Turning defence into attack: The shift the Wallabies must make to win trophies

Tri Nations
by Christy Doran

It was whilst observing games of touch footy that Matt Taylor recognised that there was a mindset issue with defence in Australian rugby.

With each carry, the defender would allow the ball-carrier to continue running well beyond where they were touched.

Sure, it was only a friendly game of touch, but it added to his perception that Australian rugby had lost sight of the importance of the other side of the ball.

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That wasn’t the case in 2015. When the Wallabies went within an inch of winning the World Cup, Michael Cheika’s men won the hearts and minds of rugby fans with their heroic defensive against Wales where they won 15-6 despite being reduced to 13 players at one point and being forced to defend Kurtley Beale on the wing after Rob Horne’s early injury.

The statistics tell you that was very much the case too.

In the years leading up to the 2019 World Cup, the previous three years ranked in the top five for points conceded on average per game in Wallabies history.

In 2017, the Wallabies conceded the most points ever on average (28.3), 2016 was the second most (27.1) and in 2018 they ranked fifth (24.7).

As expected in World Cup years, where warm-up matches are generally played against lesser opposition and, indeed, throughout the tournament itself, that number dropped to 23.

Yet, in the 2019 World Cup they conceded the highest number of points per game (21.6) of any of the other tournaments, including 10 tries across five games – the most tries since 1987 Wallabies conceded 14 in six games.

Tellingly, too, in the five matches against last year’s top four nations (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Wales) the Wallabies conceded on average 33.2 points.

So when Taylor, the highly respected defence guru who had been coaching in Scotland since assisting Ewen McKenzie to a Super Rugby title in 2011, arrived back home he went searching for answers.

“When I came into camp, watching the boys train, my belief, was that we probably were at the mindset where you score one, we’ll score two, you score two, we’ll score three,” Taylor tells RUGBY.com.au from the Wallabies’ training base in the Hunter Valley.

“So, I believe that maybe rightly or wrongly attack was the first priority or the first mindset, now I’ve been trying to change that.”

There’s a seriousness to Taylor’s voice – and so there should be.

While the Wallabies won some respect and have given themselves a shot of winning the Tri Nations trophy by beating the All Blacks in their most recent match, you don’t have to look far back to see that defence is still an issue. 

The Wallabies coughed up 43 points at the Olympic stadium to lose the Bledisloe Cup for an 18th straight year.

Taylor is still furious by the result, where he acknowledges that “some of their kicking game did well against us”.

But those who know Taylor believe he’s one of the outstanding defence coaches in the world.

“He’s been the best defensive coach I’ve been under,” former Wallaby and Reds back Mike Harris said.

“Just his attention to detail and the relationships he forms separates him.

“He’ll have his defensive system and how they want to operate, but then the time he takes with the one-on-one stuff and saying, ‘have you thought about doing this’.

“He throws different pictures at the attack, which sometimes I’ve found in other teams you don’t really have that option up your sleeves, so you might just have someone flying out of the line which is intended to spook a playmaker to play back inside or something like that, just trying to catch teams unaware and always thinking how you can manipulate the attack.

“I found the one-on-one stuff really helpful.

“He’d install confidence, but also would question whether you thought about this now.”

Taylor is confident of changing the perception around defence in Australian rugby.

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While Dave Rennie is a counter-attacking specialist and Scott Wisemantel – Eddie Jones’ long-time attack assistant – are tasked with the Wallabies scoring points, they recognise the necessity of defending.

For the past two months Wisemantel has been preaching the value of coaches “not working in silos” across the various disciplines, while Rennie began the Bledisloe campaign by stating that the Wallabies need to restrict the All Blacks to less than 16 points.

As fate shall happen, the Wallabies kept the All Blacks to that figure in Bledisloe I while in Bledisloe IV, they had scored just 15 points until the last minute of the game when Tupou Vaa’I scored to give Rennie’s men a fright.

Nonetheless, what you’re going to get from Taylor is a relentless reminder that rugby isn’t just about scoring points.

“You’ve got to have both sides of the ball, and Dave and Wisey they’re attack minded but we all know that the best teams, or the teams that win trophies, are often the best defensive teams as well,” he says.

“Now sometimes your attack has a big influence or impact on your defence as well, and it sounds like from reading the stats and talking to various people, running from all areas of the field has an impact on your defence as well because when you turn it over you’re often fatigued and you’re often close to your own line. So to have a good defence, you’ve got to have a balance in your game, you’ve got to run it when it’s on, you need to kick it when it’s on and also just a change of mindset to keep reinforcing that defence is a really important part of the game.

“You look back to 2015 their defence was unbelievable. Their attack and their defence were kind of level, and perhaps in the recent years – for whatever reason – the attack was still relatively good but the defence was probably (not as strong).”

In 2019, the Wallabies moved to a more passive, “soaking” defensive practice.

It was a tactic that went against the modern trend of rushed defences where England and South Africa excelled in that area and they spooked the likes of New Zealand and Australia.

Under Taylor, the Wallabies appear to be adopting the principles that Harris previously spoke of trying to spook the opposition attack on occasions.

In Bledisloe I and IV, the Wallabies effectively shut down the All Blacks’ attack with some rushed defence, particularly in the midfield from Matt To’omua and Hunter Paisami, but they weren’t locked into that practice exclusively.

As Taylor says though, it’s an evolving practice.

“It’s little things like we talk about getting our bodies in front,” Taylor tells RUGBY.com.au.

“When we first got here, when we’re playing a touch game, a guy would touch and let the guy run four metres away and I’m saying, ‘that’s not good for your mindset defensively. When you touch someone I want you to get your body in front and you hold onto them for a second or two even though you’re not tackling them’, so little things just in the mindset just trying to get the shift in that.

“I think we’ve tried to get a shift in terms of our linespeed, which I believe we’ve made shifts in but we’re still not where we want to be or where we need to be.

“In terms of our dual contacts or double tackles we’ve worked hard on that and, again, I think we’ve had some good times but we’ve also had some poor times.”

It’s early stages under the Wallabies’ new minister of defence, but under Taylor the Wallabies are going to get someone who continues to push the value of turning defence into attack.