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Australian Adam Ashleigh Cooper (centre) is tackled by New Zealand\'s Jimmy Cowan (right) and Ali Williams (left) during the Tri Nations final between the Australian Wallabies and New Zealand All Blacks at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008. The All Blacks beat the Wallabies 28-24. AAP Image/Dave Hunt
The final of the 2008 Tri-Nations tournament – won by the All Blacks 28-24 over the Wallabies – was “a marvellous match packed with variety, intensity and no little tension”.

The praise is lifted from the opening sentence of the UK Sunday Telegraph’s rugby expert, the former England second-rower and no friend of the experimental law variations, Paul Ackford. I couldn’t have put the description better, what with the excitement, the high drama, the vivid passages of play, the passion of the players and the crowds (with the ground resounding time after time to great cries of Wallabies! Wallabies! and All Blacks! All Blacks!) and the nail-biting finish.

Compare this great Test, a match that was a do-or-die game for both teams, with the rotting cold fish of the 2007 Rugby World Cup final in Paris less than a year ago. The RWC was a safety-first yawnathon played in slow motion compared with the titanic and exhilirating Brisbane Test.

What made Saturday night’s Test so wonderful was that every ruck and maul was sternly contested, especially by the All Blacks, which meant that there were many turnovers and counter-attacks and scrambling defences.

In Paris, the players could have played another 80 minutes more but at Brisbane all the players and the officials were stuffed at the end. Stirling Mortlock was puffing like a bishop forced to chase a bus at the end and could hardly blurt out the usual after-Test cliches that the television broadcasters love so dearly.

And this brings us to two points that were highlighted in the Test. There were, apparently, 25 short-arm penalties awarded. This meant that play was on whenever a tap-and-run was on, as happened when the All Blacks scored their first try. There was far less time-wasting penalty kicks at goal (the All Blacks did not have one penalty kick) than you see under the current laws.

The referee, too, was able to make decisions with the ELVs about slowing the ball down and so on, and if he made a mistake, as he did occasionally, the punishment was not as harsh for the aggrieved side as it might have been.

We saw the unfairness of the long-arm penalty sanction when Richie McCaw was penalised incorrectly for offside when he correctly came from behind his ruck and picked up a ball that was laying loose.

Of course, Phil Kearns, whom I’m convinced does not know or understand the laws at rucks and scrums, yelled out that is was about time etc. But when the play was shown in slow-motion, there was a noticeable silence from the panel of commentators.

The second point about the ELVs is that, in the words of a shrewd rugby thinker Hugh Dillon, they allow for a “running of the bulls”. The big players get tired with all the running around, especially the muscle-bound forwards but not exclusively because big backs get exposed too, and faster players come into their own.

This brings us to the master stroke of the All Blacks coach Graham Henry to take off Ma’a Nonu, who seemed to have a sore knee anyway, and bring on Stephen Donald and move Dan Carter out to second five-eights (in the NZ vernacular and rugby theory).

The shift of the smaller Carter to line up against the huge Stirling Mortlock looked counter-intuitive. But Carter’s quick and slick side-step and acceleration led to the crucial try as he got past Ryan Cross and Mortlock to score what turned out to be the winning try.

When he first came into rugby from rugby league I didn’t think much of Cross’ play, to be honest. But he has played very strongly in the Tests, and had a particularly strong game in Brisbane.

He did miss two crucial tackles that led to NZ tries (what is it about these Rugby league defenders?). But when Berrick Barnes comes back, Robbie Deans is going to have to make a tough decision about the long-term future of his captain.

The Wallabies had something like five and a half minutes inside the All Blacks 22: the All Blacks had a little over two minutes inside the Wallabies 22. It seems to me that if Barnes had been on the field, the Wallabies, with two traffic controllers, would have made more of their territorial and possession (60 per cent) dominance.

With Cross playing so strongly, a future backline, perhaps late next year, might have as its core Luke Burgess, Matt Giteau, Berrick Barnes and Ryan Cross.

How do we rate Robbie Deans’ first home season as Wallaby coach?

My guess is that he would give himself about a 55 out of 100 pass mark.

The Wallabies won all but one of their home Tests. They defeated the Springboks twice, with one of the victories being a rare away win. They defeated the All Blacks in Sydney with a splendid performance and lost a home and away Test to the old foe. And they were thrashed twice, by the All Blacks in Auckland and the Springboks in Johannesburg.

The defence is not up to the standard of the Macqueen era, particularly. But Deans is slowly putting in place a new team that has a lot of promise.

Benn Robinson is helping the scrum stability. James Horwill (a future captain, perhaps) is becoming a dominant second-rower. Peter Hynes has established himself as the No.1 winger.The faith in Adam Ashley-Cooper was vindicated with his terrific try right on half-time. Ryan Cross seems to be a genuine Test player. Richard Brown, I thought, added a lot to the Wallabies forward mobility when he made his Test debut.

A work in progress, in other words, with the emphasis very much on the progress that should be made on the European tour at the end of this year.

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.

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The Crowd Says (54)

  • September 15th 2008 @ 3:38am
    Benjamin said | September 15th 2008 @ 3:38am | ! Report

    I would have thought that an experienced journalist such as yourself would know better than to compare a round-robin competition with a knock-out competition. All knock-out tournaments elicit conservative, tight responses – in every sport. That does not however make them any less tense, exciting or worthwhile events – I think that is what Ackford is referring to also. He didn’t say the game was a marvel of skill, wonder and excitment. All knock-out games are both tense and intense, and that is how Ackford described the game.

    It’s sweet that you think one enjoyable game, as opposed to a very average tournament, justifies wide-spread change. I imagine it’s not a coincidence that you choose to ignore the multiple negative points about the new laws.

  • September 15th 2008 @ 4:00am
    Colin N said | September 15th 2008 @ 4:00am | ! Report

    I don’t get why everyone keeps comparing one match with another. I think you’ve got to look at every game on the their merits. Under the old laws there were some good games and some bad games and the same goes for the ELV’s, some good, some bad. But from what I’ve seen, in my opinion the ELV’s haven’t done anything to justify their permanent inclusion in the game. As with the old laws,if the game is refereed well then more often than not it will be a good game. If it’s refereed badly, take Friday night for example, Sale v Saracens (terrible referee) then it’s probably going to be a poor game. But if the aim was to make it easier for referees then the ELV’s haven’t done that.

  • September 15th 2008 @ 7:09am
    bob said | September 15th 2008 @ 7:09am | ! Report

    I don’t want to pi55 on the parade… but it wasn’t a great game of rugby… the scrums were a shambles, the lineouts okay-ish, the passing poor by the standard of the players and the tactics were non existant. It was a nail biter because it was a winner takes all game, and those two teams in a winner takes all battle would have made any game any sport, under any laws, exciting… but as a rugby match it was no classic. The AB’s spent too much time on the wrong side, going straight off their feet, and spoiling the wallabies ball… there were no mauls to speak of, and neither team built tension through pressure tactics, they just kicked and hit.
    There seems to be a pc shield around the AB’s that says they can do no wrong, but as a rugby man, I can point to many, many more games of rugby that were better.
    That’s not to say those two teams are not amongst the top in the world, but lets stop with the bull, and tell it as it is… if that’s rugby union under the ELV’s prefered by the SH unions, the world game will indeed split, because I know, and those players know that they can do better and build more tension if the tap and go option is removed, ala the NH and soon to be global trial. And you can jump on Ackfords approval as if it justifies anything, because he wasn’t saying anything that wasn’t obvious… the AB’s and Wallabies can play, even if you give them half baked laws to play to… but there was no clever rugby, no intelligent display of tactics to undo the opposition… it has become in the SH a simple battle athleticism, a kick chase and hit game. And sorry, but if Kaplin is the best the SH can do for refs, you need to worry…. just what does McCaw have to do to get carded?

  • September 15th 2008 @ 8:04am
    ulysses said | September 15th 2008 @ 8:04am | ! Report

    Benjamin – Spiro was not comparing the tournaments but the final matches – the final. two sides, 1 game, 1 winner of the tournament, 1 side finishing second. Seems pretty comparable to me.

    Colin – you make the absolute key point. “the old laws work if the game is refereed well” and then mention a game where it wasn’t. Precisely. Reality is games are often not refereed well – we all know that – some refs just aren’t good, players cheat as much as they can, the laws are complex, multiple decisions and things to check to be made in split seconds concerning half a dozen players, etc etc. So the key point is acknowledging poor refereeing of a complex game is reality, lets lessen the chances of games being decided by poor refereering penalty decisions and a kick at goal. And so reducing the sanction to a short arm for most of the complex at-breakdown breaches makes sense to me. Now I am fully aware that some say that makes the ELV’s a “cheats charter” because the full penalty sanction deters illegal behaviour. Fine in theory but it doesn’t happen does it? No-one can seriously argue players followed the laws more under the pre-ELVs! They have the death penalty in the USA but a higher murder rate… Deterence is seriously over-rated.

    Again – it isn’t all tap and go. A team is fully able to take a scrum instead. So they can slow the game down, exert scrum dominance, clear the field of defenders, get 5m more attacking space, and build pressure. Some ELV games by some teams have been very much like this. In this game, both team chose different tactics electing to tap and go more frequently. But again, the ELV’s do not require that.

    Bob – what does “lineouts OK-ish” mean? The Wallabies won one against the throw, the AB’s none. And that was despite competitive jumping almost every time. So that means there was extremely precise throwing and jumping, and clever tactical calling. What do you want…? If there had been lots of turnovers seems to me you would be criticising them as a shambles….no?

    Bob – you say “no clever rugby, no intelligent display of tactics to undo the opposition”. What game were you watching? Try Giteau’s repeated use of the very flat cross kick pass to his winger to get a 1 on 1 competition in space. Created a try and almost worked other times. Takes incredible skill under pressure because it can go badly wrong. And that was tactic being used to counteract the AB tactic of a very compressed defensive line to counteract the threat of Mortlock’s running at 12. Try also the AB’s exploitation of the recent Wallaby defensive laps in numbering up out wide. They saw that from Jo’burg, and themselves managed to get the quick ball centre field going forward and find an overlap usually on the left wing side – result two tries. Don’t be blinded by the pace and athleticism, there is plenty going on out there in terms of tactics. WHich is why the ABs and Wallabies will win all, or almost all, of their tests in November! 🙂

    Bob – OK I’ll bite. Please name one of the many many games of better rugby than that – internationals in last 10 years.

    Last point – we agree with you about Kaplan. especially if you are a Tahs supporter! He is not ranked by even the IRB as anywhere near the best SH referee.

  • September 15th 2008 @ 8:24am
    Benjamin said | September 15th 2008 @ 8:24am | ! Report

    Ulysses, not a particularly apt comparison because the WC is an 8 week tournament that occurs every four years which necessitates a specific style of play to win and despite ‘the winner takes all’ facade the 3N is a yearly tournament and there is still a game to play for the Bledisloe (even though Australia have already lost it) – not life and death because everybody gets a crack next year. Doesn’t stack up.

    Nobody is saying the game wasn’t a good game but I can also think of many better games than that…
    New Zealand 31-43 France 1999 WC
    Italy 34-20 Scotland 2000 6N
    France 25-27 Ireland 2000 6N
    Australia 13-29 GB Lions 1st test 2001 LT
    Ireland 6-42 England 2003 6N
    Australia 22-10 New Zealand 2003 WC
    South Africa 40–26 New Zealand 2004 3N
    SA 26-45 NZ 2006 3N

    that’s just off the top of my head without even considering some of the excellent pre and post-season tours from all countries like France winning in SA, England winning in SA and Australia, NZ nearly winning in England with the 2nd/3rd team. I suppose you would have to accurately define what makes a good test.

    Just for arguments sake, NZ will win all of their autumn tests but I wouldn’t be so optimistic about Australia until a prominent tight five pitches up.

  • September 15th 2008 @ 9:11am
    Cutter said | September 15th 2008 @ 9:11am | ! Report

    Benjamin said: Just for arguments sake, NZ will win all of their autumn tests but I wouldn’t be so optimistic about Australia until a prominent tight five pitches up.

    The Australian tight five has improved this tournament. Even without Vickerman, we looked ok against the ABs. I hope it can continue and, if it does, I expect us to win all our games on tour with the possible exception of the Hong Kong Bledisloe which will be too close to call.

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