Oh no! Waratahs kick the Reds out of jail

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The Waratahs lost to a last minute try scored by Dom Shipperley (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

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You live by the kick and you die by the kick. That is the story of the Waratahs’ astonishing and unnecessary loss to the Reds at the ANZ Stadium on Saturday night.

This is the situation. The Waratahs, leading 21 – 18, have the ball in the Reds half with about a minute of time remaining. The reserve halfback, Brendan McKibbin, gets a call from his winger to chip-kick through to a huge space down his side of the field.

Let’s stop the tape here. The Waratahs only have to hold on to the ball to win the match. Even if they score from a kick-and-chase play, they don’t get a fourth-try bonus point as, up until now, only two tries, both of them by the Waratahs, have been scored in the match.

The obvious play, the only smart play, is for the halfback to bring a forward in on a short run and force another ruck. Or take the ball up himself and force a ruck. And keep on forcing rucks until the siren sounds and the ball can be booted into touch.

Asked after the match, Michael Foley said about the chip kick: ‘The benefit of hindsight is a great thing but if we’d had our time again we’d probably do something different.’

Probably? Now roll the tape. The Reds scramble a defensive ruck forced by the chip kick and Ben Taupuai breaks away from inside his own 22 to about the 10m mark in Reds territory. The ball is moved through a couple of Reds player to Dom Shipperley on the far wing. Look now at the Waratahs defenders. They are standing passively watching this passing.

Rob Horne carefully positions himself some metres in from the touch presumably to leave the trap of an outside gap and the touchline for Shipperley to try and take.

Instead, Shipperley bursts inside Horne, who makes a lazy and ineffectual attempt at a tackle. And then the flying Reds winger streaks away down the unguarded touchline. It takes the Waratahs several moments to realise that there is no cover. In Rex Mossop’s famous phrase, “Shut the door, the horse has bolted.”

Tom Carter, a ponderous runner, tries to come across on the angle to make a saving tackle. But the effort is like a draught horse chasing a thoroughbred.

Now wind back the tape to an event marking the launching of the Super Rugby season. Foley is defending the kicking tactics he wants the Waratahs to employ. The tactics are not negative, he insists. The kicking will be to put pressure on the opposition and force a turnover. In this sense, the kicking is a positive form of play.

The Bible says, ‘as ye sow, so shall ye reap.’ Readers of The Roar will know that I have railed against the chip kick for years. It is a cop-out play that denotes a lack of rugby intelligence and skill. The play invariably gives the ball back to the opposing side.

It is a high-risk play that should only be used in the direst of circumstances. Even then, it probably shouldn’t.

So McKibbin will not be blamed for this play. It is an integral part of the Waratahs’ match strategy and tactics.

The blame, and it is a heavy blame, goes first and foremost to Foley. The chip kick play has been the bane of the Waratahs for years. Coming in as the new head coach, he should have issued instructions to the players that the play must never be used. He clearly did not do this. He actually reinforced the importance of the chip kick in the Waratah game plan for 2012.

Well, a match that should have been won and won easily against the old foe and reigning Super Rugby champions was lost. This loss could have a big bearing on whether the Reds or the Waratahs win the all-important Australian conference and with it at least one home game in the finals.

Both sides, though, showed enough to suggest that they should be finals contenders.

Despite a lot of over-refereeing, the opening rounds of Super Rugby 2012 provided some excellent games. All except the Stormers-Hurricanes match were still in play until the final whistle. Only the Brumbies-Force match was poor quality.

The Crusaders and the Blues are the bookies’ favourites to win the Super Rugby title, and both teams played very well in their match at Auckland to start the season. In the end, a slightly porky Piri Weepu missed a field goal attempt from close range, with the irresistible Irael Dagg getting his fingertips to the ball to divert its trajectory.

My main concern in the Brumbies-Force match was the poor play of both backlines. Even their alignment was all wrong. Rod Kafer, for instance, pointed out how deep Matt Toomua stood. It is impossible to get a backline running from this quarter-back position. Why is the Brumbies back coach Stephen Larkham, a great exponent of the flat backline, allowing this?

As for the Western Force, the time has come for David Pocock to re-think his game. He is touted here in Australia as the best openside flanker in the world. To me, this is nonsense.

He seems to have built himself up as Phil Waugh did into a muscle-bound slowcoach. He pilfers the occasional ball. But he has no impact with his running game, he does nothing in the lineouts, and he rarely makes telling covering tackles.

One other observation about this game is that both these sides seemed to play as if by numbers. Hopefully with the first match out of the way they will relax a bit and be more enterprising in their play.

Neither the Chiefs nor the Highlanders looked to be in the same class as the Crusaders and Blues. The bookies have them as eighth and ninth placed sides. The Chiefs, like the Hurricanes, do not seem to have solid set pieces in the scrums and lineouts. The backs in both sides are very good but games are won (or should be won in the case of the Waratahs) by teams with dominant packs.

All the South African sides had their moments. In some respects, though, the Sharks were lucky against the Hurricanes in that a video refereeing decision not to award the Hurricanes a try was the turning point of the match. A converted try, which was scored right by the posts, would have given the Hurricanes an unlikely lead of 30 – 29 with minutes left to play.

In my opinion, a try was clearly scored and I can’t see why it was not awarded. SANZAR has said that it will explain and discuss refereeing decisions. I would like to read a detailed review of why the video referee adjudicated the way he did, and more importantly whether the SANZAR authorities agree with the explanation.

The bookies have the Lions, Brumbies, Cheetahs and Western Force as their last four teams in that declining order. Some teams have to be on the bottom of the table. But in the case of the Cheetahs and the Lions, both looked stronger than the Brumbies and Western Force.

It is always exciting to see a youngster burst on to the scene already capable of turning matches in the favour of his side. So look out for Johan Goosen, the number 10 for the Cheetahs. This kid drop-kicked a goal from halfway, kicked a penalty from 10 metres inside his own half, took high balls on the burst and sizzled through gaps…

Even though he was on a losing team (with the Lions getting up by kicking nine penalties!), he was the player of the round as far as I am concerned.

Gallery images supplied by NSW Waratahs.

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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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