game where the team runs through all the patterns it will use in the upcoming match. These team-runs, particularly when unopposed, are frequently near perfect.
Rod Macqueen, as coach of the ACT Brumbies and then Wallabies believed the number of handling mistakes in these team-runs directly measured how well the team had prepared. Sometimes there were no mistakes!
The Wallabies against England looked at some stages as though they were in an unopposed team-run. Quick ball from the breakdown, skilful passes, great enthusiasm and multiple phases were executed. At other times it was like opposed team-runs that are frustrating in that there can few very genuine attacking opportunities.
Why is this you ask?
Like many team runs, after an initial time of practising unopposed plays, the reserves are then called over to hold the hit-shields. Things then become more complicated as you can no longer run past or through imaginary defenders. Have you ever noticed just how bad imaginary defenders are?
The reserves refuse to play fair by not staying at the tackle in their role as defenders as they would do so in games, while the main team, for the sake of discipline, practise committing two to three players at each ruck.
"Confidence is quickly destroyed as the main team looks up at the defence, expecting attacking opportunities after perfectly sequenced plays, but instead find a string of willing defenders, dead keen on seeking their own vengeance for the obviously biased selection policy."
At some stage, the Head Coach will insist that the bag-holders, making the hits as the simulated defenders, must stay at the breakdown for a short period of time after contact. Unfortunately for the Wallabies nobody told the English side this rule in June and they refused to commit to the tackle contest. Instead they set a line of defenders ready to punish the colonials. In fact Eddie Jones revealed that the only statistic he was interested in was how fast his players got off the ground so that they could re-join the defensive line again.
‘Rope a Dope’, Eddie Jones called the strategy, comparing it to Muhammad Ali’s tactics of absorbing the punches of George Foreman so he would punch himself into exhaustion. The Wallabies ran plays to expose the space that was supposed to be out wide but it just was not there. They became tired and frustrated.
There is another reason that there was no space and this was effectively enabled by this passive resistance by the English at the breakdown.
It is that Australian teams have a penchant for wanting to get the ball to their wingers to score the tries. They are inclined to want to go wide in attack as quickly as possible. Even the Wallabies have an inclination to want to beat every team by creating overlaps.
Opposition teams have long worked this out and in order to combat this habitual Wallaby strength, they now often spread the width of the field with defenders equally spaced. This replaces the tradition of defenders chasing the tackle contest and then setting up their line from the inside out. The attacking players now look up only to be frustrated by seeing no obvious advantage.
In this regard, the game against the All Blacks in Auckland earlier this year was crucial.
Perhaps based on seeing Argentina's success in denting the All Blacks' defence around the ruck, the Wallabies made numerous line-breaks through the middle of the field. It spoke volumes of this team’s capacity to learn. As I sat in the crowd, despite the sadness of the loss, I was overwhelmed with hope.
"It signals another string to the bow of this Wallaby team and will make for an entertaining match against the English. We have seen consistently since that game in Auckland the ability to find line-breaks close to the ruck and indeed one pass wider than the usual hit up."
This has been brought about by the players not receiving the ball around the ball carrier actually looking like threats in attack and being available for short passes. Earlier in the season these players were sometimes not even in motion. Whoever hit the ball up in the midfield was monstered by gang tackles as defenders knew early who was getting the ball. There were more often than not no other attacking options.
The Wallabies will be ready to showcase their new wares in this game and English coach Eddie Jones is no doubt looking to orchestrate another coaching masterstroke. Will Jones focus more on the breakdown to slow the ball down this time, will he have his players deciding when it is appropriate to challenge the breakdown and when to be passive, will he follow his previously successful formula or is there some other clever strategy up his sleeve?
James Holbeck is a former Brumbies and Wallabies centre with an Honours degree in Psychology. He has since earned a reputation as an insightful mentor and coach at Hope Beckons
The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the ARU.