Boks Test a moment of truth for Deans and the Wallabies
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Australia's Nathan Sharpe shows his disappointment. AAP Image/SNPA, Ross Setford
There reaches a point in a discussion about the merits or otherwise of a coach of a national side like the Wallabies that a point of no return is reached. And that point has been reached by Robbie Deans and his Wallabies.
I would expect that his bosses, the ARU, expect or demand that three of the next Rugby Championship matches end with victories to the Wallabies.
The Wallabies, for all practical purposes, must defeat the Springboks and the Pumas here in Australia and one (or both hopefully) of these sides on their home grounds.
Saturday’s Test at Perth is a moment of truth for Deans and many of the current Wallabies. A loss will expose them to the sharp edge of the axe.
The ARU has scheduled this crucial Test for Perth, which does not really help the Wallabies. The Springboks in fact have won three out of their six Tests against the Wallabies at Perth.
The Springboks have the advantage of having their travel being greatly reduced while that of the Wallabies has been greatly increased. There is also a large South African community in Perth.
It, therefore, makes commercial sense to play the Springboks in a city where the local numbers will be increased significantly by ex-pats.
But it needs to remembered, before Roarers launch a massive attack on the ARU about the venue, the home ground advantage will still be retained by the Wallabies. Perth is an Australian city, not a South African city. The vast majority of spectators will be supporting the Wallabies.
Moreover, the likely dry and fast conditions at Perth should help the fast game the Wallabies will want to play against the Springboks.
The essential argument against Deans has been the lack of success against the All Blacks. The Sydney Morning Herald ran some statistics on this, and other matters, recently. They showed that Deans was won three of 17 Tests against the All Blacks for a 17 per cent winning record. John Connolly was one out of five (20 per cent). And Eddie Jones was three out of nine (33 per cent).
These statistics don’t reveal the whole truth. Like a bikini, what they reveal is interesting and what they conceal is vital. Jones inherited from the master coach Rod Macqueen the most successful Wallabies side ever. The team had every trophy in the cabinet which Jones set about losing. The wins against the All Blacks were early on in his stint as Wallaby coach when the Macqueen influence was still strong.
Deans inherited a team from John Connolly that was becoming less and less competitive against the All Blacks. It was a team, too, that still had some of the stellar players from the Macqueen era. But Connolly did very little to encourage new talent, or regrowth for the Wallabies.
Connolly left Deans a team that was fractured, with senior players having too much power off the field and exhibiting too little power on it. It was an old team with few newcomers being groomed to step up into the big roles on the field.
Deans brought in 30 or so new players in his first couple of years. As the Wallaby coach he has played 52 players in Bledisloe Cup matches over the 54 the All Blacks have played in the same years.
Paul Cully, a Roar expert, wrote an interesting article in the SMH last week on the obvious lack of size of the Wallaby backs. Deans has tried to do something about this, with his promotion of Pat McCabe during the 2011 Rugby World Cup tournament. He was roundly derided by his critics. Yet McCabe, until he was injured, was looking like the best and toughest inside centre Australia has fielded for some time.
Without McCabe, Deans has been forced to select centres who are each about 15kgs lighter than their New Zealand counterparts. One of the oldest and truest adages in sport is this: a good big man will always beat a good small man.
As Cully points out, Macqueen, either through good management or luck, was able to field very big centres like Daniel Herbert (a very under-rated player), Joe Roff and Stirling Mortlock. Even one of these players would make a big difference to the current Wallabies.
A point not often made is that the Macqueen golden era was a period in Australian rugby when the Brumbies (which he created) were strong, along with the Waratahs and the Reds.
There is no doubt, aside from the Reds with their spectacular Super Rugby victory in 2011, that some of the other franchises (especially the Waratahs who should be a rugby powerhouse in Australia) haven’t really been pulling their weight in producing champions for the national team.
The Brumbies, admittedly, were full of heart and spirit this year, after some years of decline. The Wallabies have gained Michael Hooper out of their revival. But there have not been enough Hoopers coming through the ranks to revitalise the Wallabies
The Super Rugby franchises need to produce more Hoopers to rejuvenate the Wallabies. The reality is, though, that most of the young players coming through the Super Rugby franchises lack basic skills in catching, running, kicking and tackling. All this is impacting on the performance of the Wallabies now and will for years to come (no matter who the coach is), if not addressed as a matter of urgency.
As a matter of interest, what do the Super Rugby players do during their training periods? They don’t seem to practice skills.
The Wallabies might be suffering from the blasting they have received from the All Blacks. But hopefully some lessons have been learnt, among them don’t just kick away the ball without chasing hard to contest the possession of it.
Playing against such a good (great?) All Blacks side, too, should have the effect of dragging up the performance of the Wallabies, if they take the correct lessons on board.
They are playing a Springboks side that is too old, too slow, too predictable in its play and too reliant on Morne Steyn kicking every penalty he gets the chance to boot over. Under the new coach and former Bulls coach Heyneke Meyer, the Springboks have gone back to the future, with the Bulls kicking and brute power and strength game.
In five Tests this season, three have been won and two drawn by the Springboks. The public and the pundits are already calling for Meyer’s head, especially after the 16 -16 draw against the Pumas at Mendoza, a Test the Pumas should have really won.
There are questions about the lack of a game plan, other than kick, chase and hope.
To my mind, the Springboks are at their most vulnerable right now. A charged up Wallaby side, tempered by the fire of the All Blacks, will – let’s hope – redeem themselves by taking the game to the visitors and running them off the field.
This isn’t just idle or naive thinking. One of the strengths of the Wallabies under Deans has been their ability to win against the Springboks, at home and away.
Another such victory at Perth on Saturday will do a lot to improve the morale of the Wallabies – and their supporters, who are struggling to keep the faith in their team.
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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