“Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all of the time. Winning is a habit,” so said legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi.
“Unfortunately, so is losing. Running a football team is no different than running any other kind of organisation – an army, a political party or a business. The principles are the same. The object is to win – to beat the other guy.”
The Australian sporting psyche has always prided itself on being the winning mentality, the toughest out there. When all the punches have been thrown and taken, the Australian is the last man standing.
As Lombardi says, he is the guy who “plays from the ground up – from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. Every inch of him has to play.”
In my experience, words like ‘rebuilding’ and ‘development’ tend to dominate a sportsman’s vocabulary when the sense of winning – how it feels, what you have to do to find it again – is becoming a fading memory.
And this is where Australian rugby finds itself right now, in a situation where there is a lot of talk of development and ‘building pathways’, while the on-field results suggest that, over a period of time, the winning mentality is being steadily eroded away.
Towards the end of this week, there will be discussions held on the future of the five Australian franchises within the overall structure of Super Rugby.
The principal criterion used to decide their fate, and whether Australia sticks with five or drops back to four, should be: what action will best enable us to recreate the winning mentality in Australian rugby?
The combined record of the Western Force and the Melbourne Rebels stands at 32 per cent since the inception of the two expansion franchises (2006 for the Force, 2011 for the Rebels) and neither has ever reached the knockout stages of the Super Rugby tournament.
The last time I wrote an article on this topic, back in July 2016, Australian teams had just experienced a weekend where they had lost to their (non-Australian) opponents by an average score of 13-45.
Over the first two rounds of this year’s competition, the score is remarkably similar, at 19-42. The ultimate question is the same now as it was then: at what point does talk of development stop, and a conversation about winning begin?
This is how a table of Australia’s decline in Super Rugby appears statistically.
|Seasons||1996-2005 (three teams)||2006-2010 (four teams)||2011-2016 (five teams)|
|Average win percentage||55%||47%||42%|
As the number of franchises has expanded, so the number of wins has decreased proportionally. Over the past two seasons, the win ratio has dropped even further, down to below 37 per cent in 2015 and 2016 combined.
In particular, how does Australia ‘develop’ as a rugby nation while steadily losing ground to its closest historical rival, New Zealand? In 2016, Australian Super Rugby sides only won three out of their 26 encounters with New Zealand opposition – now that record has already extended to three out of 29 into 2017.
The table describing Wallaby success against New Zealand mirrors the decline of their Super Rugby teams within the same timeframes.
|Wallabies against All Blacks||1996-2005||2006-2010||2011-2016|
|Average win percentage||43.50%||17.60%||10.50%|
As the number of its Super Rugby franchises has expanded, Australia has become steadily less competitive at both regional and Test level, and especially against the All Blacks, where the win ratio has dropped by 33 per cent since the movement from three to five teams.
New Zealand has, in the meantime, retained the five regional sides with which it started Super Rugby back in 1996. The snowball of Kiwi success at both regional and Test level has been fuelled by consolidation, not expansion.
The concrete result is that the winning mentality and aura of self-belief which Australian sportsmen have always enjoyed has, at least in rugby terms, seriously diminished. Whether that change becomes permanent may be decided by the choices of the ARU and SANZAAR at the end of this week.
The game of the weekend – between the Highlanders and Crusaders in Dunedin – was a perfect example of an encounter between two teams who possess an inner core of self-belief, built up through structural stability and the experience of a number of winning seasons.
Both sides ‘played from the soles of their feet up through the top of their head’. The audience, both live at the ground and remotely on TV, responded to a game that was being fought out with every fibre of each player’s being.
Although the Crusaders won with a terrific fight-back in the second half, I suspect the Highlanders will also take a lot of positives out of the game.
You’ve got to be smart to be number one in any business, more importantly though, you’ve got to play with your heart. If you’re lucky enough to find a guy with a lot of head and a lot of heart, he’s never going to come off the field second.
The Highlanders did not come off the field second despite losing the match, and their three tries all demonstrated the highest levels of skill associated with true winners.
The quality of a team’s set-piece attack tends to illustrate their self-belief particularly well. The levels of skill required to bring to life a blackboard plan from the week’s preparation and break open an organised defence ‘in the moment’ are of the highest order, and the Highlanders did it on three occasions.
Look at the amount of detail that went into the Highlanders planning at this attacking five-man lineout. Their target area is the zone around the tail of the lineout and the first requirement is to widen the space available there to the maximum.
First their halfback, Aaron Smith, sets up near the five-metre channel to pull away Crusaders defender Bryn Hall, then the lineout forwards shuffle down towards touch, before mounting a fake jump on #5 Tom Franklin. This keeps the Crusaders’ forwards away from the ‘hot zone’ – they cannot be running in defence when they are already committed to countering in the air.
The throw by hooker Liam Coltman is finely honed precision – flying 30 metres in the air, and straight down the middle of the virtual tunnel to Waisake Naholo. As soon as Naholo catches the ball, the Crusaders end-defender, hooker Codie Taylor, knows he is in big trouble.
Both he and #6 Jordan Taufua are in a mismatch in space with the All Blacks’ wingman, and the final nuance is the use of replacement Gareth Evans as the finisher. Evans is a back-rower who has also played wing, so the Highlanders would know he has the foot-speed to beat whatever remains of the cover defence.
At this midfield scrum towards the end of the first half, the Highlanders had identified a weakness in the Crusaders’ set-piece defence. The Crusaders were defending with their #15 David Havili in the 10 channel and first five-eighth Mitch Hunt at fullback.
The fullback has to be a good reader of play and opposing intentions. He has some important decisions to make about which side of the backfield to cover, especially when the blind-side wing decides to press up on the line, rather than sit off on a 10-20m cushion and hedge his bets against both pass and kick.
Here, Seta Tamanivalu, who betrayed all the signs of a centre playing in an unfamiliar role on the outside, not only presses up on Naholo, he then turns the wrong way when the kick is put in behind him. The wing needs to turn out towards the sideline in order to either shadow Naholo, or at the very least force him to bend his running arc so that a straight line pursuit at full speed is not possible.
The kick itself is a very high-level skill by Smith. He has to take the ball from a scrum under pressure and run the long way around Taufua before he can even make it. The kick is top-spun while on the move – Smith gets his foot well above the ball to keep it galloping forward after contact with the grass, and it settles in the only five-square-metre patch of ground where Naholo can collect it and score without losing momentum.
Meanwhile, Hunt has fully committed to the far side of the scrum and cannot play a role in cover defence, which means a break turns quickly into a score.
The final example provides a nice illustration of one way to unlock a rush defence from first phase set-piece via the kicking game.
The chip in behind the line can typically only be covered by two defenders. The defensive #9 will normally drop into the shallow zone behind the front line and pick up these kicks in phase-play, but in the Crusaders’ system, he starts in the tram-lines and cannot cover the option from first phase lineout.
The other key defender is the defensive #13, another Crusaders rookie in the shape of 21-year-old Jack Goodhue.
He cannot commit until the ball has moved beyond the opposing first receiver, otherwise the chip becomes a ‘live’ option. Here, Lima Sopoaga spots Goodhue positioned too wide and caught in no man’s land as he receives the ball, and knows that he can hit his own centre Malakai Fekitoa on a line underneath him.
Once again Hunt is too far back to prevent either the catch by Fekiota, or the subsequent scoring offload by Fekitoa to Naholo.
“Knowing what is required to win” means the right combination of sharply honed skills and the composure to spot weaknesses, remember plans, and be able to execute, whatever the pressure. It means “playing from the soles of your feet through to the top of your head”. When you can repeat the process often enough, it hardens into a winning mentality, an inner self-belief.
New Zealand teams have a settled outlook and a settled structure within Super Rugby. With its five franchises and the bewitching thought of ‘expansion’ at the forefront of its mind. Australian rugby has lost the habit of winning – one which used to be natural to all its sportsmen.
This applies to both Super Rugby and the level above it, which is fed and nourished by what happens below.
At present, it is very hard to see how Australian rugby can break out of the loop of failure without a complete re-appraisal of its structure. This Friday, hard facts, not speculation, must govern the decisions made by the ARU and SANZAAR – even if it means going backwards to go forward again.