Wallabies are sliding even by the ARU’s own benchmarks
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New Zealand ran away from the Wallabies during their Bledisloe Cup test match at Eden Park in Auckland (AAP Image/SNPA, Ross Setford).
In these times of looking for crumbs of comfort be glad the Wallabies managed to pull the Gold Coast Test against Argentina out of the fire, because things could have been a lot worse.
The weekend’s heavy loss in Pretoria not only increased the pressure on Robbie Deans, but quietly moved South Africa above the Wallabies in the IRB’s rankings. Australia are now third.
The battle for the No.2 position is only part of the story. The real issue with the rankings this year is finishing in the top four by December 3, to guarantee a top seeding in the 2015 World Cup.
Had the Wallabies been defeated at home by Los Pumas, they would shed significant rankings points and been dragged into a four-way rankings dogfight for two spots, with England, France, and Wales – the teams they face on the Spring Tour. Any team that finishes outside the top four run the risk of drawing the All Blacks in 2015 group stage, the Wallabies included. Digby Ioane’s late try against Argentina had even more significance than assumed at the time.
Mathematically, the Wallabies still look on track for that top-four berth by December, although grey hairs could be avoided by a win in any of their next three Tests, against Argentina, the All Blacks and France. Still, keep a calculator in the pocket, just in case.
But the demotion from the No.2 ranking is not without significance in itself. Regardless of what you think about the rankings system (some might say the ‘battle’ for second is a bit like a competition to hear who can whisper the loudest) the second ranking – along with the Reds’ Super Rugby title in 2011, the third-place finish in the World Cup and the Tri Nations title last year – has been employed as a shield by the ARU against its critics.
“They [Wallabies] sit at No.2 in the world rankings – the same position in which they started the year – and in head to head showdowns with South Africa and New Zealand have an impressive strike rate of recent times,” John O’Neill wrote on The Roar on December 2011.
The claim is not without merit. The ranking isn’t easily won, and there are well resourced foes in the northern hemisphere would be delighted to wear that badge. But with more than half of the 2012 Test campaign gone, and with only one home game remaining, the Wallabies have conceded their position and will find it difficult to get back. If the Springboks beat the All Blacks this weekend (and they have a better chance than anyone) they will consolidate themselves at No.2.
Throw in the ‘lost’ Tri Nations title to the All Blacks (although, of course, technically it will remain in Australia possession in perpetuity), and the Chiefs’ 2012 Super Rugby title and there is the sense that key planks of the ARU’s defence are being removed. And Scots might inject themselves at this stage to remind everyone where the Hopetoun Cup resides.
The point of this is not to wallow in Australian misery but hold the governing body to account, as all organisations must be. One of the difficulties between the fan base and head office has been this issue of how success, or at least tolerable failure, can be measured. But the decrease in performance and success from 2011 – as outlined above – is measurable and transparent. Not only has the stated aim of taking the No.1 slot failed, but the Wallabies are moving backwards.
On the field the flaws are equally as apparent. You can break down the performance of Australian sides – from Super Rugby to the Wallabies – in many, many ways this year. But the theme running through them all is a persistent inability to win clean, quick ball.
There are fitness issues of course, most apparent at the Waratahs and their inability to shift bodies from attacking rucks. But something broader has been happening.
Almost every utterance from an opposition coach since the second half of 2010 has included reference to slowing down Australian ball, particularly the Reds and the Wallabies.
The analysts have been watching, learning and adapting, encouraging the perception that Australian rugby has been standing still. And in the case of the Springboks, it has been overtaken.
Paul Cully is a freelance journalist who was born in New Zealand, raised in Northern Ireland, but spent most of his working life in Australia. He is a former Sun-Herald sports editor, rugby tragic, and current Roar and RugbyHeaven contributor.