Nathan Grey could be the key to Australia keeping out All-Blacks

Defence coach has made the Wallabies a formidable defensive proposition

Nathan Grey, Defence Coach of Australia speaks to the media following an Australia team recovery session in London. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Defences win championships, it is said, and as well as possessing two potent, creative and well-coached attacking games, Saturday’s World Cup finalists also have two of the best defences around.

The return of Wayne Smith, part of the triumvirate that led them to World Cup glory four years ago, to the All Blacks' coaching ticket as their defence coach, having made his name as an attack coach, has been hailed by their players. The proof is in their tally of just four tries conceded in six games at the World Cup; a record bettered only by Wales, who conceded three in their five games.

But the Australian record of just five tries conceded in six games isn’t too generous either, and with the one-time Wallabies centre Nathan Grey in charge, this is almost to be expected. Grey was a proper hard man of the midfield jungle.

Capped 35 times and, like attack coach Stephen Larkham, a member of the Australian World Cup squads which won and finished runners-up in 1999 and 2003, his hit on Brian O'Driscoll in the second Test against the British & Irish Lions in 2001 is part of the Grey folklore. "One of the best shots I have ever seen," his teammate Matthew Burke recalled.


Ditto his elbow tackle on Richard Hill in the second test which put Hill out of the tour and was a turning point in the series. Grey described the incident as an “accident” but it cemented his reputation as a hard man, which is in part attributed to him growing up in Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

Cut his teeth

Towards the end of his playing career, and afterwards, he cut his teeth as a coach for five years in Japan, before returning to Australia as defence coach to the Melbourne Rebels in their inaugural Super Rugby campaign in 2011, becoming assistant coach in 2012.

Grey was recruited by Michael Cheika to join the Waratahs' coaching ticket, in 2013, and after profoundly improving their defence in his debut season, the Waratahs won their first Super Rugby title in 2014. Cheika duly brought him aboard the Wallabies' ticket this year, prior to their Rugby Championship success.

A strong, tight-knit bond is typical of a Cheika team and a Grey defensive unit. “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,” said Grey, actually a very amiable and approachable sort. “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.”

In the different ways they have found to win matches, a stand-out was keeping Wales scoreless for seven minutes when reduced to 13 men when twice holding up Welsh carriers over their try line. That’s the kind of stuff a squad feeds off.

He nodded in agreement. “It gives the side confidence to know that if they’re in that situation, we can defend and be comfortable in that area. As a defence coach, you don’t want to be in that situation too often but you take little snippets of confidence from games. 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.”

Scrambling defence

Although he was miffed that Argentina made 13 line breaks last Sunday, Grey also took comfort in the scrambling defence. This is a familiar building block for a Wallabies World Cup campaign. Of every nation to have competed at the World Cup since the inaugural 1987 tournament, the Wallabies have conceded the fewest tries. Now, though, comes the final. The ultimate test and the toughest test.

“We want to make sure that we’re defensively a lot better in terms of cutting down opportunities for them. Argentina were able to get a few line breaks on us so that’s worrying as a defensive coach. You don’t like giving them up, but the guys scrambled exceptionally well. It doesn’t take talent to get off the ground and get into the defensive line. That’s something the guys really pride themselves on.” But you also sense Grey would insist on nothing less, and would be quite insistent about it.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times