Wallabies busted by the benches – not the refs – at Twickenham

Nicholas Bishop Columnist

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    It was the 69th minute at a very wet, dank Twickenham stadium in West London. New Zealand referee Ben O’Keefe and TMO Simon McDowell spent over five minutes deciding that Marika Koroibete’s try near the posts was, in fact, an obstruction by replacement hooker Stephen Moore, and therefore a penalty to England.

    It was probably the most contentious decision of a game in which none of the 50-50 calls went Australia’s way. It was also the tipping point of what had, up to that point, been a very evenly-fought contest.

    There is no doubt that the Wallabies would have fully earned their way back to 13-all with ten minutes to play. Nonetheless, I believe it is highly unlikely that they would have gone on to win even if the try had been awarded.

    While the two starting sides slugged it out punch for punch for the first three quarters with neither giving an inch, the introduction of the two sets of bench replacements tipped the game decisively in England’s favour.

    To say there was a huge imbalance in the relative impact from the pine would be an understatement. The shift from a (potentially) tied game to a 24-point margin of defeat accurately represented that imbalance.

    Stephen Moore’s influence on Koroibete’s try was symbolic of it, but he was by no means the worst offender. The problems began at the beginning of the second half when Ben McCalman had to be introduced earlier than expected in the back-row to provide some ball-carrying grunt and an extra lineout target in place of the ineffective Ned Hanigan.

    As a rough guide, replacements are ideally expected to provide 60-75 per cent of the impact (or number of significant involvements) of a starter in the 20-30 minutes they are on the field. McCalman was introduced early because of the flawed initial selection of Ned Hanigan.

    Ned Hanigan Australia Rugby Union Wallabies 2017

    (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

    That, in turn, diluted his ability to provide impact, particularly in the last ten minutes of the game, and that is the time where the impact of the substitution should be at its most pronounced.

    Although England also had to play their joker early in the game when number seven Sam Underhill was injured in the 16th minute, it actually strengthened their hand immeasurably.

    Given the likely weather conditions, Maro Itoje should have been starting in any case.

    His presence gave England a fourth very big man in their back five (one more than Australia) on a day when play was closer to source than normal. Itoje has never had a problem remaining fully effective for 80 minutes (or more).

    Between the 63rd and 70th minutes, all of the Australian bench replacements entered the fray except for Lopeti Timani, while the English bench was emptied between the 56th and 69th minutes, beginning with two British and Irish Lions in Jamie George – the starting hooker in the recent Test series in New Zealand – and Joe Marler at loosehead.

    This gave England a noticeable boost in the fourth-quarter scrums, which had previously been going well for the Wallabies with their starting trio on the field.

    But nowhere was the contrast in bench impact more brutal than in the comparison at scrum-half.

    Will Genia has been one of Australia’s two outstanding backs this season, and the drop in the level of performance down to Nick Phipps was, as refs now like to say, clear and obvious.

    On the other hand, the entry of Danny Care off the bench for England actually improved their play at the position.

    While Care created two tries directly through the vision and accuracy of his kicking game, Phipps made two crucial errors resulting in their concession.

    Let’s take a look at the second England try scored in the 71st minute.

    The build-up to the try is as interesting as the scoring play itself.

    With Kurtley Beale (out of shot in the close-ups but over on the far side in the panoramic overhead view) defending one half of the backfield, the player responsible for the near side is Phipps.

    A couple of phases earlier he’s just about right, able to cover in behind the defensive line or drop back to cover the kick in behind.

    Fatally, he makes the decision to come up into line outside Reece Hodge in the second frame, and at least three England attackers notice it immediately – Jonathan Joseph and Antony Watson on the near-side and Care looking up behind the base of the ruck.

    Once the kick is made, neither Phipps nor Hodge has much chance of matching Joseph or Watson for speed on the turn, and JJ duly gets there first to score the try.

    England’s third try of the game came from another attacking kick by Care, this time from a scrum in the 78th minute (see reel).

    The key moments of the try can be pinpointed in the following images:

    Australia’s initial defensive set-up gives England the chance to exploit the blind-side. Fullback Beale is right out on the open-side edge of the defence, so Bernard Foley will have to function as an emergency sweeper if a play develops to the narrow side.

    There is no problem with Johnny May (with his extreme pace) using late movement to run around the scrum and become an attacking force there.

    To open up the opportunity further, England needs a strong promotion on their tight-head. Both replacement front rows are on the field, and England’s big tighthead Harry Williams (all 133 kilos of him) has a decisive impact on the fate of the set-piece.

    He bullies Tom Robertson backwards and turns the scrum in to take Ben McCalman and Lopeti Timani further out of the play.

    Although McCalman eventually makes the tackle on May a couple of metres from the Wallaby goal-line after he collects the kick through, who is to say that the drive-and-turn by Williams and those extra ten or fifteen minutes out on the field have not taken some vital starch out of his legs and fractionally, but crucially, reduced his ‘impact’ in cover defence?

    The final footnote to the narrative occurred in time added on, with Phipps throwing a hanging pass off his left hand in front of a packed rush defence.

    May is first to pick it up with Care inevitably on hand to receive the offload and put the icing on the English cake.

    When Phipps throws the ‘dying duck’ there are no less than nine English defenders well set and advancing in the area of the pass, and it floats all the way to probably the fastest man on the field with its premier impact player alongside him.

    Summary
    As long as the starting teams were on the field, Australia was able to play England at least on even terms. Although the rub of the green clearly did not go with the Wallabies, either in terms of refereeing decisions or even the bounce of the ball during that period, the problems off the bench thereafter were largely of their own making.

    After the replacements entered en masse around the 60-70th minute, there was only one winner, and it was not Australia.

    I believe that Ben McCalman should have started the game at number eight with Sean McMahon shifted to six. Instead, it took forty minutes to find out that Ned Hanigan is not equipped to take on the might of four big, physical men in an opposition back five.

    McCalman’s impact off the bench was diluted as a result, even though he still made a hefty contribution to Australia’s ball carrying and second half lineout work.

    The impact of players like Tom Robertson and Nick Phipps tended to have a negative rather than a positive measurement. The Wallaby front row showed obvious signs of deterioration after the starters left the field, and Nick Phipps paled in comparison to his opposite number.

    Australia's Nick Phipps is tackled by Ireland's Jonathan Sexton

    (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

    It remains a mystery why young players like Joe Powell or Jake Gordon have not been granted more game time at the higher level this season, or why Robertson is currently rated above other looseheads like Pek Cowan, Allan Alaalatoa or even the Waratahs’ own Paddy Ryan.

    Scotland at Murrayfield will certainly now become ‘Mission Less Probable’ for the Wallabies than it was, given the home side’s performance against the All Blacks last Saturday and their two previous games against the Wallabies.

    I would like to see Powell given a bench slot at halfback, with Alalaatoa reverting to loosehead back-up and Taniela Tupou as an impact tighthead.

    If Adam Coleman is not fit, I further believe that Matt Philip at four, Ben McCalman at eight (with Lopeti Timani on the bench) and Karmichael Hunt at 15 deserve a chance to start the game.

    The view of Australia’s season as a whole is likely to be permanently coloured by what happens at Murrayfield next weekend, and the Wallabies cannot afford to slide as far and as fast downhill in the final quarter as they did against England, that is for sure.

    Nicholas Bishop
    Nicholas Bishop

    Nick Bishop has worked as a rugby analyst and advisor to Graham Henry (1999-2003), Mike Ruddock (2004-2005) and most recently Stuart Lancaster (2011-2015). He also worked on the 2001 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia and produced his first rugby book with Graham Henry at the end of the tour. Three more rugby books have followed, all of which of have either been nominated for or won national sports book awards. Nick’s latest is a biography of Phil Larder, the first top Rugby League coach to successfully transfer over to Union, entitled “The Iron Curtain”.