SPIRO: Gutsy Wallabies defeat the Pumas and their critics
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Wallabies player Digby Ioane crosses over to score a try during the Rugby Union International between Australia and Argentina at Skilled Park on the Gold Coast, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
The hardest thing in sports is to come back and win when the scoreboard and the momentum of the match floods against you going into the final stage of the contest.
The Wallabies came back from a 19 – 6 scoreline against them with only 22 minutes of play left to defeat a seemingly rampant Pumas squad.
To me, this suggests a team of character, guts and a high degree of skills under pressure.
Yet judging by the reaction of some commentators and Roarers you’d think that the Wallabies had capitulated and had been defeated handsomely.
No credit was given to the Pumas for their resilient display. And even less credit was given to the Wallabies for their remarkable fightback.
This is knocking a team for the sake of knocking. It is pushing an argument against the quality of the current Wallabies essentially for the sake of justifying what has been said in the past.
Moreover, it does not treat the performance of the Pumas who have not won in Australia since 1983 with any respect. And it shows even less respect for the thrilling fight-back by the Wallabies from a situation where a lesser team, or even Wallaby sides in the recent past, would have folded up.
The point here is that momentum is the driving engine to performance in big time sport. To change the metaphor slightly, a team with momentum is rather like a steam-roller rumbling down a steepish slope. It is incredibly difficult to even halt the pace of the momentum. And to reverse it is something that rarely happens in big time sport.
The Pumas had this steam-roller momentum when they scored back-to-back tries towards the middle of the second half of the Test at the Gold Coast’s Skilled Park. And then maintained the momentum with a further successful penalty goal.
The first try came from a charge down of a lazy clearing kick from Quade Cooper. The irony here is that an equally lazy clearing kick by the Pumas in their Test at Mendoza against the Springboks allowed the visitors to escape with a 16 – 16 draw.
The Pumas followed up this lucky try with a brilliant ensemble try from the kick-off which was scored by Julio Farais Cabello. The Wallabies missed tackles. A Puma attacker put a foot (or part of his foot) in touch but as Rod Kafer conceded, the movement deserved a try and a try it was.
Then came the penalty goal.
Could the Wallabies stand up to this pressure from the play of the Pumas, the pressure of the scoreboard and the pressure of time running out? They could and did. And the momentum was wrested from the Pumas by a team that had its three best players, James Horwill, Will Genia and James O’Connor out of the action.
Added to this is the undeniable fact that two other essential players, Cooper and Kurtley Beale, were on the field but totally out of form. Yet when the urgent need came for both of them to raise their game from their recent mediocrity came, they did just this.
Cooper’s passes began to find runners in holes. His trademark short-ball pass to a galloping Pat McCabe to score near the posts was the break-through event in the match for the Wallabies.
This was in the 61st minute of play. Wallabies 13 – Pumas 19.
Then Nick Phipps, in the 69th minute, broke around the blindside and put Digby Ioane in for a try. Berrick Barnes kicked the conversion and for the first time in the Test the Wallabies were in the lead.
Barnes not only kicked the crucial goals but handled the responsibilities of fullback well, especially taking the high ball where he was far more secure than Beale has been this year.
Phipps is no Genia but his passing is crisp and he did make the crucial break. He missed a couple of tackles, though, and he was guilty of a mad-cap kick out on the full from a hard-won tap penalty for the Wallabies.
There was discussion after the Test with Robbie Deans about the matter of taking Cooper out of the game. The injury to Dom Shipperley, Deans said, complicated matters and Cooper was left on the field. This was/is the correct decision.
In my opinion, the more subdued Cooper is a better number 10 than the brilliant, unconventional maestro of last year.
It was Cooper’s passing game, which is the best in modern rugby, that finally unlocked the stiff defence of the Pumas.
Beale kicked a long range penalty at the end of the Test which forced the Pumas to score a try if they wanted to win the Test. In the end, the Wallaby defence held out, just. The Pumas forced a scrum from the kick-off and then attacked the Wallaby try line before a Pumas was held up in a maul and the final whistle, thankfully, was blown.
The next challenge for the Wallabies is to win against the Springboks at Pretoria in two weeks’ time and then against the Pumas at Rosario a week later.
Neither of these Tests will be easy. As I mentioned earlier, the Wallabies have defeated the Springboks at altitude only once in the last 49 years. The referee for the Test is Rolland Romain, a referee whose pedantic whistle-blowing style suits the negative game plan of the Springboks.
The referee at Rosario will be the South African Craig Joubert, the best referee in the world.
I cannot understand why SANZAR has allowed The Rugby Championship, a southern hemisphere tournament, to be taken over by northern hemisphere referees. Of the 12 matches, seven have been allocated to northern hemisphere referees and five allocated to southern hemisphere referees.
The dead hand of these northern hemisphere referees has been a feature of the tournament. What is the theory here?
Is SANZAR trying to convert the northern hemisphere whistle-meisters to the athletic, free-flowing southern hemisphere game, which is the real rugby game?
Or is the intention to force teams like the Wallabies and especially, the All Blacks that play or want to play expansive rugby to conform to the northern hemisphere restrictions?
The Springboks clearly believe that their boring kick-and-chase game to build up pressure, mistakes and penalties is the way to go with the northern hemisphere referees. They are totally unrepentant about their “grind-and-kick” tactics, as Phil Gifford has described them.
They continue to start the “leaden-footed, awkward-passing” (Gifford again) Steyne, despite the fact that in Pat Lambie and especially with Johan Goosen they have brilliant youngsters who could change the dynamics of the Springboks game, for the better.
It was absolute justice that the All Blacks scored a sensational try when they ran back yet another kick, Kieran Read made a terrific run taking out two defenders to sending Israel Dagg (who handled four times in the movement!) to make a scorching run to the try line.
The All Blacks have the South African Jaco Peyser for their Test against the Pumas at La Plata and then Alain Rolland for the Test against the Springboks at Soweto.
There are no easy Tests in The Rugby Championship but the Wallabies and the All Blacks are now embarking on the hardest part of their campaigns. Any wins in this tournament are valuable but away wins are the gold standard.
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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