Cheik-mated! Wallabies end 2017 with meek surrender

Spiro Zavos Columnist

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    What an upset! The Wallabies were Cheik-mated at Murrayfield by a speedy, clever, athletic and well-coached Scotland side that played with the flair and efficiency of some of the great Australian sides of  past years.

    Scotland, bless them, played as if their players had learnt their rugby in Coogee or Manly. There was the northern hemisphere embellishment of the occasional devastating rolling maul by Scotland to keep the Wallabies honest. But even when this tactic was used, it was intended to set up tries, in the southern hemisphere fashion, rather than penalty kicks at goal.

    The 53–24 lost to Scotland represents the worst overseas defeat of an Australian Test side, outside of New Zealand, since the Springboks gave the Wallabies a 53–8 thrashing in 2008.

    It is also the worst defeat inflicted on the Wallabies by Scotland since the two sides first played a Test against each other in 1908. And to make the victory even more painful for Australian rugby, the eight tries conceded were most the Wallabies have ever given up to Scotland.

    There was an element of end-of-tour fatigue, mental and physical, in the final capitulation, admittedly in the leaden-footed and slow-thinking way the Wallabies played.

    While the Wallabies were fresh they were competitive, without being totally convincing. Scotland scored two tries in the first half, then a further six in the second.

    Before Sekope Kepu was sent off with a red card in the 35th minute, the scoreline was 12–10 to the Wallabies. But it was not a convincing lead. Both the Wallabies’ tries in the first half came within four minutes, in the 34th and 38th minute of play.

    Virtually immediately after the second try by Tevita Kuridrani, the Wallabies conceded a second try to Scotland to go 12–17 behind.

    Immediately after half-time, playing with 14 men, the Wallabies set up a brilliant 20-phase attack that resulted in a try scored by Kurtley Beale. Bernard Foley missed the relatively easy conversion.

    But with the scoreline standing at 17–17 this was the last moment that the Wallabies were in the Test.

    Between the 46th and 61st minutes, the Wallabies conceded three tries and saw the scoreline soar to 39–17. The Test was effectively over.

    Right at the end of match, after forcing a try of their own by Lopeti Timani, the Wallabies then conceded two further tries that created a 53–24 scoreline that will become iconic in the annals of Scottish rugby.

    Wallaby fly-half Bernard Foley lines up a kick at goal

    (Photo by Tim Anger)

    It is difficult to play with only 14 men for 45 minutes in a Test. But it was made more difficult for the Wallabies because of their lack of intensity on attack and defence and a general inability to choose the correct plays at the correct times.

    The surrender of two tries in the last minutes of the Test, along with a similar surrender against England the week earlier, is a trend that suggests a lack of mental strength in this current side, a worrying sign going into 2018.

    What is hard to accept with this scoreline, too, is that it was achieved by Scotland playing the traditional Australian ball-in-hand game in a manner that has only been played occasionally by Wallaby sides as splendidly as Scotland did since the glory days of Stephen Larkham and George Gregan.

    I mention Larkham and Gregan because the Australian game has only flourished when the Wallabies had gifted halves, a line that started in modern times with Ken Catchpole and Phil Hawthorne and then Nick Farr-Jones and Mark Ella.

    The difference between a gifted number ten, particularly, and a goodish number ten was exemplified with the play of Finn Russell, who was brilliant for Scotland, and Bernard Foley, who was at best steady for the Wallabies.

    Russell invariably set up plays or ran himself to create challenges that the dodgy Wallabies defensive system found increasingly difficult to deal with.

    It was noticeable, for instance, how flat Russell played, how he ran at the line with the ball in two hands and how, when the Wallabies were a man down, he exploited the lack of back cover with a couple of deft, tantalising kicks into the open spaces in backfield.

    Why hasn’t Australian rugby produced a number ten like Russell for over a decade?

    One of the great disappointments, so far, of Stephen Larkham’s stint as an assistant coach of the Wallabies has been the lack of development in Foley’s play. Somehow the master has not been able to impart the skills he had in his glory days to the apprentice in his care.

    The blame, presumably, belongs to both men.

    Current Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham

    (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

    The Scottish backline ran terrific lines. They had several plays, with dummy runners, that totally flummoxed the Wallabies defence. These plays looked as if they had come out of the old Randwick playbook in the days of the Galloping Greens.

    The weight and timing of the Scotland passes, with the ball invariably being in front of the catcher, provided a lesson to the Wallabies about how passing correctly is the key to running rugby, and to winning rugby.

    By way of contrast, the Wallabies tended to pass too high, often behind the runner or directly at their body. The result was that even when they tried to mount an attack it degenerated into a stop (waiting for the pass) and then go sort of attack which too often was easily killed off.

    What can we make of all this?

    Michael Cheika was cagey in his analysis, even though he couldn’t resist having a little dig at the rugby media. He told journalists after the Test: “We just need to take that extra little step to maturity and we did a lot of good things this season despite what some of you guys think in particular. I’m really proud of the team. I know it didn’t go well for us today.”

    michael-cheika-australia-rugby-union-wallabies-2016

    (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

    To be fair, the Wallabies did record a victory against the All Blacks. But in the 14 Tests they played this season, they have won only seven. This is not the record of a team that is improving very much at all.

    It is not a record that a team aspiring to win the Rugby World Cup in 2019 should present.

    To my mind, the generally lacklustre season produced by the Wallabies raises a lot of questions about the coaching and selecting of the side. And this, in turn, raises the further question whether Australian rugby is making the best use of the rugby intelligence and creativity that this country produces.

    The fact of the matter is that the best rugby brains produced within Australia are not involved in Australian rugby.

    One of the interesting aspects of Scotland’s famous victory is the part played in it by Australians, with some help from a couple of New Zealanders.

    The main New Zealander is Vern Cotter, the craggy, taskmaster coach who pulled Scotland from virtual extinction as a rugby power before handing over to Gregor Townsend to add the polish to a team that was no longer one of the easybeats of world rugby.

    A second New Zealander, Dave Rennie, the successful coach of the Chiefs recently, has been coaching Glasgow. A lot of the attitude of instilled in the rampant Glasgow team by Rennie has flowed into this Scotland side.

    Gregor Townsend himself, like Clive Woodward before him, spent some time in grade rugby in Sydney.

    A fine running number ten himself, Townsend has embraced the traditional Sydney style of running rugby that was invented by Arthur Cooper ‘Johnnie’ Wallace, a Waratah in the 1920s, who, in the words of Jack Pollard, “was an incomparable tactician who had a marked influence on running rugby in Scotland and Australia.”

    Wallace played Tests for Scotland and Australia in the 1920s, a period when both sides played terrific running rugby. With Australia/New South Wales (the Queensland rugby union did not exist at the time) in 1921, Wallace was the running number ten who sparked a wonderful 17–0 victory at Christchurch.

    It is ironic that it is a Scottish coach, Gregor Townsend, who has embraced the Wallace/Waratahs style of ensemble rugby.

    Townsend was helped in the coaching box on Saturday night by an assistant coach, Matt Taylor, who was the defence coach for the Reds when they won their Super Rugby title.

    The director of rugby in Scotland is Scott Johnson, a long-time Sydney player with a penchant for innovative thinking about rugby. Johnson had a period of time coaching with the Wallabies under John Connolly. But more recently he has been the brains behind getting the personnel in the coaching box and on the field to make Scotland a rugby power again, after a couple of decades of stagnation.

    Now here is a task for Ben Whitaker, the High Performance manager for Rugby Australia. Why has Scotland progressed more in the last two years than the Wallabies?

    If I were asked this question I would look closely at two aspects of Michael Cheika’s coaching and managing style that seemingly prevent him from assembling the best Australian team, on and off the field.

    Aspect one: Cheika is far too easy on his players.

    The attitude that “we just need to take that little step of maturity” is nonsense in the context of a thrashing from Scotland.

    Sekope Kepu

    (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

    Sekope Kepu is one of the most experienced Wallabies in the squad. He is also immune, apparently, from mature play. His senseless shoulder charge on the Scottish flanker Hamish Watson deserved a red card.

    You could read what Kepu was trying to do. Watson was making a nuisance of himself at the breakdown and Kepu tried to smash him. When I saw the reckless way Kepu went into his charge I was reminded of how he put on several head-high charges on Dan Carter in the 2015 Rugby World Cup final.

    Remarkably, Cheika defended Kepu. “He’s got no intent to take the player in the head,” Cheika told disbelieving journalists after the match. “The player when you watch him, his back legs slips underneath him, so he gets lower … lower than where Kepu is aiming …”

    Tom Decent, the Sydney Morning Herald’s journalist at the Test, reported on this nonsense: “Although Cheika tried to claim Watson fell before contact was made, replays suggested otherwise.”

    Kepu, 31, is never going to get out of his habit of smashing in the head of opponents if Cheika continues to defend this indefensible way of playing.

    This inability to be tough on his players when tough love is required is matched by Cheika’s tendency to rely too heavily on mates to help him in the coaching of the Wallabies.

    A case in point was the appointment of “one of his best mates,” Patrick Molihan as the Wallabies manager.

    Molihan is the chap who sits beside Cheika in the coaches box. In the past, but not against Scotland, Molihan is the person who has exhibited the same contorted body language as Cheika when refereeing decisions have gone against the Wallabies.

    But why is Molihan in the coaches box in the first place? Why are Stephen Larkham and the other coaches sitting in front of the box and not beside Cheika?

    Why doesn’t Cheika sit with his coaches rather than Molihan, as Steve Hansen does with his coaches?

    Cheika needs an independent voice in the Wallabies coaching set up to balance his tendency to rely too heavily on mates. This independent voice should be the appointment of a selector rather like Grant Fox for the All Blacks.

    The selector I would nominate is Mark Ella.

    Right now, without someone like Ella to provide fearless advice, Cheika is not being challenged enough on his selections and the way the Wallabies are playing.

    And these two factors, as the thrashing that Scotland handed out to the Wallabies indicates, are creating a scenario where the Wallabies will move down the ranking ladder next year while Scotland and Ireland (with David Nucifora as their High Performance manager) more into the top tier rankings.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    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.