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Analysis: All Blacks will have to target ludicrously effective David Pocock

The Wallabies number eight must be dealt with aggressively and in numbers.

WHAT TO DO about David Pocock?

New Zealand may be insisting that they haven’t focused on the Australian back row coming into Saturday’s World Cup final, but a failure to do so would amount to negligence.

Nullifying the turnover threat of Pocock is going to be essential if the Kiwis are to secure a second consecutive title. With 14 turnovers in his four games so far, the Australia number eight has been ludicrously effective in pilfering opposition possession.

Michael Hooper and David Pocock Pocock was left bloodied by another outstanding effort last weekend. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The brilliant Scott Fardy is another threat to New Zealand over the ball, while Michael Hooper can be relied on to chip in intermittently, but Pocock will be the primary focus for Steve Hansen’s side.

Limit his impact and the Kiwis can prosper in Twickenham.

When we talk about the breakdown battle, the importance of a team’s openside tends to be overplayed. Yes, they will often be the first man arriving in post-tackle, but beating Pocock is a shared duty among the Kiwi players.

Argentina failed to deal with Pocock last weekend, and he produced four superb turnovers that sapped the Pumas of momentum, field position and confidence.

It’s worth stressing that this is just a single aspect of what will be a fascinating and multi-layered World Cup final, but Hansen’s side will be amped up to ensure Pocock doesn’t have another field day at the breakdown.

Numbers

In truth, there’s no one magic formula for dealing with Pocock.

There have been very few occasions on which the back row has been quietened at the breakdown this season, but one game of note was the Brumbies’ clash with the Hurricanes in the Super Rugby semi-finals.

Pocock managed two turnovers of the Hurricanes’ possession in that fixture, but generally the Kiwi franchise managed to keep him quiet. Relatively speaking, of course.

3-man-job-min11

The Canes flooded the rucks much of the time in that game, sacrificing three and sometimes four players to ensuring Pocock couldn’t steal the ball. We see above how three bodies hammer into the ruck to be certain the Australian doesn’t pilfer.

The issue with that tactic is that it would leave New Zealand numbers down in attack when they do retain the ball. We saw that happening for large portions of their semi-final last weekend, as the threat of Francois Louw drew additional rucking players in.

It meant that New Zealand’s patterns in phase play couldn’t extend much further than the first forward pod, and it also ensured that the use of Nehe Milner-Skudder and Julian Savea off their wings and in the midfield was greatly amplified.

4-man-job-min20

That’s the advantage of having men like Savea, Ma’a Nonu and Milner-Skudder in your team – even when you’ve flooded the breakdown and find yourself up against a well-stacked defensive line as a result, these players will win gainline by beating defenders.

Expect New Zealand to fill the ruck with players early in the game especially as they attempt to build a lead.

It may reduce the effectiveness of their attack and mean they have to play narrower, but the upshot is that Pocock’s turnover effectiveness doesn’t boost Australian confidence and garner momentum for them.

Vicious edge

When the Kiwis don’t go down the route of having three or four men hammering Pocock any time he has a sniff, the importance of the of the first and second men in is obviously greatly magnified.

Argentina struggled in this department against Pocock, allowing the Brumbies back row too much time to clamp over the ball.

Pocock 1

Above, we see the Pumas standing off even as Pocock approaches the tackle zone, with Marcelo Bosch looking for an offload from Juan Martín Hernández Lobbe when it’s never really on.

It’s another important point and another way in which the Kiwis may have to slightly adapt. Their support runners do generally anticipate an offload and set themselves up accordingly, hanging off the carrier to keep the offloading chance alive.

When Pocock is in the vicinity, that offload set-up may have to be sacrificed for a focus on being first to the breakdown. The only way to beat Pocock one-on-one is by getting over the ball before he does, as he simply cannot be budged once he’s jackaling.

Altering the entire attacking philosophy of the team for one opposition player might seem extreme, but these are minor tweaks when the supporting players ID Pocock approaching the tackle zone.

In this instance, Argentina’s standoffishness leaves Pocock a clear winner in the race to the ball, allowing him to snap over it in that familiar jackal position in which he excels.

Wins the Race

When Pocock is given the space to get into this position, possession is as good as lost. His ability to get his hands directly onto the ball itself is unrivalled in world rugby. It sounds like a stupid thing to highlight, but Pocock so often snaps directly onto the ball rather than clambering at the arms or upper body of the tackled player.

He rarely gives referees opportunities to ping him for not supporting his own body weight, simply because his focus on the ball is so laser-like. The fact that Pocock has such a strong reputation at the breakdown works in his favour with referees.

They expect Pocock to be stealing the ball, so even when he is bordering on the illegal, he tends to get the benefit of the doubt. That only increases the need for the Kiwis to avoid scenarios like the one above.

Richie

Pocock himself provides a good example of what the Kiwis must do to him on Saturday in the clip above, taken from the Rugby Championship decider earlier this year, a game in which Pocock was sublime.

Richie McCaw has thoughts of a turnover here, but Pocock and James Horwill are on the scene too quickly for him to even get a good sighting of the ball. The early arrival with force will be essential for the Kiwis at Twickenham.

It’s not really a technical thing, more of a relentless mindset to obliterate Pocock and any other player who dares to think about stealing their possession. It must be violent in its aggression.

Note how Pocock and Horwill aren’t too concerned with staying on their feet here – as the laws of the game dictate they should. Indeed, look at the majority of rucks in rugby and you’ll see players off their feet, it’s simply part of a physical sport in which there are so many variables all the time.

In order to nullify Pocock with just one or two rucking players, the Kiwis will have to blast him in this manner. The fortune for them is that Nigel Owens, Saturday’s referee, generally tends to favour the attacking team at the ruck, provided that it’s not a completely blatant diving off the feet.

One-man

To be clear, the Kiwis shouldn’t be deliberately aiming to go off their feet at any stage, but the focus on slamming into Pocock and beyond the breakdown must be relentless. James Broadhurst of the Hurricanes provides a strong example above.

There must be anger in the Kiwis’ clearouts, an additional edge on an already strong rucking foundation.

Pocock is carrying a broken nose into this game and while he has shown that pain doesn’t quench his appetite to put his head into dangerous places, New Zealand will look to question that hunger with strong shoulders.

Can they hold him on the ground for a split second even after the ball has been shifted away? Can they frustrate and spoil his ability to get to another breakdown seconds later?

Look out for New Zealanders running across or into Pocock when play breaks up or as the Australians chase their kicks. Even the slightest nudge off the ball might slow Pocock’s trajectory towards the point of the breakdown and give the rucking Kiwi players an additional split second in which to ensure they arrive first.

The Kiwis are a wily team who often push the laws towards breaking point, so expect more of the same in their effort to stifle Pocock.

Counter punch

One possible way Michael Cheika’s team could benefit from the focus on Pocock from the Kiwis is by using him as something of a lure at the breakdown.

If two or three Kiwis are going to hammer in and smash Pocock clear, losing their feet in the process, there may be openings for Hooper, Fardy and others to have another bite at the ball.

Pocock 2

Pocock is deservedly the man who gets the praise for his big turnovers, but he is so often helped by his teammates. In the example above, James Slipper anchors himself onto Pocock as the number eight jackals, providing additional stability as well as a target for rucking players to be distracted by.

At other times we see Fardy or Hooper have a pinch at the ball, get cleared out and allow Pocock to follow them in and win the ball. This might be the game where Pocock returns the favour to his breakdown assistants.

With the Kiwis hammering into Pocock, space may open for other Wallabies to target the ball with a slight delay, almost side stepping the initial ruck and then sneaking in after Pocock has been slammed clear.

There may only be one or two opportunities of this nature in the contest, but Cheika’s men would do well to stay tuned in to the possibility.

One element

Pocock’s breakdown threat is only one element of this final, but such is his impact on the momentum of games, it’s worth New Zealand’s while adapting their tactics to ensure the number eight doesn’t get a grip.

Expect to see Hansen’s flood bodies in when required, to blast right through Pocock whenever they have a chance, and also to seek out Pocock when they carry the ball in phase play.

The Australian is at his most lethal when he’s hovering from ruck to ruck, sometimes even slightly behind the main defensive line. Hansen’s side will actively search him out when attacking, looking to ensure that a good carry into his tackle brings him to ground with the ball.

Of course, the Brumbies back row is the best in the world at rebounding off the deck in a split second, but that’s where the importance of the carry is magnified. New Zealand’s footwork must ensure Pocock is not getting dominant hits, tackles that allow him to immediately turn his focus to the ball.

The carry must truly challenge Pocock’s tackle and bring him fully to the ground, before the first rucking player arrives in and gets a good shoulder onto him to finish the job.

Even when the accuracy, aggression and numbers are spot on, Pocock often still manages to find a way to turn the ball over, meaning we’re in for another fascinating day at the breakdown.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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