“He’s got a plan, we’re across that plan, we’re comfortable with it,” said Rugby Australia chief executive Raylene Castle on Wallabies coach Michael Cheika in August.
Okay, then – what is it?
Cheika’s Wallabies generally try to use a 1-3-3-1 pod tactic, quite similar to the All Blacks and the Springboks.
The idea, eloquently explained by rugby guru and fellow Roarer Conor Wilson in this article, is to use two three-man forward pods to draw defenders so that hard-running playmakers can exploit any gaps created on the outside with their pace rather than risk losing possession by kicking.
Interestingly, Wilson writes that the tactic was actually inspired by current Wallabies attack coach Stephen Larkham, who as a player used his devastating pace to thread tiny gaps in the line or draw defenders so he could put his teammates through.
It has developed into a modern pod tactic whereby the pod creates space for the playmaker, who either hits a gap or draws players to create holes for others.
The Wallabies’ two pods are made up of front rowers Scott Sio (Sekope Kepu), Folau Fainga’a (Brandon Paenga-Amosa) and Taniela Tupou (Allan Alaalatoa), while the other pod includes locks Izack Rodda (Rory Arnold) and Adam Coleman (Rob Simmons) and makeshift flanker Ned Hanigan.
The first pod runs in front of Kurtley Beale or Bernard Foley, while the second pod runs in front of Matt Toomua.
Unfortunately, the pod tactic did not create many gaps for the Wallabies in South Africa, but it did work in the second half in Argentina.
Michael Hooper for the Wallabies
Why is that so?
A problem they had in the Port Elizabeth Test was that the pod speed was wrong, making it easy for rushing South African defenders to either engulf the pods before they offloaded or the playmakers.
Often a pod started their run too early and would be offside so Will Genia would be forced to pass directly to the playmaker, who the South African defence had already locked onto.
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In this video Genia passed to Beale as Fainga’a, David Pocock and Adam Coleman ran too early. Fainga’a in particular was so far forward he had to duck to get out of the way. Watch the Bok defenders – all were locked onto Beale. They rushed forward and forced him to kick, potentially losing possession.
At other times the Wallabies’ pods were too slow or simply not there. Defenders easily rushed the first receiver.
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In the above video Genia passes to a lone Ned Hanigan with Izack Rodda and Coleman failing to show up in the pod. A pod fails to even appear at Genia’s next pass, with the defence rushing and forcing Beale to kick. The kick was a risky option rather than a pre-planned one.
The All Blacks and Springboks use pods to draw in defenders before quickly offloading to the pullback runner to hit outside gaps. Another option is for the forwards within a pod to offload between each other.
In Port Elizabeth the Wallabies’ pods often did not pass, instead opting to take a rugby league-style hit up. That method gained little territory against the speedy Bok defenders.
But in the second half against in Salta Australia’s pod members were better at offloading between themselves.
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In this situation Hanigan passes slightly early, but it doesn’t matter as Coleman draws two defenders before putting Rodda through a hole. However, if their speed and passing were quicker, the linebreak would have been even bigger. So there’s an obvious tactical advantage in intelligent offloading rather than running defensive lines and trying to use strength to break through.
Scrum half and first receiver
In South Africa the second receiver was either Beale, Foley or Toomua. All three were often either static or had made their mind up to kick – because the pod had either failed to show up or failed to draw defenders – when they received a pass. Standing still slowed their attacking momentum, making it easy for defenders to charge them.
In this situation first receiver and playmaker Foley was static on the catch and the Rob Simmons-Rory Arnold pod was tactically useless. He passes to Toomua, with his static forward pod also failing to fool defenders. The next pass is to Beale, then to Hooper. It’s telling to watch the 10-metre line though the entire sequence – the Wallabies gain only about 50 centimetres.
Let’s look at the tactical advantage a hard running first-receiver playmaker has over a static one.
In the above example Beale hit top speed as he took the pass. He was already over the advantage line when he passed to Dane Haylett-Petty. The territory gain was much greater despite the move starting from a situation where the ball was effectively dead (the scrum) – this is absolutely due to the Beale moving rather than being static.
Hard running first receivers confuse the defence as they present many dangerous options. In this situation Beale could have chipped and chased, ran it himself or passed to his fullback. In turn Haylett-Petty could have passed to Marika Koroibete or back to Beale, chipped and chased himself or made his own looping run through the line. Running as a team creates more options for attack and more confusion for defence.
A better way
At the end of the 46th minute South Africa showed how to use the pod tactic with great effect even without pod speed.
In this example scrum half Faf De Klerk passed to flanker Peter Steph du Toit in the centre of a three-man pod. Du Toit whipped behind the next two-man pod to fullback Willie Le Roux.
This is a key moment.
The Franco Mostert-Steven Kitshoff pod is in the perfect position to take the pass, and the pair draws in Wallabies Coleman, Pocock and Jack Maddocks.
But Le Roux doesn’t pass to Mostert or Kitschoff; he whips the ball to pullback runner Handre Pollard with the gap.
The No.10 passes to Malcolm Marx, with Siya Kolisi and lightning fast winger Aphiwe Dyantyi in support and only Toomua in their way. The South African pod tactic ends up in a dangerous three on one situation for the Wallabies.
In the end the move broke down due to a fumble, but massive metres were gained after the Wallabies line bunched in the middle, creating a large gap on the wing. The pod tactic worked decisively, and this would have been a five-point move if the Bok pods had a bit more speed.
The key to the Boks’ success here was that even though their pods weren’t running particularly fast, their pinpoint passing was quick and every pod was ready and in position. The Wallabies defence committed before they really read what was going on. Timing was everything.
The Wallabies do have the ability to make this tactic work, as we saw in the 47th minute in Salta.
In the above video Genia passes to a perfect arrow-shaped running pod. Argentine defenders cannot tell whether Tolu Latu will run at them himself or offload to Allan Alaalatoa on his right or Sekope Kepu on his left.
Three defenders are drawn to the three Wallabies props, creating a large gap for Israel Folau to run through, which he does, resulting in a try. This move, from Genia’s pass to the try, takes about six seconds in all.
While showing the clear benefits of smart running and passing by forward pods, it also makes me wonder whether the Wallabies’ fastest players could be used better.
If Australia cannot get the ball wide quickly enough, perhaps players like Folau, Marika Koroibete, Reece Hodge and Dane Haylett-Petty would be more effective in roaming attacking roles, going up the middle as first receivers or second receivers off the pods.
Can pods consistently work for the Wallabies?
If the Wallabies want the 1-3-3-1 pod tactic to work, they need to sharpen up in some key areas.
The pods must reload quicker so they are running in to either take a flat pass or draw defenders as dummies for the pullback playmakers. This means they need to work on their fitness.
The pods must offload quicker and more often, either amongst themselves or to playmakers. Taking hit-ups saps energy and slows momentum.
Also – if you rewatch the all the videos above – the pods need to work harder off the ball. They are way too slow to recycling the ball at the breakdown, giving the defenders time to reset and stifling their own momentum.
Pods and playmakers can’t afford to be static when receiving passes. That may mean instructing Foley or Beale to run more or inserting speedsters like Folau, Koroibete, Hodge or Haylett-Petty as hard-running first or second receivers to hit gaps.
In summary, Cheika’s pods will only work if forwards reload quicker and offload more and if the playmakers are running hard rather than static. The Wallabies need to improve their overall fitness and some players need to have more freedom in attack.
He must either sort out those issues or change tactics. Whatever the option, a decision must be made soon.