The Wallabies are playing the champs of world rugby. Bring on Quade!
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The New Zealand All Black's Cory Jane (l) competes for the ball with Will Genia of Australian Wallabies during the Bledisloe Cup rugby union test match (AAP Image/Paul Miller)
Right on time the All Blacks won a scrum penalty about 20m in from the touchline and well inside the Wallaby 22. Time was up.
The All Blacks were 5 points up and had only to kick the ball into touch to clinch a hard-won victory.
Instead, Richie McCaw told Dan Carter to kick for goal, added the instruction: ‘Make sure it goes over.’
By opting to take the kick at goal, McCaw also opted to give the Wallabies their only possible chance of winning the game.
If the ball hit the posts or fell short of the dead ball area and the Wallabies re-gathered and went all the way down the field to score a try and convert it, they would have pulled off the greatest heist in rugby history.
It’s history now that Carter kicked the penalty and the All Blacks opened their aggressive attack on The Rugby Championship with a victory away from home, also denying the Wallabies a bonus point.
It’s worth deconstructing the last few minutes of an enthralling Test match to make the point that the All Blacks, for the last couple of years, and this year, too, going on the evidence of this season so far, are one of the great Test teams in the history.
I could not help thinking as I watched the 2012 All Blacks go about the difficult task of defeating the Wallabies at home at ANZ Stadium that they have become the rugby equivalent of the Queensland State of Origin side. And the other top tier rugby nations, including the Wallabies (who have inflicted the last two losses on the All Blacks), are the equivalent of New South Wales.
Queensland have won the State of Origin for the last 8 years. The All Blacks have held the Bledisloe Cup for the past decade. Judging by the way the two teams played on Saturday night, the All Blacks will defeat the Wallabies at Auckland next weekend at Eden Park, a ground where Australia last defeated New Zealand in 1984!
Now those last few minutes of play deconstructed.
The crucial fact for Wallaby supporters, and something coach Robbie Deans ruefully acknowledged, is that despite a terrible first half, the Wallabies were only five points behind with the same number of minutes left to play.
Berrick Barnes had kicked a massive penalty punt to take play into the New Zealand half. The Wallabies mounted a series of attacks. They were too static, as they had been throughout the Test. And somehow Digby Ioane couldn’t be released the way he was when he set up the Wallabies first and only try near half-time to take the score, after the conversion, to 18 New Zealand – 10 Australia.
The All Blacks defended as they did against France in those last 20 minutes of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. They stayed behind the offside line. They didn’t try to win the ball on the ground with their hands and give away a penalty.
They had terrific line speed in coming up to attack the ball runner. And finally after a series of Wallaby hit-ups, the hooker Andrew Hore wrenched a ball clear from a maul. Israel Dagg booted the ball down field. Chased his own kick and tackled Adam Ashley-Cooper in the Wallaby in-goal area.
From the scrum and put-in, the All Black pack, as it had done several times in the Test, crushed the Wallaby pack and forced the penalty that Carter kicked.
Notice it was Hore not McCaw who got the turnover. And Dagg chased his own kick hard. And throughout the Wallaby attack, the All Blacks kept their discipline. Finally, Carter did kick the goal.
As Greg Clarke pointed out in his commentary, Carter has an 88 per cent winning record as an All Black. McCaw has captained the All Blacks 71 times for 63 wins. And in the last 106 Tests when they were leading at half-time, the All Blacks have won 102 of those matches.
The Wallabies have been more successful (in relative terms) against the All Blacks than any other team.
The Bledisloe Cup, though, just accentuates just how difficult it is for teams to win successive Tests against the All Blacks.
Deans’ problem, rather like Ricky Stuart for NSW in recent years, is that the Australian franchises are just not providing him with talent that is honed to an international level.
I would argue that the only Wallaby who has improved his game so that he is the best in the world in his position is Will Genia. But even Genia this season, for the Reds and on Saturday night for the Wallabies, has adopted the emperor penguin position over the ball at ruck time.
I can’t believe he is being coached to stand so long over the ball, sometimes up to 10 seconds (honestly, I counted).
As Rod Kafer pointed out, the longer the halfback stands over the ball waiting for it to hatch an idea, the longer the defenders have to set their defence. And once the All Blacks set their defence, it is extremely difficult to find a way through it or even to make a dent in it, as the last series of defensive plays proved.
Now I want to talk about two other players who have been hyped extravagantly but rarely deliver up to the superlatives lavished on them. And I would make the point, this should not read as a sort of personal, accusatory criticism.
It is, though, the sort of criticism they would evoke if they played in New Zealand.
Before every Bledisloe Cup Test, the pundits start promoting David Pocock as a better number 7 than McCaw. To me this is rubbish. Pocock is a very good player.
I would not rate him as a great player in the same class as McCaw who might be the finest loose forward in the history of rugby.
The thing about Pocock is that he is a two trick pony. He tackles strongly in the line but rarely after a break-out has been made against his team: and he wins a lot of ball on the ground, although he was totally nullified on Saturday night when he conceded several penalties rather than making turnovers.
What is lacking in Pocock’s game is the sort of hard, tough bursts that McCaw has brought into his game. And the reason for this, in my opinion, is that he (Pocock) has muscled up so much he is resembles Wayne Pearce, the rugby league great, in that he has lost too much flexibility and speed.
I don’t believe a New Zealand coach – or put it this way because John Mitchell was his first Super Rugby coach – a coach in New Zealand would have allowed to lose his speed by over-building himself up.
He is like a top-heavy building with weak foundations. This is why I have argued that he should now be played at number 6 which is a position that calls for defence and guarding the narrow blindside rather than roaming all over the field as a number 7.
One final point, McCaw was used as a main lineout jumper early in the Test rather than Kieran Read. Pocock, to my knowledge, rarely jumps in the lineout.
Now Kurtley Beale. In The Australian on Saturday, on the front page, Mark Ella wrote a terrific tribute to Beale arguing that he was the three Ellas wrapped up in one player.
Mark is one of my favourite players (along with Tim Horan, David Campese and Jonah Lomu). He is extremely modest about his achievements and generous with his appraisals of the modern day player.
But Mark, I saw you play (and your brilliant brothers too) and Kurtley is no Mark Ella, and it is incomparable for any one privileged to watch him play whether club rugby for Randwick or in Tests for the Wallabies.
Beale is tremendously talented. He left Joeys a better player, though, than he was after the Waratahs had had him for so many years before he went to the Melbourne Rebels this season.
It is true to say that when he came into the Wallabies that Deans saw his potential as a fullback and he grew under the coaching of Deans into a good player.
Occasionally, Beale has been brilliant and a match-winner. But he has not done this consistently which is the mark of a great player.
And the reason for this is that the Super Rugby coaches he’s had haven’t been able to do to him what, say, Deans did with Dan Carter and Dave Rennie has done with Aaron Cruden.
Deans used to spend hours when the official training of the Crusaders was over rehearsing and practising all types of kicks with Carter. Did Ewen McKenzie and Chris Hickey do this with Beale?
Beale’s first 30 minutes or so of the Test were among the worst he’s ever played in his life. Two of his mistakes were followed immediately by the two All Blacks tries. I thought he was trying to over play his hand.
One of the principles of New Zealand rugby is that backs should under play their game and strike when least expected. The play of Israel Dagg is built around this principle.
Beale is a more talented player than Dagg. But Dagg is a better Test player, right now.
I watched the Test with the publisher of The Roar, Zac Zavos. Not long into the match, when the All Blacks looked like piling on the points, he remarked to me: ‘The poor Super Rugby seasons of the Australian franchises are coming home to roost.’
And this is right. The Wallaby coaching staff had to spend a great part of the three weeks in camp getting the players fit. And the work paid off to the extent that the Wallabies lost the first half 18 – 10 but drew the second half, when everyone expected blast off from the All Blacks, 9 – 9, with the All Blacks final points coming right on time.
And there was a lot to admire about the play of the Wallabies. They did take the All Blacks on. There wasn’t nearly as much kicking from the Wallabies as we expected. The scrum won some penalties and was only crushed once, although this was an important loss when the Wallabies were on attack and needing a converted try to take the lead.
The glaring failure of the team, though, is its inability to score tries. This Test season the Wallabies have scored six tries in five Tests. Not good enough.
It’s time for Quade Cooper at five-eighths and Berrick Barnes at inside centre.
The argument that Cooper hasn’t had enough rugby doesn’t make sense. He’s had more rugby than Beale and Drew Mitchell and James O’Connor when he comes back into the side.
If there is an issue about something or rather to do with Cooper (he hasn’t signed up with the ARU although he has with the Queensland Rugby Union) then let’s hear what it is about.
The fact of the matter is that the Wallabies are not going to win back the Bledisloe Cup, any more than NSW are going to win the next State of Origin, without some X-factor player to match the numerous X-factor players the All Blacks have.
Cooper can win Tests when things go his way. He can lose them, too, as he showed in the 2011 Rugby World Cup semi-final.
But for a side that is out-classed all around the field, as the Wallabies were on Saturday night, someone with the touch of genius is needed to make the plays that like alchemy turn dross into gold.
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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