The Wallabies are going for gold in The Rugby Championship
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Wallabies player Quade Cooper. AAP Image/Dave Hunt
During the June Tests some insiders (but not Robbie Deans) told me that the Wallabies have pinpointed Saturday’s Test against the All Blacks as the must-win match in The Rugby Championship for the team.
The marketing of the Test, with the slogan ‘This Time They’re Not At Home,’ gives the clue to the motivation the coaching staff is looking to to get the Wallabies up for the Test.
The home ground advantage is going to be used as a key psychological imperative for the Wallabies. ANZ Stadium is going to be a sea of gold.
And the crowd will be as unforgiving for the All Blacks as the New Zealand crowd was to the Wallabies when New Zealand monstered them at Eden Park in the semi-final of the 2011 Rugby World Cup tournament.
The idea behind the strategy is that a defeat at Sydney will rattle the new All Blacks coaching staff into a panicky response. And if this happens, the Wallabies could pull off a second victory at Eden Park a week after the Sydney Test. This sort of outcome would result in the capture of the Bledisloe Cup by the Wallabies for the first time in a decade.
And it would obliterate the memory of the 2011 RWC semi-final at Eden Park when the Wallabies cracked under intense pressure on and off the field.
Graham Henry has revealed in his rugbiography that a key tactic at Eden Park was to get to Quade Cooper. This was done by kicking high to him when he was on defensive at the back, out of the front line. Cooper made a hash of several bombs. He had already started that game poorly by kicking out on the full from the kick-off.
This mistake and the fumbles, together with the pressure of the All Blacks and the roaring hostility of the crowd, undoubtedly got to Cooper.
As far as the All Blacks were concerned this was one of the keys (along with holding Will Genia from making his trade-mark breakouts) to defeating the Wallabies.
With Cooper playing poorly and with Kurtley Beale out injured, the Wallabies were without the guile and firepower to trouble the All Blacks too much in attack.
From the hints that Deans is giving to the media, it seems likely that Cooper won’t play on Saturday for the Wallabies. The preference, it seems, is for Berrick Barnes, a steadier player but hardly the playmaker with the ball that Cooper is when he is on song.
Cooper’s unpredictability and his genius talent for making telling passes that set up runners into gaps are reasons why I’d always play him against the All Blacks. And the reason for this?
To my mind the All Blacks are the Spartans of rugby. They do the basics 110 per cent. They are ruthless in pursuit of victory. They are structured and efficient. But they can be put off their game when their opponents do not play according to the known script.
The Spartans were like this. The Athenians, not a warlike people, occasionally defeated them by employing unusual, unexpected or new tactics.
Cooper brings the unusual, the unexpected and sometimes the new to the teams he plays for. He has been able to disconcert a number of top New Zealand Super Rugby sides in recent years with his sleight of hand play.
A problem with him, though, is that at number 10 his unorthodoxy doesn’t work that well at the Test level. He is rather like Carlos Spencer in this regard.
At number 10 against weaker sides or sides that gave him room or in matches below the intensity of Tests, Spencer was unbeatable.
But in tight matches when the percentage play is often the best play, Spencer (and Cooper) was often found wanting.
So I would play Cooper at fullback, if Beale is not available, or on the wing if Beale and O’Connor (at number 10) are available.
In an interesting interview with Greg Growden in the SMH, Robbie Deans was asked if he was hoping to have, “the Three Amigos (Beale, O’Connor and Cooper) back together?”
The Deans reply was extremely pointed: “Hopefully never in their former role. Hopefully never for the reason they got their reputations.” This is interesting in that Deans is clearly foreshadowing that he’s had it with their juvenile behaviour off the field.
He did intimate further into his answer that his coaching staff is putting a lot of work into bringing all three players back from their injuries in a way that does not set them up for further injuries.
It was interesting, too, that Tony McGahan, the new Wallabies coaching co-ordinator, has told rugby reporters that the main area that required improvement was the team’s “high-ball receipt and kick-catch skills,” plus raising the level of “continued pressure” around the breakdown in defence and attack.
When you look at the Wallabies you see a team that lacks a lot of firepower in the forwards and in the backs. Genia, Beale and Digby Ioane can make breaks. Genia has told reporters, “To be brutally honest, if we’re going to be a chance in The Rugby Championship we need to score a lot more tries than we did against Scotland and Wales.”
Some really good attacking coaching will need to be done, for only Beale, O’Connor and Cooper, in my view, are real tearaway runners capable of shredding a defence from long range. Only Beale is likely to play on Saturday. In the forwards, the runners are even less evident. Scott Higginbotham is the most damaging runner in the pack.
For all the praise he gets as a fetcher number 7, David Pocock does very little running with the ball and what little running he does is of the hard and short yards variety. This is why I believe his better position these days is blindside flanker with someone like Liam Gill playing the fetcher, link and running game.
As an aside, I believe it is only a matter of time before a smart coach starts Michael Hooper as an outside centre, his true position, in my opinion. But this is for another discussion.
Andrew Blades, the new scrum coach, has stated that he doesn’t want the Wallabies front row to try to trick their way through games, as they did some years ago. He is confident that the scrum will stand up to the All Blacks, Springboks and the Pumas.
If he is correct then the Wallabies will be able to get a good platform to launch some set moves that Deans has given the back line but have had to be put away because the scrum has been too unstable.
The Wallabies will have had a lot of time off the field by the time the Test comes around. The time has been used to get a number of players, especially those from the Waratahs, much fitter than they were during the Super Rugby season. But the lack of game fitness might be a problem.
The All Blacks have had the Crusaders and the Chiefs in the finals. These players are reasonably match fit you would think. Last week the All Blacks squad, without Crusaders and Chiefs, played 20 minutes against Counties Manakau and 20 minutes against Auckland (with 13 Super Rugby players in the team). From all accounts, the players needed the game time.
This is something the Wallabies need to think about in future before a series like The Rugby Championship.
Rather than making a Spiro prediction right now, I’ll report on a Richard Loe Fearless Prediction. In the NZ Herald on Sunday, Loe’s article was headlined, “Wallabies will win only once in the new comp.”
His argument is that the Wallabies “will be found wanting up front.” The proof of this is, in his opinion, the front and second rows aren’t very strong.
He also makes the point that I make, Cooper is both the weakness and the strength of the Wallabies. “If Deans chooses Berrick Barnes at first five-eighths,” he argues, “I will stick to my one-win (against the Pumas) prediction. However, they may do better if he selects Cooper.”
There have been bloggers on The Roar who have been critical of the new tournament being named The Rugby Championship. I disagree with this sentiment. The name leaves open the possibility of a lucrative sponsorship as in The —- Rugby Championship.
As well, the introduction of Argentina takes away some of the Tri-Nations inequality of a team playing, say, two Tests at home and only one away against one of its opponents. And it gives the Tri-Nations teams a really formidable opponent, especially when the Pumas play at home.
The Rugby Championship in every way is a harder and superior tournament than the Six Nations and deserves its definitive title.
Now all four teams play a home and away match against each other (with the Wallabies and All Blacks playing a third Bledisloe Cup Test each year several weeks after The Rugby Championship). The home and away system is much fairer than the Six Nations format and the old Tri-Nations format.
I admire the positivity of the Wallabies going into the first Test played in The Rugby Championship format. The positive attitude could create a virtuous circle where expectations become matched with performance. And a confident, grounded Wallaby side is always a difficult side to defeat, even for the All Blacks as they learnt last year at Brisbane.
But then I remember the positivity of the Wallabies going into the first Tri-Nations Test in 1996. The All Blacks, in the wind, rain and sleet, played one of great 40 minutes of rugby to smash the Wallabies out of the game and to set the standard for the Wallabies and Springboks to emulate.
But, then, that 1996 Test was played at Wellington. The first Rugby Championship Test will be played at Sydney. As the latest Olympics medal table suggests, it is always easier to win gold in events held on your own territory.
At least, that’s the theory the Wallabies are banking on.
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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