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Analysis: Hurricanes limit Pocock's turnover threat to make Super final

Chris Boyd’s side smashed the in-form openside at every opportunity.

DAVID POCOCK HAS been a joy to watch for the neutral this year in Super Rugby.

After two years of cruel injury problems had denied the Brumbies of the openside’s phenomenally effective skillset, the 27-year-old put together a superb 2015 season that involved 14 appearances for the Australian franchise.

David Pocock 21/10/2011 Pocock is in fine form ahead of the World Cup. Source: Simon Watts

While many rugby supporters and fellow players will have taken pleasure at the sight of Pocock heading back towards his very best, we can be sure that several of his opponents have cursed the flanker’s breakdown excellence.

The Brumbies have always been superb in the rucks, particularly under the guidance of Laurie Fisher, but Pocock’s full-time return has brought another dimension. With that in mind, last weekend’s semi-final clash with the Hurricanes was always going to be intriguing.

The New Zealand side deservedly topped the table after a wonderful regular season in which their thrilling running game picked up many of the plaudits.

There’s more to the Canes than beating defenders, however. Along with their much-improved defence under assistant coach John Plumtree, their rucking game has been at a consistently strong level.

Nehe Milner-Skudder and co. get the fanfare for their footwork, offloading and pace, but it’s so often been the case that the Canes have laid the foundation with their excellence at ruck time.

It set the stage for a fascinating battle between the Brumbies’ defensive strengths at the breakdown, so often led by Pocock this season, and the quality of the Hurricanes in clearing bodies away on their own ball.

Role reversal

We don’t want to paint too extreme a picture here, the Brumbies may be excellent at picking off opposition ball, but the Hurricanes are no slouches in that area either. Chris Boyd’s men showed as much within the opening two minutes in Wellington on Saturday.

Vito TO Min2

It’s number eight Victor Vito who earns the Canes the penalty, and it’s interesting to see Pocock as one of the two Brumbies rucking players who just fail to remove the threat. Ita Vaea is the other man, arriving in with real pace, but just after Vito has got his hands on the ball.

The New Zealand international does superbly to ride the clear-out attempt of Vaea, ever so slightly bouncing back and showing referee Glen Jackson that he has survived the clean.

Just two minutes later, Ardie Savea – the less heralded of the men wearing seven – pilfered more Brumbies possession, this time with a clean steal.

Savea TO Min4

On this occasion, it’s out-half Christian Leali’ifano who is first on scene for the Brumbies, but his rucking attempt is too high initially, slipping over the top of Savea before he reacts and goes for a second bite of the cherry.

Savea’s dynamism is too much, however, and he uses that initial window to burst onto the ball and strip it clear of Vaea.

The expectation that the Brumbies would be looking to get out and spoil the Hurricanes ball early in this game was denied a chance to materialise simply because the Australian side had the early possession.

Instead, we got a chance to see that the Canes intended to be extremely competitive in that area too and that the Brumbies were, perhaps, slightly off the pace when it came to clearing bodies in attack.

Fardy Effort Min7

There was one early scare for Boyd’s side when Scott Fardy – whose superb breakdown skills we have highlighted before – almost stole possession in the seventh minute, the Hurricanes just about doing enough to retain the pill.

Milner-Skudder and Reg Goodes do manage to rock Fardy with their clear-out attempt at first but, like Vito earlier, Fardy is in a strong enough position and has enough physical quality to survive it.

It takes a battling effort from scrum-half TJ Perenara to seal the deal, but the Hurricanes had been warned, even without Pocock having had a sniff yet.

Clearing the jackal

Suddenly, the Canes bounced back to the levels of rucking we have come to expect from them, with the superb James Broadhurst showing the way within a minute of Fardy’s warning shot.

Broadhurst Smash Min8

It’s prime territory for a Pocock steal, as the openside looks to bounce back onto his feet after tackling Vito, but Broadhurst is fully aware of the threat and acts before Pocock can get himself in any way settled.

The lock – a new face in New Zealand’s 41-man squad – pushes a player out of the way with his aggressive intent to hit Pocock, getting low and driving his right shoulder into the Brumbies openside to clear him away and allow his team to play with quick ball.

Pocock wasn’t always a danger to the Hurricanes in this type of one-on-one situation though. Such is his breakdown ability that any time he does get into even a semi-decent position, he is extremely difficult to clear.

Boyd’s men were not afraid to commit multiple players to clearing Pocock away, as we see below.

3-Man Job Min11

It takes three players to get the job done above, while in the example below there are actually four Hurricanes players needed to remove Pocock from the sort of position which has led to so many turnovers this season.

4-Man Job Min20

Four against one in the rucks? Surely that meant huge advantages for the Brumbies defensively, given those extra defenders on their feet: a numerically positive scenario?

Unfortunately for head coach Stephen Larkham, that wasn’t the case last weekend as much of Pocock’s competition at the breakdown was followed by missed one-on-one tackles from his teammates further out the line or a general lack of linespeed.

The Hurricanes are perhaps unique in having so many players in their backline that can beat defenders, meaning their willingness to commit extra bodies into the ruck didn’t have a major impact on their ability to cut the defensive line on the subsequent phases.

Boyd’s men simply didn’t allow Pocock to settle over the ball in Wellington, fully aware that he could destroy their chances of firing in attack.

Smash Min23

The openside was smashed repeatedly, particularly in the first half, with several of the biggest clear-outs on Pocock being followed almost directly by big linebreaks and half-breaks.

Oftentimes, there wasn’t anything hugely notable about the actual clearing out on a technical level – they weren’t getting significantly lower than Pocock or croc rolling him away.

There were, of course, examples of those things, but more often than not it was a big shoulder driven into Pocock, or three bodies arriving in to beat him by sheer weight of numbers.

Competing

On the other side of the ball in the first half, the Canes continued to compete for the Brumbies’ possession, even drawing Pocock into conceding a rare rucking penalty on attack.

In The Side Min26

It’s a little unfortunate for Pocock here, as he drives beyond the initial tackle on Joe Tomane, leaving the ball free to play but also allowing Savea to sneak in and pose a turnover threat.

Some might point to Savea’s left arm on the ground just before Pocock re-enters from the side, but in terms of how the game was being refereed by Jackson [and nearly every other match official] that much was consistently allowed last weekend.

Savea went on to produce another turnover shorty after the 30-minute mark, this time benefiting from the battling work of Vito and Brad Shields to identify his opening.

The aftermath of this game has seen some suggestion that Savea outplayed Pocock in the battle of the opensides, but such a head-to-head view is a little unfair on both players.

As we’ll see, Pocock had some superb moments at the breakdown too, but it’s possibly more accurate to see this as a team-on-team contest.

Relentless

One of the things that makes Pocock such an effective player is his sheer desire and grit, the drive that means he never relents, whether that’s during a single passage of play, over the course of a match, or even the duration of a season.

The former Wallabies captain played the full 80 against the Canes and didn’t let up in his efforts to steal the ball for the entire game. He was rewarded with a pair of steals, the first with 30 minutes on the clock.

TURNOVER Min30

It’s not the classic Pocock turnover we expect – him over the ball in the jackal position – but this steal of possession shows his determination. There’s even a hint of a knock-on by the Brumbies back row, but he doesn’t stop fighting until his team have the ball.

When they do, he’s on his feet as soon as possible after winning it and back in play.

More spectacular was Pocock’s second-half turnover, as he sublimely rolled the ball back with his right hand, then scooped and passed it away with his left.

SICK TURNOVER Min60

It’s a stunning act of skill from Pocock and demonstrates why Australia’s World Cup pool opponents will be so nervous about his ability.

One could argue that a ruck had been formed in the split second before Pocock gets a hand on the ball, as Matt Proctor arrives to engage with him, but that would once again go against how these situations are generally refereed in the modern professional game.

Instead, we should focus on the wonderful skill and tenacity that allowed Pocock to win the ball.

Unfortunately for the Brumbies, there weren’t more moments like it and Pocock’s evening at the coal face actually ended with him conceding a debatable penalty and then being smashed away from the ball a handful of other times.

Ultimately, the Hurricanes’ aggression and commitment in this area denied the Australia flanker the opportunities on which he usually thrives.

Now the task is for Boyd’s men to ensure the Highlanders don’t get the sort of turnover possession that makes them a major threat in this weekend’s final.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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