The Wrap: The Wallabies and the ARU ‘get out of Dodge’

Geoff Parkes Columnist

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    Popularised by the old radio and television western Gunsmoke, the phrase ‘get the hell out of Dodge’ was commonly used by feisty locals as they ran unwanted villains out of Dodge City, Kansas.

    While it would be unfair to describe the Wallabies as unwanted, there was still a groundswell of Perth rugby fans prepared to lump them in with the ARU as a target for their anger at the Western Force being ‘discontinued’ from Super Rugby and who either didn’t attend the Test match against South Africa or who did so under sufferance.

    What shaped as the ARU’s worst nightmare – a Perth Test match coming after months of bitter wrangling and recriminations and in the week of a court ruling supporting their decision to exclude the Force – in the end turned out to be more like a visit to the dentist, where the anticipation was the most uncomfortable part and the experience, while undeniably far from perfect, wasn’t actually as bad as it could have been.

    A crowd of 17,000 won’t do anything to right the ARU’s teetering balance sheet but, in the circumstances, it will feel like a win – as will the demeanour of those who attended wearing blue instead of gold, whose protest was made firmly but respectfully.

    In fact, if Saturday night represented a potential low point in the war between WA rugby and the ARU, then it would seem that the path to recovery has already been started down.

    Indications are that whatever competition Andrew Forrest is working to construct will be done with the blessing of the ARU, as indeed it must. Any ‘rebel’ competition where players would be ruled ineligible for Australian representation is doomed to failure.

    In that respect, anything that brings Forrest and the ARU to the same table improves the likelihood that a final solution can be engineered that will not only satisfy the commitment Forrest has made to WA rugby but will also be to the betterment of all Australian rugby.

    If that happens – and there are some important obstacles to overcome yet before it does, such as the state of the relationship between Forrest and ARU chairman Cameron Clyne – then who knows, this whole mess may even have been worth all of the pain.

    (Image: AAP Image/Justin Chadwick)

    Meanwhile, the fans who did attend were treated to a match that, while it lacked a deal of quality, was highly competitive throughout and provided an extremely tense final few minutes.

    On one hand, Australia failing to close the game out after gaining a ten-point lead will be viewed as another missed opportunity, but on the other, taking into account the set-piece dominance which the Springboks enjoyed, the Wallabies should be happy to escape – in other words, ‘get out of Dodge’ – with a draw.

    Coach Michael Cheika spoke post-match about his side not yet having the required ‘killer instinct’ to win a tight match from in front, but a more sober analysis will align him more closely with Michael Hooper’s view that more work on scrum and line-out, as well as mental strength, must be the priority.

    Oh, and throw in a rethink of the policy to leave the breakdown undermanned, which stymied any attempt to establish an attacking rhythm of quickly recycled ball and made for a very uncomfortable night for halfback Will Genia.

    As evidenced in recent matches against Italy and New Zealand, the Wallabies’ scrum was at best barely functional, conceding points at vital times and coming nowhere near to being a consistently strong enough platform from which to leverage attacking play.

    Similarly, there was no point in Hooper pointing to the corners to chase tries instead of penalty goals if the Wallabies’ lineout did not have sufficient reliable options to counter the Springbok jumping threat everyone knew was coming. That pressure got pushed back onto the thrower and, even in an era when referees tend to be lenient on what constitutes a straight throw, it was very disappointing to have both hookers blown for crooked feeds.

    At least new hooker Jordan Uelese showed enough in other aspects to warrant further opportunities, impressing with the physicality of his contact play with and without the ball in the manner that, say, Ned Hanigan continued to disappoint.

    On the balance of play this match was there for the Springboks – finishing far the stronger – to win, so for the Wallabies to defend the final few minutes without resorting to illegal play was a credit to the team and to Hooper’s leadership.

    On that count alone, they were worthy of a draw against a side that, beforehand, some were talking up as a renewed force in world rugby.

    In truth, the much-vaunted new-style Springbok attacking game never got off the ground, largely due to a first half where ill-discipline fed into too many penalties and an overly conservative game plan. On the plus side, a well thought-out backline defence provided the Wallabies backs with the perception of space, all the while herding runners towards the safety of the sideline.

    It wasn’t until the 50th minute, when Adam Coleman caught the Kolisi virus, that the Boks’ game lifted up a few cogs – a smashing hit by the big flanker sparking the visitors into action.

    Chances were created (Jan Serfontein was dangerous with the ball all night), but also squandered (Serfontein again), and while the final stanza favoured South Africa, they never quite did enough to justifiably claim victory.

    (Image: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

    It was business as usual in New Plymouth with another greasy New Zealand winter pitch and the All Blacks enduring a customary 60-minute arm-wrestle with Argentina before pulling clear to win 39-22.

    With the All Blacks scoring three tries to nil in the first 40 minutes, there was a sense of disbelief that the Pumas went into half-time ahead 16-15 after a 41st-minute lineout snafu gifted a try to Nicolas Sanchez.

    Proving that tries are not the only measure, the Pumas were rewarded for a superior kicking game by foot and off the tee and for good continuity with the ball.

    The All Blacks’ timing issues in attack continued, and while Sonny-Bill Williams tried hard to recover lost ground, he again failed to assert himself in midfield as well as he would have liked.

    It was another Beauden Barrett sin-bin and a seven-point deficit that proved to be the catalyst – not for the Pumas, who seemed to telegraph their tactics and bottle it when the game was theirs for the taking, but for the All Blacks, who noticeably went up a gear and completely dominated the match in the final half hour.

    The impetus came from two players: Vaea Fifita (benefitting from Dane Coles working hard to charge down a Tomas Cubelli kick), whose 40-metre run and finish was a truly special rugby moment.

    The other important player was replacement fly-half Lima Sopoaga, who immediately rectified the All Blacks’ goal-kicking woes and showed a poise and control in his game that no other Test fly-half over the weekend came near matching.

    Given his past success against South Africa, coach Steve Hansen must now be thinking long and hard about starting Sopoaga this week and shifting Barrett back to fullback.

    For the Pumajaguares, skipper Agustin Creevy enjoyed his customary strong match, sending Israel Dagg for an untimely early shower, while young centre Emiliano Boffeli unloaded with a couple of monster penalty goals that left the crowd gasping in admiration.

    What has become clear, however, is that, after what is now 25 Test matches between the countries, this Argentinian side does not have the mentality and self-belief to beat the All Blacks, such as what Ireland showed in Chicago last year, when they broke through for their maiden victory.

    Beauden Barrett All Blacks New Zealand Rugby Union Test Championship 2016

    (AAP Image/SNPA, Ross Setford)

    Earlier in the afternoon, it was another number ten who provided all the excitement in Melbourne – the ridiculously talented Paceli Nacebe sparking the Fijian Drua’s historic first win in the NRC, 45-24 over the Melbourne Rising.

    Nacebe, who scored two tries from fullback in Round 1 against Brisbane City, relished the move to playmaker and – even on his own – is enough to justify the inclusion of the Fijians in this year’s competition.

    It wasn’t all thrills and spills, however. For a side that has been together only a short time, the Drua impressed at set pieces and with their patience on the ball, not afraid to play up the middle through their big forwards.

    Rising were dominated physically, although with a number of young local players taking the field, look for them to improve as the competition proceeds and as they acclimatise to rugby played at a higher level – which, after all, is a large part of what the NRC is all about.

    Although there is the matter of a Senate inquiry to work through – which will almost certainly achieve nothing other than meet the political objectives of well-meaning but ultimately self-serving WA politicians – it is to be hoped that the ARU now gains enough clear air to work on connecting local fans with the NRC.

    The standard of the rugby and the enthusiasm of the players and coaches deserves far more focus, although it is fair to say that on the evidence of the opening three seasons, even without the challenges faced now in Western Australia, there is little to suggest that the ARU has either the know-how, financial resources, marketing savvy or the political capital to properly connect this worthy competition to rugby people.

    In that sense, there isn’t much point in escaping from Dodge with a good horse and a shirt on your back if you don’t find a way to take advantage of your good fortune.

    Geoff Parkes
    Geoff Parkes

    Geoff is a Melbourne-based sports fanatic and writer who started contributing to The Roar in 2012 under the pen name Allanthus. His first book, A World in Union Conflict; The Global Battle For Rugby Supremacy is due for release in November. Meanwhile, his twin goals of achieving a single figure golf handicap and owning a fast racehorse remain tantalisingly out of reach.

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