How to fix the real problem with the Wallabies
The Wallabies kept Wales at arms length on Saturday night (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
Australian rugby suffers from a myopic focus on the razzle-dazzle side of rugby rather than concentrating on the real nuts and bolts of winning games.
Reading over the articles posted here on The Roar, most posters attribute the Wallabies loss over the weekend past to the omission of Quade Cooper from the match-day 22 rather than the sub-par forwards the Wallabies field perennially.
Of the forwards used on Saturday, the standout player for the Wallabies was without a doubt Nathan Sharpe.
The 34 year old veteran put in the hard toil tirelessly in the tight aspects of the game and was justly rewarded with a try off a typically powerful, gain-line-breaking run.
What should be cause for concern though is: Sharpe was due to retire months ago and should be on his last legs so to speak.
The fact that he was by far and away the best Wallaby reflects the poor state of affairs for the Wallabies forward stocks.
While Sharpe put in a yeoman day at the office, it’s fairly clear that the Wallabies lack players of Brad Thorne or Bakkies Botha’s ilk: powerful men who live to hit every ruck and maul that they can and who thrive on the physical aspects of the game.
I would be very interested in stats detailing ruck attendance for the Wallabies’ forwards over the last few years compared to similar stats for the All Blacks and Springboks.
I get the impression that the fascination with x-factor and razzle-dazzle has taken a-hold of the Australian forward’s psyche to the extent that these players would much rather camp out wide for the showy run down the line than hit a ruck to win clean ball for the backs to do what they’re salaried to do.
Part of the problem is an over-reliance on David Pocock to win parity at the break-down due to his pilfering skills.
It is a testament to his skill that his performances allow the non-performance at the break-down of the forwards around him in gold jumpers to go largely unnoticed.
The fact that Pocock efforts secures ball for the Wallabies leads to the conclusion that the forwards as a whole must be doing their job. I will be very interested to see how the Wallabies go in his absence.
It should be noted that fetchers tend to perform better when supported by their forward mates. Case in point was the Botha-Brussow axis for the Springboks circa 2009.
Brussow’s job was made that much easier due to the protection afforded him through Botha’s dominant clearing at rucks.
Imagine how much more effective Pocock would be if he could ply his skills off the back of a Botha-esque clear at the break-down!
The three main problem areas, as I see it, for the Australian forwards are:
1. Fitness. Hitting rucks, scrumming hard, earning the hard yards. To perform in these areas requires an inordinately high level of aerobic fitness. Something the Wallabies’ forwards do not possess to a large degree.
Bulking up sure makes the jumper look good, but does not make a positive contribution in getting up from a ruck to hit the next one 15 metres infield. Nor does it help in putting in the effort required in a defensive scrum 5 metres out, 2 minutes to go, defending a 5 point lead. If anything, the extra bulk makes it harder.
Aerobic fitness on the other hand will ensure there’s enough in the tank to get the job done.
2. Mindset. Compare the mindset of the English forward in the third test in the June series this year to the mindset of the Wallabies’ forwards over the weekend. Australian forwards lack aggression. In fact, they looked hesitant and tentative against their All Black counterparts. The game was lost in their minds. Subsequently, it was lost in reality.
3. Coaching. Australia has not had a dominant line-out since Eales. The scrum functions well in patches, but is generally below par compared to the other top 5 ranked international teams.
As was shown by the All Blacks on Saturday to devastating effect, first phase ball is probably the best platform to attack off as it automatically means there’s acres of space out wide to exploit. Surely this suggests the Wallabies’ forwards, as a professional unit, should be exceedingly well drilled in attacking and defensive scrums and line-outs?
Sure, the Wallabies may not have the monster forwards that the English have, but their technique should be perfect.
Over the next three years or so, I expect the Wallabies’ forwards to gradually be made up of more Brumbies forwards than any other franchise due to the superior coaching of Jake White’s management team.
The Wallabies’ forwards penchant for not showing up on match day is the root of the Wallabies’ inability to break the current losing streak to the All Blacks. Their inability to make a meaningful contribution results in the ball being shovelled to the backs too early, resulting in less space to work in.
Consequently, players like Beale (who was woeful over the weekend) are tasked to come up with moments of brilliance every time they touch the ball, which (as was shown) is not a realistic expectation. I felt the All Blacks did not do anything brilliant to win the opening match of the Rugby Championship.
They did the basics perfectly (barring a few forward passes by Messam), took the points on offer and exploited poor defending (by Beale for the most part). Simple rugby, executed flawlessly.
Due to the lack of stocks in the forwards, the current crop of talented backline players will be known as nothing more than that, a crop of talented backline players, instead of world beaters, which is what this Wallabies team could be on the back of dominant forward play.