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2001 Lions villain Grey demands defensive aggression from Cheika's Wallabies

The former Australia centre is a key part of Michael Cheika’s coaching staff.

Murray Kinsella reports from London

YOU QUITE POSSIBLY best remember Nathan Grey for his infamous high challenge on Richard Hill during the second Test of the 2001 Lions tour.

The Lions had won the first Test and were leading 11-3 after half an hour of the second when Grey went in high on Hill, his elbow clashing with the brilliant blindside flanker’s neck and leaving him concussed.

Brian O'Driscoll Grey tackles Brian O'Driscoll in 2001. Source: INPHO

Hill exited, Grey was not punished and suddenly the momentum shifted in the game and the Test series as Australia ran out 35-14 winners. A week later, with Hill missing and Grey cleared to play by Kiwi match commissioner David Gray, the Wallabies sealed the series with a 29-23 victory in Sydney.

One of the most epic Lions tours of them all, and Grey was a key man in the Australian success, whatever about that controversial moment.

Grey was an uncompromising defender throughout his playing career in midfield, his flooring of Brian O’Driscoll standing out in the memory. The Irishman did get one over on Grey in return, stepping inside the Aussie centre for an iconic try.

Gosford native Grey is now the defence coach for Michael Cheika’s Australia, having originally started to work with the former Leinster boss at the Waratahs, helping the franchise to their 2014 Super Rugby title with a defensive transformation.

Whatever about the anger he sparked with that challenge on Hill all those years ago – which Hill himself holds no grudge over – it turns at that Grey is a good bloke. He’s free and genial with his time, chatting to us at Australia’s World Cup final base in the Lensbury Hotel after the dictaphones have been switched off.

40-year-old Grey joined Cheika’s Wallabies staff at the start of this year along with attack specialist Stephen Larkham. Both additions have proven to be crucial to the Rugby Championship success and now the run to the World Cup final, allowing Cheika to focus on the bigger picture as his assistants nail down the training ground detail.

International Rugby Union - British Lions Tour of Australia - 1st Test - Australia v British Lions Rob Henderson and Martin Corry look to halt the powerful Grey. Source: EMPICS Sport

Unsurprisingly, Grey’s defensive philosophy reflects the fact that he was a superb defender in an individual sense. The system is key but Grey’s mindset is based on the very specific actions that go into that.

“We want to make sure our one-on-one defence is really good and looking after your own job in terms of making sure your technique is right and you’re executing that,” says Grey.

“Then it’s our connection, making sure you’re working as a unit. You’ve got to have the right system in place where everyone’s comfortable, but at the end of the day you’ve got to have that one-on-one foundation where you’re very confident and very dominant defending in that space. That’s going to be important for us (on Saturday).”

Defence is so often a reflection of the spirit within a squad – one of Cheika’s core beliefs – and the Wallabies delivered a masterclass in this area in their pool game against Wales when they were down to 13 men.

Rather than collapse in the face of an admittedly narrow Welsh attack, the numbers-down Wallabies held their tryline intact in a remarkable show of grit.

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“You do (feed off it), it gives the side confidence to know that if they’re in that situation, we can defend and be comfortable in that area,” says Grey, whose professional coaching career began in Japan after several years playing there.

Australia assistant coach Nathan Grey   29/11//2014 Grey won a Super Rugby title alongside Cheika with the Tahs. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

“As a defence coach, you don’t want to be in that situation too often but you take little snippets of confidence from games.

“We’ve done that throughout the season, from the Rugby Championship to the Bledisloe game in New Zealand to the World Cup over here. You take snippets of positives from all areas of the game and you want to build that into a perfect performance. That’s the goal and we believe we’ve got to work towards that.”

A more recent confidence booster was holding Argentina tryless in last weekend’s World Cup semi-final, although that fixture saw the Wallabies give up 18 linebreaks over the course of a frenetic 80 minutes.

There are concerns in that figure of course, but also a pride at the work rate Australia showed to scramble time and again.

It doesn’t take any talent to get off the ground and get into the defensive line, so the guys worked really hard for each other,” says Grey. “When your line is breached and you have to scramble and work for each other and build that defensive line, it’s a good sign of character in the side.

“Full credit to the Argentinian attack, they spread the ball and used the ball really well to put us under pressure.”

Of further encouragement was how aggressively the Wallabies’ defence started the game, pressuring the Pumas into errors and even producing an intercept try for Rob Simmons after only 70 seconds of play.

A week after Ireland’s linespeed had been non-existent against the Pumas, Grey’s players turned it up. Now the stern-looking assistant coach wants more of the same against New Zealand.

Australia assistant coach Nathan Grey   29/11//2014 Grey is a trusted part of Cheika's staff. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

“It’s part of the way we want to defend, we want to be nice and consistent across the park and continue to put the opposition under pressure both when we’ve got the ball and also when they’ve got the ball,” says Grey.

He also highlights how useful it is to have poachers such as David Pocock and Scott Fardy in his defensive line, as well as two experienced and intelligent wings in the shape of Adam Ashley-Cooper and Drew Mitchell.

So often the men on the outside edge are the weakness in teams’ defences, but the Wallabies possess a pair who are extremely solid and proactive.

You get confidence from all the people in the defensive line, everyone has their own different skillset that they bring to the defensive line,” says Grey.

“We want those guys to do those things, to back themselves if they’re seeing opportunities to turn the ball over or put an opposition under pressure. Back that decision making and know that the guys either side of you are going to be backing you as well.”

If the Wallabies are going to pull it off in Twickenham this weekend, it’s going to take an incredible defensive effort. Grey has belief that his players are in a good place to deliver on that requirement.

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Murray Kinsella

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