SPIRO: The Wallabies claim a win (just) but the scrum is terrible
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Nic White kicks out of danger during the Rugby Championship clash between the Wallabies and Pumas. (AAP Image/Tony McDonough)
In sport and victories, an inch is as good as a mile. The Wallabies won by a single point against the Pumas but the difference didn’t matter. The result mattered.
Like everything in life, winning is a habit, and so is losing. The Wallabies were in danger of getting into the habit of losing.
They went into the Test at Perth with successive losses to the British and Irish Lions, two also to the All Blacks and a massive loss to the Springboks.
The worst thing about all those losses was that in none of these matches did the Wallabies surge back into contention in the latter stages of the game.
This ability to hang in when things are going against you and then, somehow, escape with a victory was the mark of the great Wallaby sides in the John Eales/Rod Macqueen era.
These sides had the habit of winning. So when the going got tough, they got going. This current side was in danger of acquiring the habit of losing.
So for me the best thing about the victory was not the play of certain individuals or the game plan or the feisty play of the side.
No. The best thing was that with 20 minutes to go the Pumas, with the rain and the wind behind them, had taken the score line to 14-13 and were dominating in the scrums that the Wallabies lifted their game and finished on top of the Pumas.
A great tackle from Saia Faingaa was followed by a terrific steal by Scott Fardy which earned the Wallabies a penalty.
Christian Lealiifano missed the kick, one of his few misses this season. But you could see the Wallabies belief in themselves rising as they knocked over the Pumas defenders and somehow emerged from scrums without conceding penalties.
It was significant that Ewen McKenzie kept Nick White on the field the entire 80 minutes.
The point here is that in general White is a more abrasive defender than Genia. He has a better kicking game. And although his run-on debut was not perfect, he did do a number of good things to help the cause.
In general, he gave the impression, in contrast to the hang-dog, sometimes accusing look to his fellow players that Genia adopts when things are going awry, that he is going to do everything and anything to get the victory.
My guess is that McKenzie will play White as a starter against the Springboks at Cape Town, a windy city.
Genia, technically and most often in practice a far better halfback (at his peak one of best in the world) will come back into the side when it starts winning consistently and when his demeanour becomes more positive.
There was one aspect of the play of the Wallabies that puzzled me. I’m referring to the way wingers and other backs race in sometimes from 30m away to congratulate the pack when, say, it wins a scrum penalty.
This high-fives approach to mark every small triumph does not give off a good emotional vibe, in my opinion.
It says, ‘AMAAAZING we’ve won a scrum penalty’. This in turn suggests an underlying fear that the scrum, say, is going to be demolished at any time.
So rather than discombobulating the opposition, it actually confirms their belief that there is a genuine fear about the scrum by the Wallabies.
Is it an over-reaction provoked by relief rather than achievement, in other words.
The main purveyor of this nonsense was Tom Carter, the journeyman, long-time centre for the Waratahs. Carter seems to be a smart and likeable chap, off the field.
But on the field he was a pain, forever high-fiving and running in to congratulate a team-mate for doing something that was pretty ordinary, anyway.
It would have been much better for Carter’s career and the Waratahs, if he’d run with the ball as much as he ran without it to high-five his team-mates.
And this criticism applies to players like Nick Cummins (a player I admire for his work rate, his tough running and his guts) who lost concentration too often and made mistakes that put the Wallabies under all sorts of difficulties.
The Test looked as though it was going to turn against the Wallabies in the second half when the Pumas scrum started to demolish the Wallabies pack. They won three successive scrum penalties. They turned down shots at goal to launch attacks on the Wallaby tryline.
These attacks were repelled by a great tackle from Cummins and an almost-intercept by Michael Hooper.
But White was (correctly) penalised for a second time for a crooked scrum feed designed to relieve pressure on his beleagured pack. The Pumas converted the penalty. 14-6.
Then came another tremendous Pumas attack which made a mockery of the atrocious conditions. In the 63rd minute, the number eight Juan Manuel Leguizamon (part of an excellent back row) went across for the try which was then converted.
Luckily there were no more devastating (as far as the Wallabies were concerned) scrums.
But Paul Cully in the Sun-Herald makes the obvious point about the scrum that ‘if it is not sorted out by the spring tour, they will be miracle workers to win three of those five Tests’.
The point here, as Cully observes, is that the new regulations have essentially taken away the massive first hit which Australian teams manipulated for about a decade to hide their scrumming weaknesses.
Now teams have to actually scrum. It is relatively easy now for referees to see which prop goes down, or fails to bind, or which front row comes up.
Too often the scrum committing these offences is the Wallaby pack.
It is pretty obvious, even to me, that the Wallabies pack hasn’t understood that the entire pack has to shove now, not only on their own ball when the scrum is reduced in effect to seven pushers because of the hooker having to hook but on the opposition ball as well.
Particularly, on the opposition ball Ben Mowen, in particular, comes up almost immediately like a meerkat. The Wallaby scrum is immediately under pressure.
I saw on occasions Michael Hooper trying to dig his heels in like a quarter-horse trying to take a tight corner.
Andrew Blades, the Wallaby scrum coach, is supposed to be a guru on the scrums.
He claimed before The Rugby Championship that the regulations would suit the Wallabies. And to make the point, the best big-hit scrummager in the squad, Benn Robinson, was dismissed to play club rugby.
It must be time to at least bring back Robinson in the Test 23.
And I have another modest proposal. Early this year I attended a function to mark the launching of ‘The Art of Scrumming’ by Enrique Topo Rodriquez.
If my ancestor Aristotle had written a treatise on scrums (rather than on politics), this is the book that he would have written.
I believe that the great Topo Rodriguez knows more about scrumming, in practice and theory, and was one of the all-time props in the history of rugby, the rock that was the foundation of the 1984-86 Grand Slam and Bledisloe Cup-winning Wallabies, than anyone on this planet.
So a question for Australian rugby authorities? When are you going to make Topo the scrum-master of Australian rugby, a role that in New Zealand is filled by Mike Cron who advises the All Blacks, Super Rugby teams that want him, provincial sides and club sides.
The fact of the matter is that teams without a strong scrum find it difficult to put together sequences of wins.
What this means, unless the Wallabies don’t get on top of their scrum problems, that this victory over the Pumas is only a small break in the habit of losing, and not the beginning of the habit of winning.
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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