Wallabies need to storm the Cape
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Years ago as a young player in my first rugby grand final I was lucky enough to be lining up alongside a tough, experienced centre named Martin McGee, aka “Fec”. Fec wore glasses off-field, hence the acronymal nickname, but on the paddock his vision was deadly focused towards the opposition, usually with eyes slightly narrowed as he trucked and tackled with menacing intent.
As we waited in the sheds to go out onto the field for the big game, a teammate who was part of the circle chattered nervously “It’s OK boys – we just need to hang in there and get through the first 20 minutes. Just weather the storm and we’ll be right”.
There was a moment of strained silence where Fec’s eyes bulged slightly in his head.
He turned towards the speaker. His face reddened and the veins in his neck stood out as he spat with venom, “Weather the storm?”. His eyes crossed slightly. “Weather the storm?”.
He gurgled a strangled cry. “We don’t have to weather the storm….we ARE THE F—KING STORM!”.
It was a pivotal moment in my understanding of rugby.
In that moment, everything became clear – either you were the storm, or you were weathering it. There was nothing in between.
Unfortunately, the Wallabies weren’t the storm for long enough on Saturday night at Eden Park, and then they didn’t really weather it either, ultimately failing to break their 23-year losing streak at the ground.
A good storm is visible from some distance off and has an air of inevitability about it. You can see it looming in the distance, and there’s nothing you can do except hunker down and wait.
Sometimes, like the Wallabies, a storm looks ominous and then comes to nothing. Sometimes, the storm builds slowly like it did with the All Blacks. Then when it’s over you go outside and the garage is gone.
A team who is a good “storm” is lots of things. They are self-assured. They have the confidence to know how to continue to execute when things go awry.
They are aggressive, with an air of entitlement, as though they own the game, the field, the crowd and ultimately, the outcome. And they hang around until the job gets done.
Stability is an important part of being the storm, and the All Blacks managed to maintain some semblance of stability even during their difficult early period, in contrast to the Wallabies who wobbled and struggled with the interpretations of their nemesis referee, the pernickety Craig Joubert.
In November 2008, after the Wallabies beat France, I wrote that Joubert had destroyed the match. I certainly wouldn’t go that far here, however his scrum interpretations were unclear and bemusing to the players, which for mine indicates that he is either wrong, or at best unable to explain his requirements to the relevant practitioners.
I’d love to hear from a referee on the issue, because I for one don’t understand how Al Baxter can be penalized for collapsing when he is moving forward on his own feed and his opponent is not bound as happened on one occasion.
I’m no front rower, so maybe I just missed something, but any ascendancy or even parity the Wallabies might have enjoyed was partly erased by their inability to play off a stable scrum on their own feed.
Certainly both front rows appeared to packing from a mile apart, and it wasn’t until well into the second half that Mr Joubert thought to bring them together, whereupon the scrum miraculously stayed up. In view of that one wonders whether the earlier penalties were necessary.
Stability though includes mental stability and discipline, and the Wallabies lost their heads several times. Benn Robinson being marched 10 metres for backchat within penalty range was inexplicable, but Nathan Sharpe’s handling of a lonely ball whilst prone in front of a rightly bemused referee was flabbergasting. What WAS he thinking? We all have brain snaps, but that was a ripper.
Stability in the set piece and between the ears weren’t the Wallabies only difficulties.
Strength at the breakdown, that ability to create a tempest which the opposition is forced to endure, was once again a problem.
The heart of this issue is Australia’s inability to find a big man who is hard on the ball to back up George Smith. Look at the All Blacks and South Africa. At the heart of their packs is a great openside (Richie McCaw, Juan Smith) who is backed up by a big, hard man who shakes the ground on the cleanout (Bakkies Botha, Brad Thorn).
Australia’s closest contender at the moment is James Horwill who is abrasive enough, but he isn’t in the Botha class for intimidation and entitlement, nor in the Thorn class for sheer effectiveness.
In any case he spent a large part of the evening unfortunately being patched up on the sideline. Sharpe may be a force in the set piece, but he is nowhere at the ruck. And until Rocky Elsom returns, Wycliffe Palu decides to play another 20 mins of football or Richard Brown puts on another 12 kilos, the Wallabies are in a dilemma.
The last of the three S’s after stability and strength is speed. Not the raw jet-shoes from the likes of Mitchell, Turner and O’Connor, but the more important ability of a team to move the play quickly from one place to another on the field, thereby pressuring the opposition into defensive lapses.
Again the Wallabies struggled to do this with any consistency against the All Blacks, partly because the McCaw And Thorn Show (with guest appearances from Isaac Ross and Jerome Kaino) consistently damaged their structure at ruck time, and partly because Luke Burgess was consequently unable to clear with any amount of zip or consistency. Some of the Burgess passes were not only slow, but poorly placed, and he would have been disappointed with his display.
The Australians struggled to clear to their backline and put them on the front foot, and the pressure transferred from the ruck to the backs was partly responsible for the pedestrian kicking display.
The difference when Will Genia entered the fray was reminiscent of Chris Whitaker coming onto the field against the All Blacks at Telstra Stadium in 2005. Both matches were lost barring a miracle, but in both cases, the new halfback lifted the tempo enormously with fast, accurate ball from the scrum base and gave supporters cause to wonder what might have been if they had been brought on earlier.
Stability, strength, speed. With these factors in mind, where to from here for the Wallabies?
Under other referees, they may find that their scrum woes are somewhat reduced and that may increase the mental stability.
Failing that, the fallback option may be to close the gap themselves before engagement if the collapse is happening consistently. As a last resort, if Al Baxter is simply being penalized on reputation, then it may be time to start a new player and bring Baxter on once the flow of the match is established. If it sounds like I’m clutching at straws, I probably am. How do you fix a scrum when you’ve got no idea how it will be refereed from one game to the next?
In the strength department, James Horwill needs to find his overdrive switch and hit it before the Wallabies head to Cape Town.
He isn’t playing badly and carries the ball well, but in the absence of any intimidation from Sharpe and with Elsom sidelined, Horwill is the only man with the size, mobility and gumption to do the job at the breakdown. If he steps up a gear to match Botha in the cleanout, and gets support from Brown and Sharp, the Wallabies have a good chance.
As for speed of execution, that’s clearly where the gaps come from and if the Wallabies have a strength, it’s having the personnel to capitalize on quick ball. All Matt Giteau needs to get into a hole, or to manufacture one for the several sets of afterburners he has on his outside, is to have the ball put out in front of him at speed.
Is it too early for Will Genia to play a Test? Under any other coach, perhaps it would be, but Robbie Deans has a way of showing faith in young players and creating confidence within their hearts and minds. The simple fact is that Burgess and Genia are the top two halfbacks in the country, and if it’s not one, then it’s the other.
Burgess is a class act behind a winning pack, but as a bigger halfback, he struggles with the darting, close-in, cattledog-type of nippy work needed when a pack is roughly equal but not necessarily ascendant.
Genia is closer to the ground and might be the answer to the Wallabies requirement of playing with pace. A good storm is devastating for one of two reasons – either its sheer scale pounds and hammers its target into submission, or it hits so quickly that the target didn’t see it coming. Australia isn’t the former and doesn’t look like being so, in which case it needs to become the latter. The halfback is a crucial piece of this puzzle.
As I mentioned previously, Australia didn’t manage to be the storm, or to weather it, at Eden Park.
Their next outing in Cape Town is thankfully not at altitude, but the pressure is still huge if they are to stay alive in the Tri-Nations.
Weathering the storm will not give the Wallabies the chances they need to put points on the board and actively, positively win the Test match.
They’ve got no choice but to be the storm. Perhaps Fec could present the jerseys.
Andrew Logan has played rugby for over 25 years. A contributor to The Roar since its inception, he also writes for Inside Rugby magazine, and Super Rugby and international match day programs. A regular panellist on ABC Grandstand discussing rugby and other sports, Andrew has appeared on ABC's The Drum and also Sky Sportsline. He has convened and managed several touring sides including the Australian Rugby Sevens team on the IRB circuit, and the Australian Barbarians XV.