The Waratahs hold the finals key for the Brumbies and Reds
The Reds got up over the Brumbies, but can they make the 2012 Super Rugby finals? (AAP Image/Alan Porritt)
Call it the curse of the non-gambling Greek. Regular readers of The Roar will remember my fearless prediction last week that the Brumbies would defeat the Reds at Canberra on Saturday night.
The final result was Reds 13 – Brumbies 12, another Zavos prediction wrong.
It did come down to the final kick of the match, a relatively easy penalty shot at goal taken for the Brumbies by the impressive Zack Holmes. Normally a dead-eyed kicker, Holmes pulled the ball across the far upright and the Reds on 40 points, equal 8th with the Hurricanes, remain alive in the race to make the finals.
A loss would have put the Brumbies too far ahead of the Reds for the current champions to catch them. The Reds now are well within striking distance of the Brumbies. (Of course, not everyone agrees.)
The Brumbies on 45 points are, in fact, on 6th place on the table. But as the top team in the Australian Conference (the position the Brumbies and the Reds are really contesting) the Brumbies, in theory at least, are in the top three. The conference winners, of course, have an ensured home final.
One of the reasons why I picked the Brumbies to win this crucial match is that Bruce Stadium is something of an untakeable fortress for the Brumbies. The excellent Fox Sports rugby caller, Greg Clarke, spouted out a flood of these fortress statistics before the big game.
The Brumbies were 5 wins out of 6 matches at Bruce Stadium this season. They had won all their Australian Conference matches this season at Bruce Stadium. All up against the Reds since 1996 the Brumbies are 16 wins against 3 for the Reds. They were also 7 wins out of 7 matches at home with that night’s referee Steve Walsh.
Another point that tended to convince me that the Brumbies were specials to win was the fact that they had developed a lot of fire power, especially in their back four of Jesse Mogg, Andrew Smith (an under-rated and big centre – the answer for Robbie Deans?), Henry Speight and Joe Tomane.
Mogg did not run but kicked virtually every time he got the ball, and badly at that. Smith got the ball at most on a couple of occasions and looked threatening on this starvation rations diet. The wingers spent most of their time chasing and not chasing the kicks.
The main source of attack for the Brumbies was the pick and drive, especially when they were in the Reds 22, as they were frequently. This tactic had worked to turn around the match the previous round against the Hurricanes. But the Reds have a stronger and better disciplined pack than the Hurricanes.
The Brumbies pick and drive attacks were contained and there was either a turn-over to Liam Gill or a penalty conceded.
We get here to a consideration of Steve Walsh as a referee. The important aspect to this consideration is that he was brought up in the New Zealand rugby system. This system reveres hard-shouldered forward play and attacking flair in the backs.
New Zealand referees, in general, like the game to flow to allow chances for running attacks. They also like a contest at the ruck which, in turn, generate turnovers and, in turn again, allow for the sort of attacking play the Chiefs unleashed against the Bulls to score a winning try from inside their own 22.
This is a long explanation why the Brumbies should have understood the rugby zen of Walsh when it came to planning their incessant pick and drive/dive attacks. Pick and drive plays that seal off the ball (illegally) and make it impossible for the opposition to attack for a turnover or defend are hostile (in my view) to Walsh’s rugby instincts.
And he should be applauded for this. Some years ago the IRB published a statement on the first principles of the rugby code. The essential principle, the IRB stated, was that rugby was a game with a ‘continual contest for possession of the ball.’
If the pick and drive is done correctly the ball is place clear of the tackled player’s body and fellow players don’t flop over the ball and seal it off, then the drive is legal. But, and this is the important point, a pick and drive like this is vulnerable to the opposition getting their hands first on the tackled ball and turning it over, or winning a penalty.
Some referees will favour the pick and drive side, even though what they are playing is the illegal pick and dive. Walsh doesn’t fall into this category of referees. He will (correctly) allow the defending side to try and contest the ball. And he will penalise the side taking the ball into the tackle if they seal it off.
For these reasons I was amazed that in the last 20 minutes of the match when the Brumbies surged towards the Reds try line they continued with their pick and drive, even though they were losing turnovers and being penalised. Why they didn’t move the ball quickly to the middle of the field and kick over an easy field goal was beyond me.
This is the second time Jake White has come up with a deficient game plan against the Reds. Is there weakness here, laying down a negative game plan when the chips are down for his side? This was the criticism frequently made of White as he trudged through the rugby wilderness looking for a permanent coaching job after the Springboks great victory in the 2007 RWC tournament.
In my view, the Reds deserved their win because they took their chance with Luke Morahan’s fabulous try from a fielding a Brumbies bomb right at the beginning of the match.
There are reservations to this concession of praise, though, and these relate first to the childish taunting of opposition players and the referee and second to the intentionally dangerous tackling of Saia Faingaa.
Early on in the match Michael Hooper, the terrific Brumbies fetcher, won a turnover. You could hear clearly through the field mikes a Reds player call out disparagingly: ‘He’s just a one-trick pony.’ This remark was embellished with continual chatter to the referee, from the Reds and from the Brumbies halfback Nic White.
Walsh, like all referees, does not like players and teams that chirp away at him continually. He told White to shut up and the Reds to zip their lips, too.
Rugby players in my view should behave like children were expected to behave in the Victorian era: be seen and NOT heard.
The other black mark against the Reds is the way Faingaa is allowed to make dangerous, no hands ‘tackles’ by throwing his body across the ankles of players charging towards the try line. Tatafu Polota-Nau does the same sort of (illegal, in my opinion) tackle with impunity.
Faingaa, too, is one of those smart-arse players who is forever verballing his opponents and the referee, making his dangerous no-arms dives at the ankles of opponents and making cheap shot plays like running in front of players chasing a high ball and playing the ball on the ground in virtually every maul he is involved in.
It was poetic justice that he gave away the last penalty in the match, which Holmes could not convert.
David Lord made the point on Sunday that the Waratahs hold the key to either the Reds or the Brumbies going through, as they play both teams in the rounds played after the June Tests break. In week 20 the Waratahs play the Brumbies at the SFS and in week 21, the last round of the pool play the Reds play the Waratahs at Brisbane’s Suncorp.
The history of the Super Rugby tournament suggests that in virtually every other year, the composition of the finals sides comes down to the last round, often the last match. This year could see the same sort of thing happening.
The Waratahs, despite their terrible record this season, won’t be pushovers, or they shouldn’t be. They played a terrific first half against the Cheetahs. They ran the ball with purpose, zest and some skills.
They scored their first try after 3m 28 second of play from the kick-off when Berrick Barnes as the sweeper/fullback resisted kicking the ball back but passed it out to a running line of attackers. Another Waratahs try was scored directly from a Cheetahs kick-off. By half-time they had notched up their four-try bonus point and a 31 – 21 lead.
This lead was then stretched to 34 – 21 shortly after half-time, and then the Waratahs reverted to their pointless kicking game which allowed the Cheetahs to come back and snatch an unlikely victory with two break-out and converted tries.
I kept a sort of list of what the Waratahs were up to, or not up to, as they conceded the game through bad tactics by kicking away the ball instead of running it at the Cheetahs as they did so successfully in the first half.
‘Barnes kicks long … McKibbins kicks … Foley kicks (David Campese, who was commentating from the sidelines, makes the obvious point about the stupidity of this play: ‘It is such a close game but both teams are kicking away the ball to the opposition) … McKibben kicks … (the Waratahs bring on Tom Carter to the bewilderment of the commentators) … Barnes kicks … Barnes actually passes … Foley kicks … Adam Ashley – Cooper kicks (David Campese: ‘You can’t win the game if you don’t have the ball) … Barnes kicks a beauty to the Cheetahs 5m mark …
This kick gives the Waratahs a dominant field position with 6 minutes left to play. Right on time they are inside the Cheetahs 22. Barnes positions himself for an easy field drop attempt as the pick and drive tactic is employed and employed and employed and employed. He is calling out for the ball and waving his hands in anguish as the dumb Waratahs pack continues to drive on.
There is one last drive. The Waratahs are close to the Cheetahs post now. But one of the forwards takes the ball up too high. The Cheetahs grab him like a robber clutching to his bag of stolen goodies. The Cheetahs pile in to ensure that a maul (the ball above the ground and playable by everyone) rather than a ruck (hands off once the ruck is formed).
Barnes is frantic.
Referee Craig Joubert, the best referee in the world in my view, blows the whistle for a turnover scrum. The Cheetahs scrum, which has been under pressure all game, holds up. The Waratahs, like the French in the RWC 2011 final, are penalised for off-side play.
And it is another loss for the Waratahs. But the first half showed that it doesn’t have to be that way.
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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