The Wrap: Lions, Tigers and tape herald the Wallabies’ coming of age

Geoff Parkes Columnist

By , Geoff Parkes is a Roar Expert

 , , ,

173 Have your say

Popular article! 8,176 reads

    The Wallabies’ inspiring 23-18 win over the All Blacks doesn’t all of a sudden mean that Michael Cheika is the coaching genius Steve Hansen isn’t, but it is certainly a validation of Cheika’s methods, as it is a reward for more consistency in selection during 2017.

    It also puts a tangible stamp on the steady improvement in performance that has been evident since half-time of the first Bledisloe Cup match in Sydney.

    Cheika is, by any measure, his own man, but it seems evident that he has identified and harnessed key winning attributes from other sides, applied them to his own situation, and empowered his players to do the rest.

    The All Blacks have now lost twice this year and drawn once. Last year they fell in Chicago against Ireland – all in similar circumstances. On each occasion, their much-vaunted attacking game has been denied them, and the opposition has reaped the reward.

    While some point to a combination of circumstances (slippery conditions, send-offs, tough refereeing calls, unusual build-ups) the underlying factor is that, on these occasions, Ireland, the Lions, and now the Wallabies were successful in having the game played on their terms, not the All Blacks’.

    They did this mostly through the application of consistent defensive pressure that contained two distinct characteristics:

    • Pressure and intensity that didn’t peter out after 20 or 30 minutes of bluster, but was maintained throughout the whole match, and
    • The application of not just perceived pressure, where players rushed up into the All Blacks’ faces, but actual pressure, created by the ball carrier being effectively tackled

    Any rugby fan who watched this year’s AFL grand final, even with only a rudimentary knowledge of the game, should have been able to identify how the Richmond Tigers consistently applied defensive pressure in all areas of the field, denying the talented Adelaide players time and space to get their powerful attacking game rolling.

    The overriding feeling at the end of that match from Crows players and fans was not just the crushing disappointment that comes with losing a grand final, but the frustration that they had actually been denied an opportunity to show off their skills and play in the manner in which they would have expected to have been able to do.

    On the surface, Reece Hodge’s early intercept try seemed a copy of Israel Folau’s in Dunedin, but in fact, this was something else entirely. In Dunedin, Damien McKenzie was making play, sniffing a try. Here, using pace and determination to execute a clear defensive strategy, Will Genia converted a prime attacking opportunity for the All Blacks – stable scrum ball on the 22 with room to go either side – into a liability by harassing Lima Sopoaga into offering up a lame pop onto Hodge’s chest.

    Sopoaga seemed half a yard off the pace of the game all night. Not because he is a laggard, but because the Wallabies were determined to take advantage of Beauden Barrett’s absence and not allow Sopoaga any time on the front foot.

    So often do running All Blacks ride through or slip off the first tackle – their catalyst for waves of support players to join the attack – they find it very difficult to adjust mid-match when those first-up tackles are made. Accordingly, the creation of momentum from rushing into a half-gap is replaced by a static re-formation behind the advantage line, which then feeds into pushing 50/50 passes and low-margin grubber kicks.

    This is what the Lions achieved in June and what the Wallabies did on Saturday night.

    Even when the All Blacks did have success – Sonny-Bill Williams squeezing out an offload with a defender spider-webbed all over him, for Keiran Read to send Rieko Ioane away – it was so hard-earned and so ugly, that it never felt like it could easily happen again.

    In total, the Wallabies missed 11 tackles. On another night maybe just another meaningless statistic, but on this night, it was an exemplary measure of not only the effectiveness of Cheika’s strategy, but also much-improved execution.

    Michael Cheika Wallabies

    (Photo by Jason O’Brien/Getty Images)

    As is often the case in these late-season Brisbane Tests, this was not a pretty match. But during the second half, the ugliness actually took on a form of beauty, as player after player – from both sides – rose to new heights of physical endeavor, reaching deep down inside some dark place dark to find enough extra energy to hammer a player in the tackle or at cleanout.

    A wander back through the last 17 years of New Zealand’s Bledisloe dominance shows numerous examples of the All Black forward pack upping the physical ante in the third quarter, opening a path for a comfortable victory in the fourth.

    This time the Wallabies pack stayed with the Blacks. And their delight in doing so was palpably obvious.

    To call it dominance would be overreach but no matter, despite being challenged physically, Wallabies like Lukhan Tui increasingly took the hits on the front foot without coughing up possession, so that the Australian possession advantage – normally something the All Blacks don’t fret about too much – became significant.

    One factor responsible for this has its roots in images of Wallabies players earlier this season being forced to train with tape over their mouths – one of a few strategies employed by Cheika to improve the fitness level of his players.

    For too long Wallabies fans have been apologists for players like Tolu Latu and Andrew Ready not being offered opportunities at the highest level because of state biases or selector incompetence. But Test rugby as it was played in the second half of this match, and in the recent All Blacks versus South Africa match in Cape Town, is a place where men make extreme sacrifices.

    That Cheika was prepared to move on players not willing or able to commit to reaching that level, and is now able to reap the benefits of a squad noticeably operating on a higher fitness plane than Wallabies sides of recent years, is full credit to him.

    On attack, both Genia and Folau continued their strong form, Folau easily finishing one try himself in traffic before expertly keeping Waisake Naholo at bay for long enough to prevent McKenzie shutting down Marika Koroibete’s space in the corner.

    Moreso, this was the type of ‘knock ‘em down, do it again’ type of game just made for Sean McMahon, who emerged as the dominant player in the match. His 73rd minute re-gather of a loose line-out throw, on a tank that must have been well beyond empty, was both breathtaking and brilliant.

    With all the money the ARU has spent on legal fees recently, let’s hope they know a good lawyer who is fluent in Japanese.

    Australia's Sean McMahon

    (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

    Referee Wayne Barnes typically contributed his best and worst to the contest. On the plus side, he was accurate and firmly asserted control on a contest that, had it been left to a few nob-headed players, would have boiled over into something nasty.

    But his late call of obstruction against Ofa Tu’ungafasi was classic Barnes. It was a poor call – not just because there are a hundred other instances of incidental contact in any match that aren’t penalised – but because a raw, guttural contest where two opponents are slugging it out toe to toe simply doesn’t need the additional flourish of an attention-seeking referee desperate not to be left out of the band.

    That said, without it, we would have been robbed of Hodge’s remarkable 54m thump!

    The New Zealand view was predictably one of Steve Hansen being prepared – mid-cycle between World Cups – to have his young players learn more from defeat than victory. But there will also be a nagging concern that too many such lessons might start to tug at their self-belief. In that respect, their end of year tour shapes as a very important mission.

    It isn’t all upside for Australia either. The squad is denied the reward of basking in the glow of victory, reflecting on their achievement before slowly ramping up the intensity level again for their tour, because of an appallingly scheduled Barbarians match next Saturday in Sydney.

    It is revealing that, with just a single victory against the All Blacks, the fickle Australian media yesterday restored the Wallabies to lead story on the ABC sports news (including Melbourne), and to high-ranking slots on various general news websites. Everyone it seems loves a winner.

    In that respect, there is a view that any publicity for Australian rugby is good publicity. And lord knows, every extra dollar or two through the gate is welcome.

    But the players surely don’t need the run (the Wallabies side announced yesterday contains only two starting players and fringe squad players can play NRC), and for anyone who isn’t a rusted-on rugby fan, a match against a scratch side with a celebrity coach lacks any meaningful context.

    And if it isn’t the ‘real’ Wallabies who run out on Saturday, then why call them the Wallabies? And why diminish the NRC in the process?

    In horse racing terms, the Wallabies have already been ‘up’ for a long preparation, through intense pre-training, the June internationals, the Rugby Championship and this extra Bledisloe match. They face Test matches on successive weekends against Japan, Wales, England and Scotland.

    Now is the time for both players and coach to enjoy a couple of days off to ‘freshen up’ before a final tilt at spring riches.

    What this excellent win in Brisbane has done is allow the Wallabies to raise the performance bar another couple of notches – this being the notional level below which this side won’t regress. Another way of saying that the performance level shown against Italy in June, for example, is now unacceptable for a team of this standing.

    Given the punishing fixture, however, it will be perfectly understandable if linear progress is not maintained and there is a ‘shocker’ lurking somewhere in the final month.

    The ARU must be delighted that – all of a sudden – the Australian rugby brand is once again being viewed in a positive light.

    But if it is player exhaustion, or more withdrawals like that of Israel Folau, that ultimately costs the Wallabies a victory at Cardiff, Twickenham or Murrayfield, then the ARU must seriously question their own role in enhancing that brand.

    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.

    The Ashes are here! After all the build-up, follow all the first Test action between Australia and England with our Ashes live scores and blog.