On Saturday morning 8th September, 2012, Heyneke Meyer sits in his Perth hotel room pondering the upcoming Rugby Championship match against Australia. He makes the following notes in his personal diary:
Dear Rugby gods,
Please consider my petition. If it be your will, would you encourage the Wallabies to play in this particular fashion, according to this list of rules?
1. Try to out-kick us from their back three and in midfield.
2. Kick when in attack instead of using their best runners with the ball.
3. On that point, only give Digby Ioane the ball one or twice in the first 20minutes.
4. Play a ‘tight’ game that aims to keep the game close initially.
Thank you for hearing my plea.
What’s astonishing about all of these requests – South African fans would agree, they are four things that you’d ask the Wallabies to do if you could – is that the Wallabies played entirely into the Boks’ hands for the entirety of the match.
They seemed happy to attempt kicking further than their Boks counter-parts, weren’t willing to run it back from deep, didn’t get Ioane involved in any meaningful way and were happy to mostly run through one pass from the ruck.
And the Wallabies won!
That’s the remarkable part: the men in gold effectively played away from most of their strengths and won a Test match against a side playing to their own. This goes some way to prove that they do have the requisite passion and desire to perform for their country, after two listless performances against the All Blacks.
The Wallabies certainly did put a lot of effort into their defence, when the ball is near pay dirt most importantly, but they need to work on this pressure in the midfield. If the defence would stiffen across and outside the 22m line, potential turnovers, errors or penalties from the opposition would result in less clearing kicks and more attacking chances.
Holding another Rugby Championship team to a single try is still something these 22 can hang their hats on. Not an easy feat.
That single try confirmed that the Wallabies must become a wall further from their line. The South Africans won a kick chase and had clear ball near the Australian 22m line. From there the Wallabies defence was all over the shop – until the ball was right on the try line. At that point the line of Gold stiffened and it took a very concerted effort from the Boks to get it over the line.
Further study of the Wallabies defence shows they actually missed more tackles than their counter-parts, with a total of 19. They drop off a runner once every 54 seconds of defence; or one-in-five tackle attempts. South Africa only missed 14 tackles.
Adam Ashley-Cooper repeatedly bails the side out on defence. He did so against New Zealand a number of times and in Perth he made a super-human tackle of two attackers at once. He saved an almost certain try scoring opportunity.
Tim Horan wrote an article earlier in the week about how a Test match can be swung on a moment of greatness. The Ashley-Cooper tackle was that moment for the Wallabies this weekend. Make no mistake; this match was that close to a different result.
Ashley-Cooper finally got to play a test at outside centre again, I think is his best position. I hope he gets to stay there for the rest of the year.
He cops a lot of flak, but I think he is exactly the kind of glue player every good side needs. His effort won’t ever be found wanting; chasing kicks and restarts like a demon and making all of his tackles. He is the well rounded version of what Robbie Deans was hoping Rob Horne could become, but hasn’t.
That Ashley-Cooper knows how to run smart attacking lines, almost always gets over the gain line and has a good fend is a bonus.
The utility value that Ashley-Cooper brings is quite remarkable at this level of rugby. I wrote during the live blog, after a great late clearing kick (his first kick of the game from memory), that he was actually a better fullback than Kurtley Beale right now. I haven’t changed my mind since then. Leave him alone at centre for now though.
We do need to give Beale some time to get fit and sort out his head. I would advocate giving Bernard Foley or Luke Morahan a chance back there.
Coming into this match, the Springboks averaged a kick from hand every 35 seconds in 2012. The Wallabies averaged a tactical kick every 49 seconds. During this game both sides drastically lowered those figures.
The Wallabies kicked 42 times (every 23 seconds in possession) and the Springboks kicked it on ‘only’ 38 occasions (every 27 seconds). I’m not sure why, because the Wallabies only enjoyed 36% territory for the match employing this tactic. This indicated they weren’t able to find the free space or kick as far as the Boks, but continued to give away the ball anyway.
Why keep doing something that doesn’t work?
The Wallabies kicked from hand once for every two rucks they formed. I repeat: The Wallabies had 87 rucks/mauls and kicked it away 42 times in the same game.
That is fairly poor from a national team. This wasn’t played in ugly weather; conditions were perfect in Perth.
Ashley-Cooper and Deans both said at the half that they needed to stop kicking the ball away and take it down the field in hand more often. The second half saw little real change.
Kicking this often, especially when it isn’t part of the plan (let’s believe Deans here and ignore the evidence), is a symptom of not trusting team mates.
One of the foundations of rugby is support. That means being available for a pass and being available to help retain possession. The Wallabies are so fractured at this point that they don’t believe they will receive enough support when they run.
Berrick Barnes was the worst perpetrator, because he not only returned kicks with kicks, he was also guilty of kicking the ball away in attacking areas. He is surely just keeping the jersey warm until a better option presents itself.
If he is able to stay fit, Ben Tapuai is eventually the man to eventually play inside centre. For the Reds he has consistently been unable to stay on the field. Hopefully that trend can be arrested. When he played for the Wallabies against Canada last year he seemed to be exactly what our backline needed. He straightened the attack, was explosive and showed offloading ability.
If Tim Horan is indeed our greatest ever inside centre – as most people agree – then Tapuai fits the mould better than Barnes. An inside centre needs to be strong and able to pass competently, but doesn’t necessary have to carry the playmaker tag.
As I said at the top, South Africa had everything go their way to win this match. Why didn’t they?
Meyer prevented them from winning by not delivering the killer blow until it was too late.
In the middle of the second half, the Wallabies were almost out on their feet. I thought it was time for Johan Goosen and Patrick Lambie to enter the game if the Boks wanted to finish the Wallabies off.
Meyer didn’t pull the trigger until Ben Alexander had scored in the 69th minute. Too late.
Once the Wallabies got in front, they were able to repel the fresh green reinforcements just long enough to hold on.
Between them, Goosen and Lambie made 39 running metres from 19 minutes of game time. Contrast that to Morne Steyn and Zane Kirchner who produced 40m across the turf in 145 minutes on the field. That is why South Africa lost this match.
It wasn’t just their own running metres that improved the side either. As soon as Goosen went on his first gallop, Jean de Villiers and Francois Steyn had more room to operate because of the inside threat.
Meyer needs to start Lambie at the back in their next match and bring Goosen on much sooner. That is only if F. Steyn or Goosen are considered too unreliable off the tee to jolt Morne from the starting 15.
(Statistics from www.ruckingoodstats.com and www.rugbystats.com.au )