The Wallabies are Samoa-ed in an historic upset
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There are two things about Samoan rugby that give it a distinctive edge. First, there is the cultural pride that Samoa is the center of the universe, that often lifts the players to perform superbly on difficult occasions.
In the Rugby World Cup in 1991, the Samoans defeated Wales at Cardiff, a feat that was often beyond some of the then Five Nations teams for most of the previous decade.
Second, there is a physicality about the play of the Samoans that can be totally intimidating when they get on top of their opponents.
On these occasions, and Sunday at ANZ Stadium was just such an occasion, Samoa not only beats their opposition, they beat them up.
And this is what happened on Sunday afternoon.
On a slippery field, with rain falling from time to time, Samoa defied their underdog tag and tore into a makeshift Wallaby side like attack dogs. The Samoans looked much bigger than the Wallabies. They played bigger and harder.
The victory was not a fluke, and that is the disturbing aspect of it for Robbie Deans and the Wallaby coaching staff. The Samoans scored tries, and could have scored more.
Their scrum held up, even when Samoa was down to a seven-man pack, which turns the spotlight on the Wallaby scrum. The Samoan lineout was competent. There was one lineout loss on their five-metre line, thanks to a great leap from Daniel Vickerman.
The Wallabies were not able to slice through with attacks, in the manner of the Reds. There is a difference in quality between Super Rugby and Test rugby, especially when it is played with the intensity of Sunday’s match.
The captaincy of Rocky Elsom has to come under question.
He would have gone on to the field with a game plan that committed the Wallabies to playing a fast game to move around the bulkier Samoans. Part of that game plan too would have called for forcing attacking situations like five-metre lineouts.
But when Samoa went in front in the first minutes of the match, and then scored a try to take a 10 – 0 lead, the penny should have dropped that this was not going to be the expected walkover. The Samoans had to be taken out of the game as early as possible. If it needed kicking penalties to do this, then kick the penalties.
It should not have needed someone sending a message out on the field to Elsom to get this message across. A smart captain would have picked up the vibes virtually from the kick-off which Samoa contested and won.
It is with the benefit of hindsight now but it is evident that the game was lost when Elsom turned down three easy shots at goal after conceding the early penalty.
I would not expect the All Blacks, for instance, next Friday against Fiji, to take their opponents so lightly.
Of course Deans had to use this game to sort some of the players who had done well in the Super Rugby tournament, to find out his 30 players for the Rugby World Cup 2011 squad. And in this sense, there is some truth in the alleged (but in my opinion infrequently accurate) truism that you learn more from a loss than a victory.
What did Deans learn?
Rod Davies, Beau Robinson, Nathan Sharpe (perhaps), Matt Giteau and Rocky Elsom are not up to Test standard right now.
Elsom, playing his second game of the year will probably come right. Whether he necessarily has to captain the run-on side (and whether he makes it) are big questions for Deans to answer. My guess is that Deans will stay with Elsom, just as he did as All Blacks coach with Reuben Thorne.
Davies, Robinson and Giteau look like lost causes, as far as I’m concerned. Giteau has the advantage that he plays in every position of the backline.
Having him in the Wallabies squad means that Deans needs to carry only two specialist halfbacks, Will Genia and Luke Burgess. This gives him the option of, say, selecting four props.
I’ve noticed before in the season that Davies tends to slip over going to a tackle. He is small and this is a rugby league trick for small backs running the ball back to save themselves from being monstered and allowing for a quick play-the-ball. But in rugby union it gives the opposition a good chance of a turnover, and this is what happened on Sunday.
Robinson gave away penalties and generally was ineffective in his stint on the field.
Sharpe made one good bust, but when the Wallaby scrum struggles a bit when he is playing, you have to think that his pushing is not vigorous or purposeful enough.
Whether Vickerman is the answer as the jumping second-rower remains an open question. He put a lot of pressure on the Samoan lineout. He hit some of the rucks and mauls with a vengeance. All in all, he is probably a better prospect with James Horwill than Sharpe going into the Rugby World Cup tournament.
The three players who impressed me were Pat McCabe, Digby Ioane and Scott Higginbotham.
McCabe put a monster hit on in the first plays of the game. He ran strongly. Deans is clearly looking for a big inside centre to protect the middle of the field against the big runners that the Springboks (with their best side), France and the All Blacks will field.
Ioane was the best Wallaby on the field.
He made breaks virtually every time he got the ball. As in the Super Rugby tournament, he was a handful for the defensive line, especially running the ball back from kicks.
Higginbotham came on late and made an impact. The issue here is that his best position is blindside flanker, Elsom’s slot.
In my view, players who make an impact with their play should start the match when their impact value is higher than towards the end of the match in most occasions. So here is a difficult selection problem for Deans to resolve.
In the 54th minute of the match, with the scoreline Samoa 24 – Australia 16, the Wallabies’ big guns, Will Genia and Kurtley Beale, came on.
There was plenty of time for them to pull the match out of the fire. But the fact is that while they were on the field, the Wallabies scored seven points and the Samoans eight.
This is a statistic that tells us all about momentum in big sport. Even with a lot of time on the board, the momentum of the match was all with the Samoans.
Beale actually played splendidly. He made several breaks and took the ball up strongly. Genia, still a bit tired from the Super Rugby final, made some uncharacteristic passing mistakes.
But we get back to the way the Wallabies started by not respecting the Samoans at the beginning of the Test.
Next Saturday the Springboks are putting on to the field at ANZ Stadium a very much second XV. The lesson from the Samoan Test is that games have to won on the field.
I would expect the stronger side that Deans will select for this Test, hopefully the best side he can put on the field, to step up and do to the Springboks what the Samoans did to them.
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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