The Waratahs are the problem team of Australian rugby

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The Western Force celebrate their 21-20 win over the Waratahs at full time during their Super Rugby match at Allianz Stadium in 2012. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

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It is clear now that the Waratahs are the problem team of Australian rugby. It wasn’t just that they lost to the Western Force, who were thrashed at home the week before by the Hurricanes.

It was the lazy, unenthusiastic, brainless and inept way they played to set up their defeat that angered their fans (who booed them during play) and supporters of rugby throughout Australia.

Compounding the distress about their performance was the nonchalance with which senior players reacted to questions from journalists after the match about their woeful play.

Benn Robinson, the vice-captain of the side and someone who should be taking responsibility for the kicking tactics that are so woeful and unsuccessful, claimed not to hear the home crowd booing his side.

And Tatafu Polota-Nau, who admitted he did hear it, claimed he couldn’t care less about the concerns of the Waratahs supporters. Shame on him.

Tatafu Polota-Nau did hear it, but Georgina Robinson, an excellent and accurate rugby writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, quoted this as his response. “I think they were just booing for the fact that we were kicking too much but I think our decision makers saw the opportunities there. So whether they boo or not we couldn’t care less, because it is part of our strategy to play it down their end.”

This is one of the most obnoxious, self-serving, insolent and stupid statements I have ever heard from a senior player.

Full credit should be given to the Western Force for coming to Allianz Stadium (formerly the Sydney Football Stadium), taking on the big Waratahs pack and giving it a hiding.

The statistics of the match demonstrated that they deserved to win. Possession was 64 percent to the Force and 36 percent to the Waratahs. The Force missed 11 tackles, the Waratahs missed 23. The Force conceded 12 penalties and the Waratahs 10.

Waratahs winger Tom Kingston (a flyer who was starved of the ball) scored a try that followed an obvious knock-on from halfback Sarel Pretorius. Adam Ashley-Cooper, the other winger, also scored a try.

But, as a sort of metaphor for the grinding, boring Waratahs style, this try was scored when Ashley-Cooper joined a rolling maul and was pushed over the try line.

The Brumbies opened the round for the Australian sides by playing a calculating and solid match against the Chiefs.

Coach Jake White hasn’t got anywhere near the talent (on paper at least) that is available to Waratah coach Michael Foley. But the Brumbies were well-prepared to thwart the Chiefs’ wide game.

They also exposed the Chiefs from time to time with a terrific rolling maul. White is clearly responsible for the implementation of this tactic. It was well done and hard for the Chiefs to counter.

If nothing else comes out of White’s coaching stint in this country, if he can coach his team to be as expert on the rolling maul as the South African sides, he will have provided useful input to Australian rugby.

What the Brumbies need now is for the backs coach Stephen Larkham to get more fluency and attacking flair into the back line. Towards the end of the match when the Chiefs were trying to snatch a victory, the Brumbies fell prey to the Waratah disease and several times kicked the ball away to their opponents to launch new attacks.

The hard-luck story of the round for the Australian sides was the Reds’ 27-22 loss to the Sharks. At one stage the Reds were leading 17-0.

The tactic of using Ben Lucas as the fly half and moving Mike Harris out to inside centre worked a treat. I believe that a creative pair of halves, in the Nick Farr-Jones/Mark Ella fashion, can lift even an ordinary side with the energy and thoughtfulness of their play.

It says a lot for the nous of the Reds coaching staff (as opposed to the lack of nous of the Waratah staff) that they could devise tactics that meet the challenge (almost, unfortunately) of defeating an in-form Sharks, at Durban, with an all-South African refereeing squad.

Unfortunately for the Reds they lost Digby Ioane (for a stupid dump tackle) with a yellow card. Then a spate of injuries, including Harris and Lucas, meant that Will Genia, who discovered or re-discovered his running game, had to play fly half and also attempt the goals. He missed a couple of shots and this prevented the Reds from clawing back the five-point deficit.

The Melbourne Rebels and the Cheetahs played out a terrific match. Playing with the verve and crashing runs they had at the start of the match, the Cheetahs went 80 minutes with time up to score the winning try.

It was thrilling stuff. The Rebels have now lost 12 consecutive matches, but on the evidence of their play against the Cheetahs they are going to be hard for other teams to defeat with any ease.

James O’Connor is proving to be the great buy for the Rebels that Ashley-Cooper and Rocky Elsom (yet to play this year) have not for the Waratahs. He scored a terrific try and played superbly at fly half and inside centre.

Now back to the Waratahs. Before the season started I wrote a column for the Sydney Morning Herald that argued that the Waratahs stated ‘attacking kicking’ game was oxymoronic.

I quoted the ‘three Ps’ of Charlie Saxton, a great All Black halfback and coach: possession, position, pace. It makes no sense to give away possession with aimless kicking. You have to have the ball to score tries. And you obviously don’t have the ball if you kick it to the opposition.

The article, published before the season started, was titled ‘Foley’s folly – the Waratahs must end the reliance on kicking.’

On the Monday after the column, The Australian‘s rugby writer Brett Harris, in the grand tradition of News Ltd’s head-kicking culture, attempted to give me a going-over.

The tactic, he argued, is “designed to regain possession from tactical kicks.” Perhaps. But how can this happen when the Waratahs do not have a chasing game to go with the incessant kicking?

“Anyone with even the slightest appreciation of the concept of total rugby,” Harris said, “as opposed to simply running rugby, would know that tactical kicking can and does play a key role in an attacking game.”

“To praise the Reds ‘win smart’ style and at the same time criticise tactical kicking, as this certain columnist did on Saturday, is a massive contradiction.”

As that certain columnist was moi, I would respond that the Waratahs woeful and losing play against a battling but mediocre Force side rather proves my point.

The Waratahs hardly regained a kick. Most of the time the ball was kicked straight to a Force player who often had possession inside the Waratahs half. The only attacking aspect of this brain-dead play was the chance it offered to the Force to run the ball back at an increasingly lethargic Waratahs defensive line.

My guess is that Harris was probably briefed by Foley on the brilliance of the ‘attacking kicking’ concept and swallowed it hook, line and stinker.

I saw Harris in the press box at halftime in the Waratahs vs Force match. He did not reply to my “Hello, Brett.” He had a mask of intense pain on his face. Or so it seemed to me.

In any case, I am looking forward to his explanation in The Australian today about the great success of Foley’s tactic and how it will take the Waratahs to a Super Rugby tournament win at last. Clearly its critics simply don’t understand rugby.

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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