Rarely does a moment pass in modern life without a live sporting event on television. There’s always something to see somewhere in the world. Here in the UK, it could be ping-pong or kabaddi overnight, Aussie rules at dawn, or a Premier League football core when daylight wanes.
There is always something going on – at least until the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, which is now overshadowing the activities of all major sporting nations on the planet.
The loss of professional football or soccer is particularly noticeable in England. So much so that supporters like Luke Lambourne, who runs League Two club Leyton Orient’s social media operations, decided to take matters into their own hands and replace actual reality with virtual reality.
He launched an online Esport FIFA tournament and within the first 48 hours his invitation had gone viral. Now he has a global competition with 128 teams in his hands, from the Premier League giants Manchester City, Newcastle United and West Ham to Ajax in the Netherlands, Lokomotive Moscow in Russia and Adelaide United from Australia.
Top real-life players will be at the controls: “We saw Crystal Palace move Andros Townsend forward and line up Brighton Neal Maupay,” Lambourne told Radio 1 Newsbeat.
“There are also a number of English clubs that give their players control to make it fun.”
The proceeds of the tournament go to both the World Health Organization and the financial support of professional clubs in the English league, while the live product is quarantined.
The suspension of Super Rugby in the southern hemisphere may not offer the same opportunity for a replacement to enter the virtual field, but it does create a space for reassessment in the medium term.
We can all breathe in a deep collective breath and take a look at how the main game problems in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina develop in medias res.
One of the big questions I raised at the beginning of the season was the possible combination in the back row of wallabies and especially the choice of 7th place.
In Australia there was a strong, if unpredictable, media lobby for Queensland’s Liam Wright to replace incumbent Michael Hooper, and Wright’s best performance in the Super Rugby season (against the unfortunate bulls in Round 7) brought those voices back into the game Foreground.
This is what the primary statistics per game that I used as a marker in the original article look like in 2020, courtesy of the Fox Sports Lab. First, in the attack:
|Let run||Line breaks (plus templates)||Tackle busts||Passports (plus unloadings)|
These averages per game are approximately the same, which allows for a slight improvement in the line break and break statistics of Liam Wright.
Here are the averages for defense:
|Sales||Tackles||Tackle efficiency||Discipline (pens con)|
|Michael Hooper||0.8||14.2||87%||1.2 (no yellow cards)|
|Wright||1||12.6||88%||0.7 (plus a yellow card)|
There is a modest convergence in defense, with Wright improving his tackle count at the cost of his breakdown competitions, and Hooper showing greater effectiveness on the ball.
It’s worth exploring both the improving dynamics of Wright’s open-side game and the strengths and weaknesses of the large back row that the Reds prefer. Both aspects have a strong impact on the selection of the Wallabies unit during the year.
The Reds like to choose two powerful ball carriers in 8th place (Harry Wilson) and 6th place (Lukhan Salakaia-Loto). Wilson has an average of 12.6 transfers per game in Super Rugby 2020 (top of the pile), while Salakaia-Loto is in the top four at 7.4.
However, energy is very rarely evenly distributed across attack and defense, and the large number of transmissions means that less contribution to defense is made. Wilson and Salakaia-Loto did an average of 12.7 duels per game in 2020, the same number as Wright himself, and one and a half duels less than Michael Hooper. The piper has to be paid somewhere at some point.
The first quarter of the game against the bulls has shown that this emphasis doesn’t go well with an open side that prefers to play as closely as Wright.
Let’s start at the beginning with the bulls starting their first attack of the game from a lineout.
Wright defends in line within Bryce Hegarty and Hamish Stewart, and as mentioned in my original article, he tends to automatically commit to the first breakdown.
For a number 7, this means signing up to defend near the rucksack for the next phase, and possibly even the next phase. In this scenario, he cannot operate as a link between forward and backward:
At the end of the second phase, Wright is still right behind the jerk, while a regrouping of Chris Feauai-Sautia and Harry Hockings is poorly managing the defense of the area he may be protecting, the area between the last striker and the first back :
This topic became a constant refrain for the Reds in the first 20 minutes when the bulls rode up the ascendant. It distinguished the first attempt by the South Africans:
This time it is Hockings’ partner in the second row, Angus Blyth, who gets involved in the transition zone to the first defender Hamish Stewart, with Wright again firmly behind the collapse:
The bulls duly implemented the opportunity at 0:40 a.m. on the highlight role.
The heavy load of Wilson and Salakaia-Loto in the attack means that they often have difficulty getting the same impact on the other side of the ball. In this case, Wilson is unable to access the cover and prevent unloading. The next goal in the 13th minute (at 0:55 on the reel), Salakaia-Loto defended outside Wright, Hockings and Taniela Tupou as the broadest striker.
If your number 7 is not in the picture, problems can arise when a tall man tries to accurately assess distances in space:
The topics are the same: Wright did the previous tackle and gets up behind the jerk and Salakaia-Loto is the last striker to connect with the first back in the wide channel (number 9, Scott Malolua).
Even if the ball is transferred to winger Rosko Speckman on the sideline, this is a scenario that the Reds’ defense should comfortably cope with:
Salakaia-Loto and Jock Campbell both covered the inner channels, and Hegarty is the insurance policy that comes quickly from the full-back, but somehow Speckman manages to dodge both defenders without putting a hand on him to prepare for Warrick Gelant’s attempt . That is the definition of a soft attempt in modern game.
A long sequence towards the end of the first period showed how effective Liam Wright individually and the defense of the Reds as a whole can be if the right people are more consistent in the right places. This was probably the most important momentum shift in the game:
First Wright makes his automatic mistake and bows his head into his mouth just as he releases the ball. This gives the bulls a chance that all South African teams enjoy, the chance to play their big strikers against their opponents in rolling waves of physicality.
Wright quickly recovers from his mistake. He is back in the game in the second phase and slows the ball in the event of a breakdown:
Not only does he cause a disturbance, he decisively pulls his head out of jerk to become the first striker to connect to the Reds backline as the phases move to the right in Queensland:
Here it is Wright folding inside to defend Speckman, not Lukhan Salakaia-Loto as in the previous example, and that makes the difference to the integrity of Queensland’s defense.
Fittingly, the sequence ended with a penalty after another wright-on-ball attempt in the transition zone where Marco van Staden couldn’t find a position and couldn’t clear it:
Another hit by the bulls at this point in the game could have been enough to kill the Reds.
Both Wright and Salakaia-Loto have significantly improved their attacking game under the direction of offensive coordinator Jim McKay, as the second half of the game shows very well. On the highlight role, two Wright Reds offloads triggered attempts, the first one to the far right and from the shot from the previous game, the second very strong in midfield after an in-pass from Hegarty to bring Harry Wilson through the gap.
Lukhan Salakaia-Loto also played a significant role in both attempts, intelligently straightening and unloading in the first place and rounding in the second in the left corner.
The Queensland Reds are the puzzle of Super Rugby: at the top of the table for points and attempts, almost at the bottom for points and goals – only the Lions, Waratahs and Sunwolves have a worse record in 2020.
It is easy to see why this is the case when the structure and tendencies of the back row are taken into account. Brad Thorn likes to choose two attacking players of 8 and 6 in Harry Wilson and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto. They are characterized by the ball in their hands, but their contribution without it is necessarily limited in value.
Add a number 7 whose instinct is to play tightly and get his head in contact instead of staying outside and keeping his back connected, and the Reds are more likely to give up than get back.
It’s hard to get the impression that Queensland could be served much better if you start with the combination of five players that ended the match – Salakaia-Loto in the second row, with Wright and Fraser McReight who did it End book, Wilson behind. That is the future of the franchise.
Dave Rennies Wallabies certainly cannot have the idea of choosing the same type of back row as Queensland. If you want a big ball carrier in 8th place like Isi Naisarani or Harry Wilson and Wright in 7th place, Pete Samu can be the only choice in 6th place.
If Michael Hooper maintains his position on the open flank (and statistics suggest he should), Wright, Samu and possibly Lachie McCaffrey and Jack Dempsey will take the only remaining place.
There may not be a Jonah Lomu Rugby on Play Station or a rugby version of the Leyton Orient FIFA competition held on a virtual pitch, but a hopeful look into the future won’t hurt if sports life is interrupted.
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