Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership

Become A Member
Dublin: 7°C Tuesday 2 March 2021

Two of rugby's deep thinkers will go head-to-head in the RWC final

Wayne Smith’s defence will attempt to nullify and exploit Stephen Larkham’s attack.

Murray Kinsella reports from London

THERE’S RUGBY BRAINPOWER in abundance in Pennyhill Park and the Lensbury Hotel this week ahead of Saturday’s World Cup final.

Some of the finest coaches in the game are driving New Zealand and Australia’s preparations for the decider at Twickenham.

Wayne Smith and scrum coach Mike Cron Wayne Smith and Mike Cron are two valuable parts of the Kiwis' backroom team. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

Michael Cheika’s understanding of how a group best functions, Steve Hansen’s confidence at the head of the Kiwis, Nathan Grey’s defensive steel, Mario Ledesma’s scrummaging passion; all of these men will feel they can add the edge to their side.

There are fascinating match-ups across the field in this final, but perhaps one of the coaching head-to-heads holds the greatest intrigue. Of course, these things are never as simple as a one-on-one, but Stephen Larkham and Wayne Smith will duel on Saturday.

Larkham, a World Cup-winning Wallaby in his playing days, is the attack coach for Cheika’s side. Smith, widely regarded within the game as one of the best coaches anywhere, is in charge of New Zealand’s defence.

Speaking at the Lensbury yesterday, Larkham refused to give away too many of his genuine thoughts about picking apart this miserly New Zealand defence, which has conceded just four tries so far in the World Cup and had a clean try sheet in their semi-final against South Africa.

Instead, we were treated to some of the 41-year-old’s dry wit, one that could be perceived as a sharpness were it not for the hint of a smirk on Larkham’s face.

Obviously all the tries this year have come from my hard work,” says a dead pan Larkham when asked about Adam Ashley-Cooper’s first score against Argentina last weekend, assisted by a glorious Bernard Foley pass.

“No, no, that was 100% Bernard. We’ve practised that move for a number of weeks now, and he just took the right option on the weekend.”

Larkham’s philosophy is heavily based on providing his players with a number of options in any given circumstance, leaving it up to the men on the pitch to produce the goods with their decision-making.

Stephen Larkham Larkham was a creator in his playing days too. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

There are programmed ‘power play’ attacks from set-piece, but Larkham’s introduction of a more structured game plan since joining the Wallabies earlier this year is simply intended to allow the players make better decisions.

“When you talk about the amount of work you can do with a backline on skill development in-season or in-competition, you can’t get a lot done,” says Larkham. “You’ve got to make sure the guys are prepped.”

Larkham is a big believer in video analysis work, his extensive study of the opposition often arming the Wallabies’ playmakers with strong insights into strengths and possible weaknesses.

In that regard, Limerick man Cathal Garvey is a valuable part of Larkham’s working life. The former UL Bohs player works as the Wallabies’ analyst and Larkham says “he does a lot of work,” like so many others behind the scenes.

Be part
of the team

Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership.

Become a Member

One of the goals for Larkham this week has been identifying chinks in the Kiwis’ defensive armour for the likes of Foley, Will Genia and Matt Giteau to expose, but it hasn’t been an easy task.

“There’s a couple of things we’ve been looking at I guess for the last couple of years in terms of trying to break it down, but you really have to wait and see how they turn up,” says Larkham.

Smith was part of New Zealand’s coaching staff from 2004 all the way through to the 2011 World Cup success and was a pivotal driver in the values shift the Kiwis undertook after their 2007 failure.

Technically and tactically, the 58-year-old is renowned as truly world-class. Smith re-joined Steve Hansen’s backroom staff earlier this year after two years as an assistant coach with the Chiefs, bringing with him serious acumen.

Wayne Smith Smith is regarded as one of the world's leading coaches. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

“I think Wayne’s got a very good rapport with the players and he’s a very smart man,” says hooker Keven Mealamu at New Zealand’s Pennyhill Park base. “He sees a lot of things that a player doesn’t usually pick up on and he’s good at getting his teachings across.

“It’s been really handy having him back, his attention for detail is right up there. He adds to the coaching group we’ve had for the last couple of years.”

Much as Larkham provides the Australian players with insight into how the opposition defend, Smith arms the Kiwis with a deep and detailed understanding of what is likely to be thrown at them when they’re forced to defend.

“He also gives us good insight as to how the other team will be looking at us and what they’ll be seeing,” says fullback Ben Smith. “He’s been doing a great job over the last few weeks to get our preparation right and has had a big impact on the team.”

Smith is a coach who sees defence as a means to getting the ball back in an advantageous position, rather than just being about preventing the opposition from scoring. Given the Kiwis’ searing counter-attacking game, that philosophy makes sense.

It doesn’t always mean linespeed, but some of the subtle tactics the Kiwis use to both create turnovers and then instantly exploit them are incredibly intelligent. The fact that New Zealand so often have players ideally positioned for countering is not merely accidental.

By design, Smith and Larkham have improved two aspects of the Australians’ and New Zealanders’ games that were already at an extremely high level. The clash of Smith’s defence with Larkham’s attack should prove thrilling.

Gloriously old-school Ben Smith is one of the world’s greatest players

Pocock says he’ll organise RWC final tickets for ‘legend’ David Attenborough

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

Read next: