Dublin: 9°C Saturday 29 January 2022

Analysis: Australia's defensive changes open opportunities for Ireland

We pick out some potential weaknesses for Joe Schmidt’s men to exploit tomorrow evening.

Sexton will direct the Irish efforts to break down the Wallabies defence.
Sexton will direct the Irish efforts to break down the Wallabies defence.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

IT’S BEEN A month of heavy change for the Wallabies, with Michael Cheika coming on board with the aim of re-invigorating the Australian national team.

The ex-Leinster coach has brought Nathan Grey along with him as defence coach, having successfully worked with the former centre at the Waratahs in 2014. While Cheika has gone about tweaking the Wallabies attack this month, Grey has been busy restructuring their defence.

“He’s been a great addition to this team,” Australia captain Michael Hooper said of the new defence coach. “He’s got a real set structure about how he wants to defend, so guys have got good clarity around that.

He wants us to be an imposing defensive team. You’ve got to be that to be competitive over here against big, big guys. So he’s been really good for us and I think everyone is really enjoying his enthusiasm coming back into this group from when he was a player.”

Grey earned 35 caps for Australia during his playing days, when he was a defensively-minded centre who was well known for his ability to pressurise the opposition and produce big moments of contact.

The 39-year-old now looks to bring those same attributes to the teams he coaches.

Work in progress

Cheika and his players have admitted that the tactical changes they are seeking remain a work in progress, and that’s been evident on the pitch in the last three weekends against the Barbarians, Wales and France.

Defensively, the Wallabies have given up 11 tries in their three most recent fixtures, as well as numerous other linebreaks. While there has been improvement in the linespeed of the defence under Grey, there have also been teething problems.


We get an example of one of the issues in the clip above, as out-half Bernard Foley shoots up out of the line on the short left-hand side of the Australia defence, failing to stop the ball dead and therefore leaving Wales with a clear overlap.

Grey has given his defenders the liberty to shoot up from the line in this manner, particularly his midfield backs. Encouraging them to do so has led to many excellent reads and hits, but it has also left the Wallabies vulnerable on other occassions.

Matt Toomua comes back into the team this weekend at 12, an extremely aggressive defender in terms of linespeed. Again, he’s a man who gets his reads spot on to produce solid hits very often, but his tendancy to shoot can be exploited too.


The example above comes from the Rugby Championship, when Cheika and Grey were not in place as coaches, but highlights what we have mentioned above.

Toomua shoots up ahead of the line in an effort to stop South Africa’s attacking play in its tracks behind the gainline, but leaves his team short on the outside edge when he ‘misses’ Willie le Roux.

Toomua .1

Under Grey, Toomua will be given further license to race up ahead of the Wallabies’ defensive line, attempting to stifle Ireland and dominate the collision. Outside him, Tevita Kuridrani will be encouraged to do the same.

The 23-year-old outside centre tips the scales at well over 100kg, meaning colliding with him is never fun, but the point is that Australia leave themselves exposed to make these big defensive plays.

Johnny Sexton will be fully aware of the pressure likely to be coming in the direction of himself, Gordon D’Arcy and Robbie Henshaw in midfield, but will be equally confident in his ability to pry apart the ‘dog legs’ left by these Australia shooters.

Off the ball, Ireland wings Simon Zebo and Tommy Bowe will be working hard to provide their out-half with additional options amidst that midfield pressure.

Covering the back field

Many teams who look to bring aggression in their defensive linespeed will fill their front line with defenders. In other words, they will push their wings up into the front line of the defence, as well as their scrum-half.

The more players in that front line, the safer it is to operate at a high linespeed, so goes the thinking in many quarters. However, the Wallabies are not as focused on filling up the front line as other sides.

Their wings will often drop deep to cover space that would potentially be exploited by the opposition’s kicking game, while scrum-half Nick Phipps consistently falls back into a sweeping position behind the front line, as below.


Essentially, in the image above Phipps is sweeping behind the defence to defend against the French short kicking game [grubbers or chips], as well as providing a safety net for any missed tackles.

What it all combines to mean for the Wallabies’ front line is that they are often attempting to generate linespeed with fewer numbers involved. We’ve seen above that it means individual shooters can leave big holes either side of them, but it also stresses the Wallabies’ defence in general phase play.

We get a snippet of that in the GIF below, as Wales take the Wallabies through 11 phases of physically taxing defence before striking for the clean break.


This bust of the Wallabies line is also down to an individual error from flanker Sean McMahon, who is not in the matchday 23 this week, but it equally owes to the preceding 10 phases of defence.

Repeatedly looking to turn on the linespeed is a normal demand on professional rugby players, but there are difficulties in adjusting to a new system for the Wallabies this month. Repeatedly getting off the line, especially with one or two fewer numbers in it, can be highly fatiguing.

That is a natural aspect of the changeover of coaching staff and ideas, but Ireland will be looking to take advantage of these slight breakdowns in the Wallabies system. Such incidents have been present throughout the last three weeks and Schmidt is likely to ask his side to go through the phases patiently to drag the Australians out of shape.

Narrow tendencies

Another point to briefly point to is the Australian tendency to get slightly narrow in their front line, again partly because of the ploy of running a sweeper and often dropping their wings deep to cover space.

Below, we see the French perfectly exploiting the Wallabies’ lack of width in defence.


It’s notable that Adam Ashley-Cooper, the wing on the outside edge of Australia’s defence, is actually up in the line on this occasion, although we can see Phipps sweeping and Israel Folau lying deep for a longer kick.

Even with that additional body in the line, the Wallabies get narrow and offer up a wide, shallow space for Camille Lopez to kick into. It takes a sublime touch from the Clermont man to exploit it, but Ireland will surely have noted such incidences.

Kicking is not the only way to get to that outside space, but with Sexton’s accuracy with the boot, it might be an important attacking option once or twice tomorrow.

Foley at the back

We’ve mentioned above that Australia tend to drop their wings deep on either touchline in order to cover kicks, but that’s not entirely accurate. Oftentimes, it’s out-half Foley who vacates the front line to cover deep.

Some see this as a tactic to ‘hide’ the 90kg Foley from having to get through a high number of tackles, but Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has also perceptively indicated that it allows the Australian playmaker to kick-start his side’s counter-attacks.

It’s something that Quade Cooper does too when he is on the pitch for the Wallabies. Again, it means less contact for the out-half and also allows him to use his superb footwork on the counter.

For Ireland, it’s a potential chance to create highly favourable aerial battles. Schmidt is a fan of contestable kicking, and although it goes without saying that kicking to Folau is a recipe for disaster, there may be opportunities against the Wallabies.


Wales provide an example above, as a hanging, diagonal bomb is placed over Foley in that deep-lying, wide position. At 6ft, the Waratahs’ playmaker is not the tallest man and against players like Bowe, Zebo or Rob Kearney, he might be overshadowed.

Clearly, Ireland don’t want to kick at Foley every time they have possession, but again there may be one or two openings to do so when the out-half drops deep tomorrow.

Bound to improve

As with their attacking structures, which were relatively poor against France last weekend, Australia are almost certain to improve defensively against Ireland. Another week working under Grey and Cheika means another seven days of understanding exactly what is expected.

The Wallabies are likely to function more intuitively, reading their teammates’ intentions to shoot and adapting more appropriately to that, for example. Still, Schmidt and Ireland will have noted the teething problems as Grey looks to install a new system.

The Kiwi head coach is also likely to send Sexton and co. onto the field with intelligent plays to exploit any repeats of those Australian errors.

Hooper enjoying life under Cheika ahead of meeting with in-form Ireland

You get the impression some southern hemisphere players don’t know your name — Mike Ross

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

Read next: