SPIRO: Rebels and Brumbies lift for 2013 Super Rugby openers

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Alfi Mafi of the Western Force is tackled during the Round One Super Rugby match between the Melbourne Rebels and the Western Force in Melbourne, Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. (AAP Image/Mark Dadswell)

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Yes, yes, it is early days for the Reds. They probably would have factored in a loss at Canberra on Saturday night to the Brumbies, but not by a 24-6 margin.

In fact, the Reds have only won at Canberra a couple of times since 1996. But it was the manner of the loss, the negative way the Reds played that should be of concern to their supporters.

Admittedly, too, they began to move the ball around, running it from inside their 22 towards the end of the game in a (thwarted) attempt to blast open the splendidly muscular and unbending Brumbies defensive line.

But here we need to remember the shrewd words of coach Bob Dwyer who said he had nothing but contempt for teams that tried to play expansive rugby when the match is effectively lost. The time to play expansive, try-scoring and ultimately winning rugby is that the beginning of a match, Dwyer has always argued.

Of course, Dwyer is right. What got into the coaching staff of the Reds, Richard Graham and Ewen McKenzie presumably, to send their team out to play such negative rugby? Rob Simmons of all players tried to be a sort of enforcer at virtually every ruck and maul from the outset of the match.

The tactics of storming into the rucks and mauls, with players throwing themselves in at every angle and in contradiction of the laws, paid off in a sense for the Reds initially. They won about four penalties in a row, and these penalties negated the strong start made by the Brumbies.

But as the Reds tired a bit, and especially as the referee Andrew Lees (an Australian) twigged to what the Reds were trying to do, the penalties turned around and began to turn sharply in favour of the Brumbies.

And on the momentum of these penalties the Brumbies really stormed home in the second half to entrench a solid two-tries to none (what has happened to the Reds’ flair?) victory.

You can see, I think, what the Reds game plan was. They feared that the master poacher, David Pocock, might get the turnovers to open up play for the Brumbies backs.

So a young, aggressive and turnover-obsessed back row of Jake Schatz, Liam Gill and Eddie Quirk were sooled on Pocock.

The tactic worked, as I have suggested for a while. And then it didn’t work, in my view.

Jake White reckons that for an hour the intensity of the rucks and mauls resembled that of a Test match. He explained, too, that derby matches in Australia are possibly tougher than those in South Africa.

Again in my opinion this is no excuse for tactics that did not work for the Reds. Worse than this, by dedicating Gill to be a fetcher first and foremost McKenzie is reducing the possibilities of this gifted loose forward of being one of the great flankers of recent times.

White has talked about how he wants Pocock to add a running dimension to his game and, apparently, at the Brumbies practices Pocock has been given new running lines and duties to become more of a rounded player.

On the evidence of this match, much more work needs to be done on this project. Pocock still makes wonderful steals. But his running is really heavy-footed and without much dash to it.

Gill, on the other hand, is very quick. He made one great break which showed exactly how dangerous he can be – if given the licence to run.

There were rumours coming out of the Reds camp that McKenzie and Graham were not getting on well in their respective duties at the Reds franchise.

There seems to be some confusion about who actually coaches the side. McKenzie, formally, is director of coaching at the franchise. Graham is (or so it was said) the coach of the Reds.

But there were reports that McKenzie was back in charge, where he should be anyway.

Is this conflict of responsibilities behind the confused game plan the Reds took into the contest?

We will get a better answer to this question next week when the Reds play the Waratahs in Brisbane.

The Waratahs were impressive in going down to the Crusaders in their friendly at Sydney last Thursday. The Waratahs rejected 9 shots at goal, whereas the Crusaders took all their shots.

Coach Michael Cheika was trying to get his side to learn how to score tries, when they need to score them.

They scored two tries to one to the Crusaders and with Israel Folau out-playing the other Israel, Mr Dagg, the Waratahs have perhaps the only big outside back in Australian rugby with the power and pace to be the X-factor player the Waratahs have lacked for many years.

The Brumbies were rightly thrilled with their victory, their first over the Reds since 2011.

Jesse Mogg was named ‘Man of the Match’ and rightly so. He ran aggressively, with a sort of Rolls-Royce fluidity. A pity about his poor goal-kicking, though.

The Brumbies would have won by an even bigger margin if he and Christian Lealifiano (who missed all his shots, most of them easy) had been more accurate.

We got a good insight into White’s heady coaching style, with his attention to detail and strategic planning, with his comments after the match.

“They’re a good side, they won the conference last year and for the first half we had to adjust to how hard they are on the ball so we could play our own game,” he said.

“We’ve been working hard and talking about this game for a long time for a number of reasons.

“One we slacked off last year, two we’re playing the champions and thirdly they have 16 train-on Wallabies.

“So credit to our team. Watching the Reds at their last trial match they scored five tries off pick and drives – we knew we’d have to stand up and stop them at the side of the ruck, and I was pleased with the way our forwards stood up today and took them up.”

I’d make two comments about this. First, White clearly out-coached McKenzie/Graham which can’t be good for McKenzie’s hopes of becoming the Wallabies coach, in due course. White has put his hand up for the same job, too.

Second – is Mchael Cheika listening and watching? White has shown the Waratahs, in my view, how you beat a Reds side that seems to have given away the razzle-dazzle game of the 2011 season.

Going back a day earlier to the first match of the 2013 Super Rugby season, the Melbourne Rebels vs Western Force, the point has to be made that it was a much better spectacle, but not necessarily rugby match, than the Brumbies vs Reds match.

What surprised all of us was the ball-in-hand and sometimes clever back line play of the Force. We knew their scrum would be good with Michael Foley’s expertise in this area. And it was. The lineout was poor, and was one of the main reasons why the Force did not pull of a surprising victory. The real surprise though was the fluency and occasional brilliance of the backs.

I would make one caveat here. When Sias Ebersohn came on for the Force towards the end of the match he kicked away virtually every ball he got. I thought this was a big mistake. I hope it is not portent of what will happen when he gets the number 10 jersey as a run-on player.

I saw the Rebels play the Waratahs in a friendly at Hobart and, frankly, wasn’t overly impressed with their attacking play. Their set pieces were good. They were fit but they couldn’t match up with the Waratahs with the ball in hand.

Getting Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor on the field at the same time made a huge difference to the attack of the Rebels.

Like Rod Kafer, I’d prefer to have Beale at fullback and O’Connor at number 10, where he played so well for the Wallabies against Wales in the last Test of 2011.

I noticed that the two players interchanged positions a lot. But Beale did miss tackles at number 10.

With the new tactic, used by the Brumbies and the Crusaders of running a big outside back down the number 10 channel from scrums, Beale’s defence could be exposed.

There is something to admire though about the team spirit being created at Melbourne. After the match, a circle was made and Gareth Delve, the captain, and Beale gave the players an ear-bashing on how they had to play better to build on their first win. Good stuff.

Who would have believed that after the first two Australian derbies to start Super Rugby 2013 that of the four teams involved, the Reds would be the only side not to record a point on the round robin table.

Early – but possibily significant – days.

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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