SPIRO: Wales go-slow rugby almost defeats the Wallabies
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Wales' Alun-Wyn Jones is tackled by David Pocock of Australia (AAP Image/Paul Miller)
As I was walking up Moore Park road after another nail-beating finish to an Australia – Wales Test I noticed a couple, holding hands, with the man wearing a red Welsh scarf and a ferocious scowl on his face and his partner wearing a scarf of gold and a great smile on her face.
I thought this was an apt summary of the Test. Wales had lost the Test because they played go-slow rugby to thwart the flow of the Wallabies game.
The Wallabies had held their nerve. They endured the frustrations of Wales’ go-slow rugby and responded to Wales first try in the 61st minute with their own try from the kick-off.
And when they were behind, following a massive Leigh Halfpenny penalty (his second from halfway and a third striking the uprights near their top!), they launched a series of wave-after-wave attacks, keeping the ball in hand until Wales finally and inevitably conceded the penalty in the final moments.
As with Mike Harris in the Melbourne Test, Berrick Barnes had to convert the penalty into points, which he did with aplomb.
The attitude of the Welsh coaching staff and the players who bought into the go-slow rugby tactic is something that should be condemned. I have always admired Welsh rugby. Of all the so-called Home Unions, they are the nation that has played rugby in the best traditions of the game.
Max Boyce sings about the ‘fly-half factory’ of Cliff Morgan, Barry John, Phil Bennett. The halves, Hadyn Tanner and Gareth Edwards, the wonderful runner and passer who played all his tests consecutively for Wales and was voted the greatest British player of the 20th century.
And there have been the great three-quarters and fullbacks from Vivian Jenkins, the first fullback to score a try in the then Five Nations tournament in the 1930s (and later a wry and insightful rugby writer for The Sunday Times), Bleddyn Williams, J.P.R.Williams, Gerald Davies and going back to the 1930s Wilfred Wooller and to the early days of Welsh rugby Arthur Gould and Percy Bush.
To see a modern Welsh side which is stacked with attacking talent playing deliberately without flair, indulging in crude off-the-ball tactics and go-slow tactics of wasting an eternity of time forming lineout and setting scrums and indulging in endless illegalities in the ruck and mauls was worse than disappointing.
It was shameful to the memory and history of Welsh rugby. And to the spirit of hwyl, an iconic Welsh word that means passion, pride, spirit, flair, all elements of the best of Welsh rugby.
I have argued in the past that Craig Joubert is the best referee in the world rugby. And this remains true. But I would concede that he got conned by the Welsh gamesmanship throughout the Test and allowed the go-slow tactics to slow down the Test to the extent that there wasn’t too much actual rugby compared with the previous Tests, and the Tests played in the weekend over the weekend.
Several incidents come to mind that reinforce this opinion. Towards the end of the match Wales, for the umpteenth time, walked as if in a funeral profession to a lineout. Joubert told them to hurry up. The hooker then took an eternity (once again) to actually throw the ball in. Joubert should have penalised Wales for time-wasting.
And then there was a scrum, in the first half, near the half-way, which kept on collapsing on Adam Jones’ side. Finally Joubert went around to the Jones side and wonder to relate the scrum was steady and the Wallabies were able to get a decent clearance from it.
Some people have pointed out to me that rugby is not an entertaining spectacle because there are too many penalties and too many stoppages. I think this misses the point. The penalties and stoppages for scrums and lineouts are part of the DNA of the game, just as stoppages, time-outs and free-throws are part of the DNA of basketball.
If you want basketball that has more flow than the present game then play and follow netball. If you want a rugby game without scrums (or contested scrums), lineouts and an often messy continual contest for possession (except for the maul) play and follow rugby league.
The laws of rugby, when teams engage in matches to play to them rather than against the spirit of them, allow for thrilling, expansive, sweeping, end-to-end play and even titanic spectacles.
Over the weekend we saw the All Blacks play superb attacking rugby to totally annihilate a gutsy Ireland side 60 – 0. The All Blacks attack was often brilliant. Their defence was always brutal and effective. In 27 Tests against New Zealand, Ireland have drawn once and lost the other 26 Tests. At Hamilton they were held scoreless, though, for only the third time.
And the other two times? In 1905 and 1924. These two New Zealand sides are regarded by experts two of the greatest All Black teams in history. I must admit that the thought occurred to me that Greg Martin’s comment that the ‘All Blacks are on the slide’ during his introduction to the Hamilton Test was a bit premature.
The South Africa 14 – England 14 Test was more like a State of Origin clash than the sort of free-spirited rugby played by the All Blacks. But it was a thrilling Test which was well-refereed by Steve Walsh.
The Springboks and England play a similar style of rugby. They kick high balls a lot. They don’t have plays from set pieces, except for the inside centre barge. They have big packs that belt into rucks and mauls. They drive from lineouts a lot. They counter-attack, especially Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen.
The glory of rugby is that while this style can degenerate into boring rugby. Let’s face it I have criticised both teams for this many time. And twice the passionate, partisan crowd at Port Elizabeth, in the magnificent Mandela Bay Stadium, twice booed Morne Steyn for going for a drop goal early on and towards the end of the match for kicking the ball away rather than running it.
But, but … the spectators were as engrossed in the titanic struggle as the crowd was at the last State of Origin when hardly a line-break was made but the scores were agonisingly close.
Back to the Wallabies. The achievement of defeating the current Six Nations champions 3 – 0 should not be dismissed. Wales were without Jamie Roberts, the huge inside centre, but they had the rest of the stars. They found the pace of the Wallabies game so hot that they decided the only way they could win was to slow down play to that of a snail.
They did expose the fact, though, that the Wallabies front five is still not tough enough, in my view, to mix it with the Springboks or the All Blacks. I wonder about the wisdom of playing Sitaleki Timani. He is a huge man. But he plays, in my opinion, well below his weight. Is he fit enough for Test rugby right now?
The Wallaby backs looked much better with Kurtley Beale back at fullback, his best position by far. There is, though, a disconcerting lack of penetration from the back division. Quade Cooper and James O’Connor will be back for The Rugby Championship, of course. They will sharpen up the backline’s speed.
I’d like to see Cooper playing on the wing as a Shane Williams-type of winger. But I would expect Robbie Deans to play Cooper and Barnes as his five-eighths and O’Connor probably on the wing.
But all this remains to be seen. For now, the Wallabies have kept Wales out for a three-Test series and maintained the record of Wales not winning a Test against the Wallabies in Australia since 1969.
To think that before the first Test against Wales that Mike Carlton wrote an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald (in the news sections!) that he wanted the Wallabies to lose because everything was rotten in Australian rugby.
Carlton should have been at Allianz Stadium on Saturday afternoon. The ground was packed, only 1000 spectators short of the ground record. The stands were like field of golden daffodils were the rows of gold-scarfed supporters. There was a standing ovation for the Wallabies as they ran on to the field. In front of the media box there were about 70 Joeys old boys having a 36th reunion.
This was a group and a crowd that had kept the faith in the Wallabies, as they should and must.
When Barnes kicked the winning goal there were huge roars resounding around the ground. And an even bigger roar when Will Genia cleared a ruck and booted the ball out as the final whistle blew.
Walking out of the ground I heard people saying what a great game it was. It certainly was not that for the purists (and many readers of The Roar). But for the true believers the thrilling end with the Wallabies desperately trying to set up a penalty or drop goal or a try to snatch a victory with time almost up made up for whatever longeurs they were forced to endure because Wales didn’t want to play the game.
While I was walking away amid the buzzing, chatting crowd a golden avalanche of youngsters and their parents spilled out on to the ground. The Wallabies to a man stayed on the field and sign autographs and high-fived excited fans.
When I saw that on television after I got home and watched the replay I thought this was as good a response, the telling response in fact, the Australian rugby community could have made to the Carlton nonsense.
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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