How in the world to start talking about this Test match? Perhaps the best way is to start with a little cricket story, after all, given the manner of the Wallabies victory in Hong Kong, nothing could be considered absurd.
In the 1964 Test series between England and the West Indies, English batsman Ken Barrington withdrew in protest against West Indian fast bowler Charlie Griffith, whom he suspected of chucking. Certainly Griffith was unfeasibly fast, having fractured the skull of Indian prodigy Nari Contractor in 1961. Barrington’s withdrawal didn’t endear him one iota to Griffith, who took it personally.
In 1966, when England toured the West Indies, Barrington was then called upon to face Griffith, in the opening Test of the tour at Port Of Spain. As Barrington took strike, Griffith methodically rolled his sleeves and paced out his mark once, twice, three times, while Barrington waited.
Eventually starting a few inches inside the sightscreen, Griffith made his murderous way to the popping crease and let fly with a ball so fast that Barrington didn’t even see it. In the spirit of self-preservation, he decided not to even bother trying to play it, and simply threw himself flat on his back.
The second ball was only marginally slower, and the following few were still miles above normal velocity, with Barrington employing the same prone defence each time. Slowly though, as one writer put it at the time “the ice in Barrington’s veins started to thaw and he began to build a score”.
Eventually, Barrington went on to make a famous century – 143 in fact – although as the same writer noted “it would do him no credit to describe it, for it contained chances, blemishes and luck. But at the same time it also contained about as much grit as has ever been seen on a cricket pitch”.
So when I was waiting for my heart rate to return to normal after the Hong Kong Bledisloe Test match, and for the neighbours’ lights to go out again following my strangled screaming over the final seconds, the phrase kept echoing in my head about the Wallabies victory. That it would do them no credit to describe the victory, but there was as much grit as has ever been seen from a Wallaby side.
Certainly after 78 minutes I was busy preparing a eulogy for a team that once again seemed destined to crack under the pressure of a 10-zip record against the All Blacks – the rugby world’s equivalent of the Panzer tank.
For most of the match, the Wallabies first up defence and organisation was appalling. Mark Chisolm made an awful attempt on Ma’a Nonu in the first half which allowed him to waltz straight through the line.
Quade Cooper’s attempt on Richie McCaw was probably the softest attempted tackle from any player in the whole of this year’s Tri-Nations. Cooper and Matt Giteau both also fell badly off tackles in the leadup to Jimmy Cowan’s try, and when Cowan finally scored, he slipped through a yawning gap because Ben McCalman and Nathan Sharp got completely mixed up right on their own line.
Again, the Wallaby goalkicking was woeful, and the logic of having Matt Giteau as the starting kicker escapes most rugby followers.
Compared with the great Wallaby goalkickers like Michael Lynagh and Matt Burke, Giteau is nowhere, so why the Wallaby coaching staff still think he’ll suddenly morph into a great kicker, when his kicking has lost us three Tests in the last year, is anyone’s guess.
Can you imagine Matt Burke, Dan Carter or Morne Steyne giving away two matchwinners to part-timers, like Giteau was forced to do with the winning kicks against the Springboks and All Blacks this year? Ridiculous. The sooner the Wallabies settle on a quality kicker, the better.
To add to the tackling and goalkicking woes (two fundamentals wouldn’t you say?), the Wallaby scrum was immediately subject to serious scrutiny by the All Blacks front row and buckled a little without ever fully capitulating.
The hope was that the two Ben(n)s would stabilise the set piece, but they perhaps need a bit more game time to cement Alexander’s return from injury.
Referee Alain Rolland was disgraceful in his calling of the scrum for both sides, taking an age to call the scrum engagement. What all referees fail to realise is that to maintain a rhythmic 1-2-3-4 count, you have to realise that the pause takes place while you’re saying “pause”, not after you have said “pause”. So it’s not “crouch-touch-pause……….engage”. It’s simply “crouch-touch-pause-engage”.
And when it ends up as “Crouch…….touch……pause…………………………..engage”, it becomes pretty much hopeless for everyone concerned. If I’d had the appetite, I reckon I could have boiled an egg every time Rolland packed a scrum.
In between all this though, the Wallabies managed to put on four tries, two of which were as good as any you’d want to see. Adam Ashley-Cooper’s line was a thing of beauty, taking him back towards the left side of the field and through the All Blacks forwards who were coming across from the lineout. The tireless Brad Thorn almost got in an ankle tap, but Ashley-Cooper skipped out of it and swan-dived under the posts after a 60 metre effort.
In the second half, Drew Mitchell steamed 30 metres to score after some great leadup work from Beale, whose newfound pace set the whole thing up. The three decoys inside Beale did their work, allowing him to take the cutout pass and flash downfield like a salmon heading upstream.
Coming face to face with Mils Muliaina, Beale made a decision which ensured the try. Instead of simply drawing and passing, he dummied and held the ball, before passing. The single metre of room created for Mitchell by the turn of Muliaina’s shoulders, meant that he was able to set sail into space and be going at Mach 2 by the time Joe Rokocoko zoomed across in cover. Mitchell in space with a try in sight, is as quick as anyone in Test rugby, and he was not going to be denied.
Two fantastic tries, and both kicked off by a pinpoint wide pass from Quade Cooper, first to Ashley-Cooper, and then to Beale.
Earlier in the game, Cooper also kicked off the scoring with his own show-and-go from phase play, and also threw the final pass for the winning try to O’Connor.
So he’s basically been an integral part of every try, but watching him tackle is like watching a hairdresser with a teasing comb go up against a tow-truck driver with a tyre lever.
It’s no contest, and it’s no surprise that when the All Blacks got some ball after about 15 minutes, they started sending runners flooding down the 10 channel. Richie McCaw in particular swatted Cooper off with the same disdain as he might have batted away a tree weta (which could have accounted for Cooper’s disgraceful and gutless push in McCaw’s back in the aftermath of O’Connor’s winning try).
In the forwards, Mark Chisolm was given a chance to cement a test spot, but let it slip with an ordinary display. His ball carry lacked punch, his cleanout was patchy and his defence was woeful. He also put a dent in Saia Faingaa’s confidence when he dropped Faingaa’s first lineout throw cold to gift possession to the All Blacks.
In spite of all this though, the Wallabies hung in there through misplaced kicks, turnovers, missed tackles and cold drops and waited for their chances and luck.
Those chances and luck came at the death, when after immeasurable phases hurling themselves at the All Blacks brickwall defence they turned the ball over. Instead of banging the ball into the back row of the stands, the All Blacks made the crucial error of not putting it out, thereby giving Beale the chance to set up the Wallabies again.
Despite being surrounded by a good pack of chasers, Beale slipped away on the left and again made metres with his new found pace. The Wallabies found themselves on the front foot and made sure of the opportunity, controlling the ball through several more phases before sending James O’Connor over from only a few metres out.
It’s often said that the good players want the ball in their hands when the pressure is on, and if that’s so, then O’Connor must be one of the greats. Imagine kicking from near the sideline, to win a match after the siren, against the All Blacks, following a string of 10 straight defeats? The pressure must have been utterly suffocating.
But O’Connor casually slotted the goal like it was his last practice kick in the backyard before mum called him in for dinner. Only a little airpunch revealed his excitement at the success, before he was mobbed by his teammates.
Of those teammates, David Pocock and Rocky Elsom showed the way for the Wallabies, battling through the peaks and troughs, and steadying the ship. The front row of Moore, Alexander and Robinson was adequate without being outstanding, although Robinson and Alexander both worked hard in the loose.
Chisolm was dreadful, but Nathan Sharp was his usual tradesmanlike self. Will Genia gave stellar service, and the fact that Cooper was so often able to set his runners away, was testament to the quality of Genia’s pass. Of the threequarters, Matt Giteau was ordinary and he must have been lonely, being surrounded by O’Connor the matchwinner, Ashley-Cooper and Mitchell the tyro tryscorers and Beale with his dashing pace and confidence.
For once, instead of managing to lose a game they had every right to win, the Wallabies managed to win a game that they had every right to lose. In fact, given the quality of play from All Blacks like Kieran Read, Jimmy Cowan, Ma’a Nonu, Keven Mealamu and Richie McCaw, it’s hard to believe that they managed to stay in touch at all.
But champion teams find a way to win, no matter how bad things are. Certainly no good team can ever contemplate becoming a champion team without putting some tough games to bed. And that’s what this Wallaby team managed to do – put to bed a game that they really had no right to win.
As we said in the beginning, it does them no credit to describe the win, for it contained blemishes, chances and luck, and like Ken Barrington against the imposing Charlie Griffith, the Wallabies in this series have spent a fair bit of time on their backs.
Time will tell whether they can now build to a memorable score.