Wallabies skills coach and former All Black World Cup winner Mick Byrne knows plenty about winning major rugby games. Here he delivers his four key areas for the Waratahs to beat the Lions in the Super Rugby semi-final.
HIT MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE
Malcolm Marx is the Lions’ most dangerous player, no question.
We know he is a good running player and a good hooker but what he is renowned for the most is being able get into a ruck and stopping your flow with a steal or a penalty. So if we can stop him him, NSW will be fine.
The key with Marx is knowing not just that he is strong over the ball, but it is the way he does it.
He gets in behind the rucks and he doesn’t make the tackle. He is just looking for the opportunity to swoop in.
He is only looking for the steal.
It is not ‘if the opportunity comes’ for Marx. For him the opportunity comes because he positions himself in the spot to get the ball. He stays in behind the defensive line and hovers. You can see him hovering, and waiting.
Last week against the Jaguares, he got three in that last ten minutes and ended their comeback surge almost single-handedly.
So if we haven’t got eyes while he is hovering, he will get in there first.
We need to make sure we target him and those options. We are not just worrying about the ball, we are actually targeting him. If we have eyes on him, we will win the ruck. We will get the ball. When he sees opportunity and pounces, we will be on it first.
When he is there hovering, nominate him and call him out. Be loud about it. If he is hearing his name being called out all the time, that has a impact. Make sure when we always have eyes on him.
Have I seen teams do this effectively with David Pocock? Put it this way, I have been up close with people who have dealt with Poey effectively.
And you have to. They are game changers. They are that type of player. He changed the game last week.
The Waratahs can’t let him have that impact this week.
BREATHE EASY AND THINK POSITIVE
We are getting a lot better at talking about altitude.
When sports science first started everybody was like ‘Oh we have to deal with altitude’ so it became a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Everyone was worried altitude was going to affect them, and behaved that way. They let it affect them.
If you have been talking about ‘oh your lungs will burn, you’re gonna tighten up, you’ll feel weak’, well, all of a sudden players start feeling that and go ‘this altitude is a killer’.
It doesn’t have to be.
The Crusaders didn’t have any problems last year when they won the final.
Over time, what you realise is it just another part of the game and you deal with it as it comes.
Indeed, you should look at the positives of altitude instead of the negatives.
It can give Kurtley Beale and Bernard Foley opportunity to pin the Lions back in their territory with their long kicks.
Israel Folau is probably the world’s best under the high ball and at altitude, the ball can go just that bit further and hang that bit higher. All those are strengths the Waratahs can go to with altitude. You can use it to your advantage.
As Aussie teams, we don’t get bogged down with the altitude is a killer talk anymore. It gets spoken about outside a bit but certainly inside camps it is not a focus any more.
We look at the positives of an environment we don’t normally have. How to use our kicking and high ball catching game.
WHEN YOU HAVE THE SIZE, MAKE IT COUNT
The Lions have pace and agility but their wingers, and I think Kafe might have mentioned it the other night, (Andries) Coetzee out wide, he is tackling at about 50-60%.
If Taqele Naiyaravoro is charging at him, or Newsome, and they get eight or nine cracks at him, there’s four opportunities at a probable missed tackle.
So if the Waratahs can get the go-forward right, through the middle, and the forwards do their job nice and early, and then the ball gets to the width, then I think our wingers possess some strengths against their winners.
Especially Taqele. If you can get him some ball, one-on-one, that’s where he can a big advantage.
I am not sure I’d use Taqele carrying the ball in midfield traffic.
What Taqele can do in the middle of the field, a loose forward can do. There’d be no difference with hitting up with a Wells or a Hanigan or whoever, it’s the next play out of there to the width, that’s where you want Taqele.
In theory it makes sense - a big player running through the middle.
But it’s not something Taqele has done a lot of. Loose forwards do that all the time and are used to that contact of two-three defenders, and carrying the ball in there.
On the outside he is used to maybe one or maybe two defenders at a time. That’s where he causes havoc.
OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS FOR TOLU
There’s not a great deal of common ground between Tolu Latu and Stephen Donald.
But Tolu can definitely learn a lot from Stephen in how to grab an opportunity in a massive game with both hands.
Stephen Donald wasn’t in the All Blacks World Cup squad in 2011, he wasn’t picked.
He wasn’t even in the squad when the finals started. He got the call up for the final after a bunch of injuries and took it with both hands. He kicked a crucial goal that helped New Zealand seal the World Cup.
Now they have made a movie about him, how good is that?
He took his opportunity and that’s what happens. That’s what Tolu has now.
If he can do it was as much impact as Stephen Donald did, that’d be great.
It’s great to see Tolu starting. He had a slow start to the season but through circumstances, with around Jordan Uelese getting injured, he was given an opportunity for the Wallabies and came through.
I thought Tolu did a reasonable job in that window.
A lot of times people say to you “hang in there, your opportunity will come”. When it comes, you have to be able to grab it with both hands.
But the other side of it is sometimes it doesn’t come right until the end of the season, and that’s what happened with Tolu.
I know during my time there have been guys who have played not much football at all and because a finals series becomes a bit attritional, they get their crack right at the end of the year and step up in a Grand Final and play really well.
That’s what Tolu has got to do now. He has to step up to the plate now his opportunity has come. He has worked hard to get it, and it has come for him in the penultimate game of the year. He get out there and really take those guys on.
He can lead that forward pack around the park and really challenge the Lions at their perceived strength.
Same goes for Damien Fitzpatrick. He is a leader at the Waratahs and now needs to lead that finish.
When he comes onto the field, he has to lead that group home.
Good luck Waratahs.