Deans’ Wallabies beat the Pumas, and critics
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Wallabies' prop Ben Alexander (R) celebrates after defeating Argentina's Los Pumas by 25-19 in their Rugby Championship match at Gigante de Arroyito stadium in Rosario. (AFP Photo / Juan Mabromata)
To all those Wallaby supporters who listened and believed in the juvenile rants of Quade Cooper about the ‘toxic environment’ of the Wallabies and the carping criticism of coach Robbie Deans from journalists, the lesson for contemplation after the gutsy win over the Pumas is the Biblical injunction: ‘Oh ye of little faith’.
The fact is, the victory over the Pumas at Rosario is one of the great Wallaby triumphs.
Everything was against the Wallabies. Their form was not good. Many players were out injured. Some starting players were clearly carrying injuries.
The team was playing on a narrow soccer pitch in front of one of rugby’s most partisan crowds. And the Wallabies had endured a tiring journey from South Africa.
Finally, in Argentina this season the Pumas have defeated France and drawn with the Springboks.
The Wallabies, also, were going into this cauldron with a substantial part of the Australian rugby community disillusioned with the Wallaby coach Robbie Deans and some (make that most) of the players. This lack of faith can weaken the confidence of even strong sides.
In the Weekend Australian before the crucial Pumas Test, the veteran rugby writer Wayne Smith wrote a piece with the title ‘Tinkering Deans failing to let right combinations get the job done’ in which he accused the Wallaby coach of being a ‘fiddler’ who is continually looking for the ‘Eureka! moment.’
This fiddling, Smith argued, has ‘contributed to the instability’ of the side and presumably to its relative lack of success. The article presumed a Wallaby loss and, as a consequence, the end of Deans as the team’s coach.
The hinge for Smith’s curious line of reasoning was that Deans had selected the Western Force’s Nick Cummins ahead of two Queenslanders, Dom Shipperley and Luke Morahan.
“If the injury crisis,” Smith wrote, “truly was as bad as it has been portrayed, so bad it has forced the selection of one of the most inexperienced Australian backlines in decades, surely the sensible option would have been to eliminate at least one un-necessary change by sticking with Shipperley?”
Wait, though, there’s more. Morahan, according to Smith, should have been selected ahead of Mike Harris despite the fact Harris has played Test rugby this season.
Why? Because Harris played fullback this season “once for the Reds before Ewen McKenzie quickly realised he had made a bad mistake.”
There’s even more. Not content with disregarding the selection wisdom of McKenzie, Deans decided to go into the Test against the Pumas with “a monster pack” and then appeared to be content to finish off the match with a “bunch of relative lightweights in the forwards, with Liam Gill, Dave Dennis and a fit Scott Higginbotham, all named on the bench.”
Smith’s reading of this strategy was summed up in the conclusion to his article: “It may be that there is a clue to be found here how he intends to play the game. Then again, he might just be fiddling.”
Oh dear. The game actually worked out in a way that fitted in perfectly with the selection of a big starting pack and then smaller forwards coming on to make the tackles and get turnovers at the end of the match.
The Wallabies’ game plan was very clear (even to someone like Wayne Smith, I reckon) from the opening kick-off. The big Wallaby pack took the game to the Pumas. They drove from the lineouts. They made smashing tackles. Sitaleki Timani and Tatafu Polotau-Nau, especially, made charges from two and three out (not one out) and bent the Pumas line of defence.
And then in the last quarter of the Test, when the play became more open and fluid with the Pumas chasing points, the smaller players from the bench, along with Michael Hooper who was awesome in attack and defence for 80 minutes, made open field tackles and attacked the ball at rucks and mauls. Within a minute of being on the field, for instance, Gill made two turnovers.
All this was a perfect vindication of the Deans game plan and, just as importantly, in the splendid, full-hearted way the Wallabies carried it out.
And Harris’ effort? The man Smith wanted out of the side kicked a clutch of penalty goals which gave the Wallabies a leading cushion of points from his first successful effort.
Andrew Slack on Channel Nine and Rod Kafer and Tim Horan on Fox Sports all made the point that the Wallaby game plan was a coherent and well-planned effort, which worked.
As for the fiddling accusation, here are several pieces of information that more than answer Smith’s accusations.
In 11 Tests this season, the Wallabies have fielded 38 players. There are something like 24 potential Wallabies on the injury list.
In my Sydney Morning Herald column on Saturday, I selected a Wallaby XV of players not available to Deans for selection at Rosario: Adam Ashley-Cooper, Drew Mitchell, Rob Horne, James O’Connor, Lachie Turner, Berrick Barnes, Will Genia, Wycliff Palu, Ben McCalman, Dan Vickerman, James Horwill, David Pocock, Salesi Ma’afu, Stephen Moore, Sekope Kefu.
This team does not include Quade Cooper. I argued, moreover, that the crocks team would defeat the side that played the Pumas rather easily.
The point about the Deans fiddling that Smith finds so incompetent is that much of it, most of it, was forced on the Wallaby coach by injuries and by players like Shipperley not really taking their chances when they replaced injured starters.
And there has been more logic to Deans’ fiddling than that of Ewen McKenzie when the Reds suffered heavy casualties early on in their 2012 Super Rugby campaign.
McKenzie, in fact, made one of the most stupid bits of tinkering imaginable when he started Will Genia, arguably the best halfback in the world and certainly in Australia, at number 10 for the Reds.
Was it tinkering to move Kurtley Beale back to number 10 from his fullback position?
I would say it was shrewd selection on Deans’ part. The Wallabies have lacked energy at number 10 this season with Berrick Barnes and Quade Cooper, both of whom stand too deep under pressure.
Beale has energised the backs and it was his double-pump before popping a pass to Digby Ioane who strolled through a massive gap, caused by four Wallaby backs in motion, which set up the try that won the Test.
This try was scored in the 65th minute of play. It virtually assured the Wallabies of a victory. Almost as important, it returned the killer move to the Wallabies backs, a feature that has been absent for some time.
The point about killer moves in the backs is that they invariably have to be played close to the advantage line. The play-makers coming to the Wallabies from the Super Rugby franchises this season have had the bad habit of standing too deep for either them or their runners to attack the gain line.
But Beale has done so well in the last two Tests at number 10 that he has probably got a mortgage on the position for the November tour.
At the beginning of the Super Rugby tournament, Richard Loe made the fearless prediction that the Wallabies would win only one match in The Rugby Championship. Presumably, he meant the home Test against the Pumas. Well the Wallabies have won three Tests. Only the All Blacks have won more.
In fact, the All Blacks have won all six of their matches scoring 177 points and conceding only 66.
The next most successful side in terms of wins is… the Wallabies! They won three Tests, including a home win against the Springboks and both Tests against the Pumas, scoring 101 points and conceding 137.
With The Rugby Championship decided by wins, the Wallabies finished second.
The Springboks came third in the tournament with 12 points, along with the Wallabies, which came from two wins (Pumas and Wallabies at home), a draw against the Pumas in Argentina and scoring two bonus points. They scored 120 PF and 109 PA.
The Pumas were last in the championship, drawing one match against the Springboks at home and scoring 80 points with 166 against.
These statistics indicate just what a tough tournament The Rugby Championship is and how far ahead of every other team the All Blacks are.
The Wallabies aren’t the only team that can’t beat the All Blacks right now. They are still, despite all the injuries, the number two team in world. They have beaten the Six Nations champions, Wales, three times this season. They have won both Tests against the Pumas. And they defeated the Springboks in Australia.
This is a strong record that should be celebrated rather than being the butt of continual criticism.
“Argentina is not the kind of place,” Brett Harris noted in The Australian on Saturday, “you want to go to when you are vulnerable, but that is precisely what the Wallabies are.”
I suggested in the SMH that given the injury toll, the fact that the Test was being played at Rosario, the heartland of Argentinian rugby (and the birthplace of rugby tragic Che Guevara), with a crowd that is the 16th player on the field for the Pumas, a win for the Wallabies in this sort of challenging environment would rank among their finest triumphs.
Well they won. And they won well. They withstood the frenzy of the Pumas and their crowd (even the lasers being shone in the eyes of goal-kickers) and with a make-shift side and a strong, well-constructed game plan they beat the Pumas and their critics who have been giving them a tough time this year.
Some eating of humble pie by the critics is in order, I reckon.
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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