SPIRO: The big W(in) is back in the name of the 2012 Wallabies
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England's Manusamoa Tuilagi, right, is tackled by Australia's Kurtley Beale during their international rugby union match at Twickenham stadium, London. (AP Photo/Tom Hevezi)
Australia 20 – England 14 at Twickenham in front of 83,631 spectators, most of them rabid England supporters, doesn’t get much better for the embattled Wallabies and their supporters.
This was Test match rugby at its most ferocious and its most tribal. It is why these internationals are called Tests, with a capital T.
Bodies were launched at other bodies. There were massive collisions made. Tackles took players back metres. Courage was tested under high balls. Skill was shown as the steppers on both sides tried to find a way through a Maginot Line of defenders.
On the eve of the Test I came across an engrossing account by 52 year-old American Jay Atkinson, a journalist and hooker, of his rugby playing career which is still going strong, “Memoirs Of A Rugby-Playing Man: Guts, Glory, and Blood in the World’s Greatest Game”.
In the book, Atkinson sums up rugby this memorable way, “If all sports are really about war, then rugby is an 18th century epic of bayonet charges and hand-to-hand fighting. On an expanded football field without any yard lines, the teams line-up facing each other like infantrymen wearing cleated boots. And every few minutes the combatants must steel themselves for a fresh assault into the teeth of the enemy.”
These fighting words sum up this terrific Test. There was no shirking as both sides ripped into each other with ferocity and hard-shoulders. And there was no doubt about the Wallabies being the better side and deserving of their win.
England ‘scored’ a try by Manusamoa Tuilagi that was palpably not a try, with the ball planted after a legitimate second thrust just short of the tryline. That ‘try’ was scored close to half-time to give England a crucial lead.
And Australia were denied a legitimate try a bit earlier in the Test, when Ben Alexander clearly shoved across England’s tryline and a Television Match Official (TMO) still picture showed the ball across England’s tryline and under Alexander’s body.
The TMO making these decisions was Jim Yuile. In my opinion, the IRB need to review his qualifications for Test duty as a TMO.
Here are some notes I jotted down throughout the Test.
Why, oh why would England wear purple, the colour of the feminist movement and Wimbledon, in this must-win Test for them? I reckon that not playing in the traditional white cheapened the occasion for the England players.
I cannot understand why a national team, whose white colours come from the Founding School of the rugby union game, Rugby School, would want to give away an outfit whose history is redolent of the history of the game.
No doubt there were commercial reasons around forcing kids and diehard supporters to buy another team colour. But this callous spurning of the history of the team suggests a culture that is obsessed with money rather than tradition.
Thankfully Nick Phipps stopped his incessant yapping at the referee. Against France he got on Nigel Owens’ nerves so much that, in my opinion, several decisions, including a crucial crooked put-in to the scrum, were ruled against the Wallabies.
This time Phipps just played his game and kept his mouth shut. He is no Genia. But he did make a spectacular break in the second half to set up Nick Cummins’ decisive try.
Talking about Cummins, I noted on The Roar earlier this year that Cummins was the sort of player that Robbie Deans should look at to give some get-up-and-go in the Wallaby outside backs.
As with many of my observations, I took a lot of stick from a group of usual-suspect readers. But Cummins, although a bit shaky under the high ball, had a standout match and carried for more yardage and to much greater effect than Digby Ioane.
In my analysis of the Test against France, I made the point that referee Owens was hard on the Wallabies with some of his scrum penalties. And it was with a sense of justification that I (and referee Owens, who was an assistant for the England-Australia Test) watched the Wallaby scrum demolish the England scrum, with one exception.
The first scrum of the Test resulted in a short-arm penalty to the Wallabies against England for an early hit. This was something that Owens did not do with France.
The French referee Romain Poite clearly had no pre-conceptions about the weakness or otherwise of the Wallaby scrum. On England’s feed, except for one occasion, the Wallabies either comfortably held them or overpowered them, while winning their own ball comfortably.
England seemed nonplussed about this. The stream of penalties from scrums did not come their way. Moreover, at the end of the Test, when they were chasing six points, they opted for five man lineouts rather than scrums. This suggested to me that all their pre-Test talk about smashing the Wallaby scrum had become nothing more than hot air in the cauldron of the match.
I wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday that Sitaleki Timani was talking about his responsibility to do the hard work in the second row at scrum time. This notion of the pushing second rower is Brad Thorn’s great contribution to the rugby union game.
I have no doubt that Timani’s shoving, which was absent in the Test against France with him being out injured, was a significant factor in the scrumming of the Wallabies.
Another significant factor was the quick feet and the sometimes startling speed at inside centre of Ben Tapuai. With Beale, Berrick Barnes and Tapuai, the Wallabies had three playermakers and potential runners in the middle of the field. The trio caused the England defence some headaches, especially when the rush defence was countered with some deft little chip kicks.
Two of the three kicks were re-gathered, which suggests that the coaching staff had drummed home the mantra that a kick-through is useless, and indeed worse than useless, if it is not re-gathered.
Talking about kicking, it was awful, excruciating in fact, to see the Wallabies kick away the ball in the last 20 minutes when England needed a converted try, only, to win the Test. Time after time the ball was kicked away, with no chase, and time after time England came roaring back on attack.
Luckily, despite Mike Catt’s efforts to try and teach the team the elements of attacking ensemble play, England didn’t seem to have a clue how to actually score the winning try.
And deprived of scrum pushovers, they had to try and actually score a try, something that was beyond them (despite Tuilagi’s short but awarded effort).
England made the tactical mistake, too, of refusing to take easy penalty shots with more than 10 minutes of play left. A side thinking clearly in this situation would have taken the points on offer.
But then, for all the talk about the new England, there is not much finesse, either in skills or brainpower, in the England game right now.
Before the Test, David Campese, on The Roar and to the British rugby writer Mick Cleary, gave Robbie Deans and the Wallabies an all-mighty serve.
“Deans has destroyed Australian rugby and I want him to go… We’ve got a team at the moment that can’t pass and can’t catch.”
I reckon that Campese is wrong about Deans and right about the Wallabies.
Deans has had something like 41 different injuries to players this season and has had to bring in 14 new Wallabies. A couple more are joining the team this week apparently, including Cardyn Neville, who probably should have been in the squad in the first place.
As for Deans, the Wallabies, despite losing three of their captains, James Horwill, David Pocock and Will Genia, and their most penetrative back, James O’Connor, have beaten Wales three times, the Pumas twice, the Springboks, drawn with the All Blacks (the closest this team has come to a defeat since the Wallabies beat them in 2010) and now England at Twickenham.
Rod Kafer, who is hardly an ardent admirer of Deans, made the point before the Test that when a team is hit by injuries and players are out of form and not scoring tries, teams have to scratch out victories any way they can. And this was the task, as he saw it, for the Wallabies against England.
To the credit of the players and the coaching staff, the Wallabies did that.
But Campese is right about the lack of skills of the players. Berrick Barnes, a natural right-footer, did kick a drop goal with his left foot. But this is a rare skill for a Wallaby.
I was told, for instance, that Mike Harris actually can’t pass on either side. This is why the New Zealand franchises didn’t want him. But he, as Campese notes, is one of many of the backs who “can’t pass and catch.”
You can’t blame Deans for this. He has played Harris at fullback, where his kicking skills are more useful. But you can’t hide all the players.
Has Adam Ashley-Cooper, for instance, made a telling pass in the last few years? Even Phipps’ passing is pretty poor, dropping to the ground or more often slightly behind the runners.
The Super Rugby franchises have to take their players out of the gym and put them on the training paddock more, honing up on their skills rather than becoming muscle-bound crocks.
It was interesting to read that one of the Wallaby forwards was amazed to discover there is no gym culture in French rugby. He attributed the skills of the French backs and forwards to this aspect of French rugby.
And rightly so. There is no great gym culture, aside from the props, in New Zealand rugby either.
The night before the Test I received an email from a long-time journalist colleague, forwarding me an email from his son who used to be a rugby nut:
“That Campese article was a great read. I haven’t sat down and watched a game of rugby since last year. Super Rugby or international. It will be hard now to get me back.
“I feel even if they get rid of Deans today I still wouldn’t find myself getting excited about the Wallabies or feel passionate about them. It has all left such a bad taste in my mouth. Hopefully the next generation.”
I replied to this, “To be honest I think a lot of Wallaby supporters like your son have been tough on the Wallabies. They have had incredible injuries this season, they beat Wales – the Six Nations champs – three times, the Pumas twice, the Boks once and drew with the unbeaten All Blacks.
“I think there is a terrific anti-rugby tendency in the media in Australia and a tremendous, in NSW, rugby league support for the so-called ‘greatest game of all’.
“No one complained when New Zealand won the rugby league World Cup a few years ago against the Kangaroos. And no one complains when the majority of rugby league games are appallingly boring.
“But with rugby, the boot goes in all the time… Needless to say it would be a great help for their cause if the Wallabies could beat the bookies odds and win against England tonight.”
In The Sunday Telegraph’s coverage of the Wallabies, the newspaper which prides itself on being the voice of rugby league put the boot into Australian rugby with, to put it mildly, a malicious invective.
The opening sentence of an article by James Hooper read, “If the Australian rugby union is serious about fixing the rotting carcass that is the once-proud Wallabies then the first port of call must be sacking Robbie Deans and appointing Ewen McKenzie…”
By what stretch of any fevered imagination or plain ignorance can the Wallabies be called a “rotting carcass”? Is this language that Hooper or other sports journalists on The Sunday Telegraph would ever use about any rugby league team?
The Wallabies were magnificent against England (if occasionally muddled in their tactics). Their courage, intensity and desire to win matched that of any Australian team in any sport. Some carcass!
Fools like Hooper write the Wallabies off at great peril to any reputation they might have.
And to all those, young and old, who have been put off the Wallabies by malicious articles by rugby league tragics, keep the faith…
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.