SPIRO: Wallabies need to play big to match big talk
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Wallabies' wing Digby Ioane celebrates with teammates flanker Michael Hooper and centre Ben Tapuai. AFP PHOTO / Juan Mabromata
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What a difference a year makes. A Wallabies win over the All Blacks at Brisbane in 2011 had the experts proclaiming that the team was on course to win the 2011 RWC tournament.
Everyone was thrilled with the coach Robbie Deans, the new captain James Horwill and the play of Will Genia, David Pocock, Quade Cooper and James O’Connor.
A year later, the Wallabies are facing an All Blacks side that won the World Cup and has remained unbeaten ever since. If (when as far as complacent New Zealand rugby writers are concerned) they win the Test the All Blacks will equal the record for a top tier nation of 17 consecutive Tests wins.
Hardly anyone is thrilled with Deans or Cooper. And Horwill, Cooper, Genia, Pocock, O’Connor and Digby Ioane (a star of the 2011 RWC tournament) are out with injuries.
Gregor Paul, writing for the NZ Herald, has proclaimed: ‘This is not a Wallaby side to fear. This is not a Wallaby side that has the firepower out wide or collective clout in the forwards to get even close to the All Blacks.’
The 16 Test consecutive wins record was set by an terrific All Blacks side in the 1960s and an equally special Springboks side, coached by Nick Mallett, in the late 1990s. And the current All Blacks are, according to Richie McCaw, are the best All Blacks side he has been involved with.
The side deserves all the plaudits it receives. But the stuff written by Paul does a disservice to a side, the Wallabies, that came second in The Rugby Championship (despite all the injuries, including Digby Ioane for this week) and remains number 2 in the IRB World Rankings. The Wallabies are certainly down. But they are hardly out.
Pendants point to the real record of successive Test victories by Lithuania at 18. But we are talking about top tier rugby nations and consecutive Tests wins here.
There are a couple of other statistics that have some relevance to Saturday’s night Test which plays at 8 o’clock Queensland time at Suncorp Stadium and 9 o’clock in NSW (the difference is the lack of daylight savings in Queensland).
Since 1903 the Wallabies and the All Blacks have played (on the NZ records which don’t include the Waratahs of the 1920s when there was no Queensland Rugby Union) 145 times. The Wallabies have won 41 times, the All Blacks 99 and there have been 5 draws. A victory by the All Blacks, therefore, could give them a century of Test wins against Australia.
But since the Eden Park Test in 1978, which was won by the Wallabies against all the odds, the Wallabies have changed the ratio of wins and losses from 1 in 5 Tests to 1 in 3. This was a crucial Test for the Wallabies. And it was won under circumstances that have many resonances to the Test at Suncorp Stadium.
Tony Shaw, who was inducted into the Wallaby Hall of Fame on Wednesday, was captain of that 1978 Wallaby side. The coach Darryl Haberecht was in hospital suffering from a heart attack. Many senior players were out injured. New players were rushed in, including an 18 year-old Tony Melrose who played brilliantly. Greg Cornelsen scored four tries. Ken Wright cut the All Blacks to ribbons time after time. And the Wallabies won a famous victory 30 – 16.
What this victory meant was that there isn’t, or never should be, a Test that the Wallabies have no hope of winning. Or at least, there should never be a Test, even against a great All Blacks side (the 1978 All Blacks went on to win New Zealand’s first rugby grand slam in the UK), that is not considered winnable by the Wallabies.
Tony Shaw said at the Wallaby Hall of Fame ceremony that the Wallabies have to take the All Blacks on upfront on Saturday night. The burly centre Geoff Shaw, the other inductee, said, ‘there’s no point worrying about injuries. We just woke up on the morning of that Test and said we were going to go hard up front.’
The SMH’s Georgina Robinson has quoted the Wallabies assistant Nick Scrivener as saying that the All Blacks are ‘vulnerable’ on Saturday night: ‘We definitely have identified areas where we think we can go and play with pressure and those points are going to be very important. Where we apply that pressure we’ve just got to play well.’
The point here is that most teams this year have tried to play the All Blacks in a way that restricts the extent of their defeat. I call this playing not to lose badly. The problem with this mindset is that it might keep the score down a bit (but not always) but, more importantly it does not force the All Blacks to play desperate rugby.
It also is a tactic that can only really work if the conditions make it difficult for the All Blacks to play their traditional dashing all-court (a tennis metaphor used in a rugby context) game.
Ireland ran the All Blacks close in their second Test at Christchurch on a windy, cold and wet night. Dan Carter had to drop kick a field goal to clinch a victory for the All Blacks in the last minutes of the Test. But a week later at Hamilton, on a perfect field and great conditions for running rugby, the All Blacks blitzed 60 points to nil against Ireland.
The same story applied to the Pumas who held the All Blacks in terrible conditions at Wellington to a scrambling defeat. But at La Plata the All Blacks ran in 7 tries in good conditions.
Suncorp Stadium is one of the best rugby venues in the world. It is perfect, with its lovely smooth surface, for running rugby. The stands are close to the field so that the fans can make their voices heard. If the Wallabies dare to be great against the All Blacks, as they have promised, then we will be in for a memorable contest.
The odds, obviously, are on an All Blacks victory. The addition of Aaron Smith at halfback with his sharp passing that reminds me of John Hipwell (and there can be no higher praise) has given a new dimension to the All Blacks they couldn’t aspire to with journeymen Jimmie Cowan and Andy Ellis playing in this vital position.
Smith is the best All Blacks halfback, in my opinion, since Graeme Bachop and probably already is better than Bachop. Smith’s extra-quick clearances allow the All Blacks to play a high-octane style that makes it difficult for oppositions to keep up with them. When they are on a roll, as they were against the Springboks at Soweto in the second half even the best of defensive sides struggle to try and contain them.
But taking the game to the All Blacks, especially at Suncorp Stadium, gives the Wallabies their best shot of pulling off a victory for the ages.
Why especially at Suncorp Stadium? If you want to play assertive, attacking rugby, this is the ground to do it on. Last year the Wallabies blasted the All Blacks off the field at Suncorp Stadium with Radike Samo running amok in the first half. This victory ended a 15 Test run of victories by the All Blacks, which had started after their defeat by the Wallabies at Hong Kong in 2010.
This win reminds us that all winning sequences end, sooner or later. But if it is to be sooner for the Wallabies they have to match their big talk about what they are going to do to the All Black with a big game that matches the brave words. All easier said than done, though.
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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