What happened? Even as hard-bitten a critic as Knives Out found reason to wager some of his hard-earned on Australia winning the 2009 Tri-Nations. Yet here we are, with three losses out of three, and having to swallow an unpalatable Bledisloe Cup loss in Sydney.
Make no mistake, this was a very bad loss.
Yes, New Zealand were the better team on the night, but Australia had so much in its favour that it should have been able to prevail.
To wit …
Firstly, the match was at Sydney’s Olympic Stadium, the closest thing that the Wallabies have to a fortress, having been the scene of 6 wins from 9 previous encounters over the All Blacks.
Secondly, this is not a great New Zealand side.
Yes, they were vastly improved by the return of the one and only DC, but that does not change that they have been a team in disarray for most of this season.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the referee, Jonathan Kaplan, usually the foe of Australian teams, suddenly became a 16th Wallaby player, and probably the best one on the field.
Right from the kickoff, when Kaplan might easily have sinbinned Rocky Elsom for taking out Richie McCaw in the air (have a look at the replay and tell me that you honestly think Elsom was going for the ball), the whistleblower consistently looked favourably on Australia’s fortunes.
Despite all these advantages, the Wallabies still lost.
The reason is easily stated but hard to fix: many of the players are simply not good enough, and there are no alternatives who are any better.
To appreciate this, it is vital to understand that rugby, as it is currently played and refereed, is primarily a sport about constancy of execution of skills under pressure.
Some sports are different to this, for example Dani Samuels and Steve Hooker only had to produce one moment of excellence to become world champions last weekend (incidentally, this exemplifies my theory that no matter how bad it seems, there is always something very positive being achieved in Australian sport).
But as Dan Carter illustrates par excellence, rugby is about individuals getting it right over and over again, as opposed to doing something brilliant one moment and then something awful the next.
One might call this the Shane Warne principle: his best balls were no better than Stuart MacGill’s best balls, but what made Warne a much better bowler is that he got it right over and over again, bowling barely any trash at all, whereas the good SCG would invariably bowl one or two four-balls per over.
As Warne wrote during the recent Ashes series, a bowler’s success is based on his stock deliveries.
I do not wish to make Drew Mitchell a scapegoat for last Saturday night, but let me use him to illustrate the above in a rugby context.
There is no doubt that Mitchell has some outstanding qualities: his pace, his swerve, his uncanny nose for the tryline. Often he is brilliant. But he also makes regular mistakes in his execution of skills.
Let’s look at the 77th minute last Saturday night. With Australia leading 18-16, Mitchell found himself fielding a New Zealand kick 40 m out from his own tryline.
He surveyed his options, and decided to kick back. The result? Despite not being under any great pressure, he overcooked the kick, the ball went dead, and so New Zealand received a scrum feed in good field position.
Had Mitchell unfurled a better kick, we’d probably be rejoicing in an Australian victory.
But wait, there’s more. From the ensuing New Zealand scrum, Dan Carter produced a perfectly weighted kick (cf. Mitchell’s). Mitchell found himself having to field it right in the corner.
Now under a lot of pressure, he had to make a split-second decision about whether or not to put the ball out immediately but in poor field position.
He decided on the riskier option of trying to improve his position so that the could kick the ball out further downfield. The venture failed: Australia was tackled with the ball, a penalty was conceded, and the match lost.
Incidentally, all the Tuqiri bashers might care to ponder whether Lote would have failed as Mitchell did in both these instances.
Yes, Tuqiri had a lot of limitations, but one of his great strengths was that no matter how much pressure he was under, he could take a tackle and recycle possession. This enabled him to have a very low error rate, even though he was limited in his skills.
Australia has players like Mitchell in many positions on the park, and in the end the errors add up, outweighing the moments of excellence.
Luke Burgess is one of the most obvious and most criticized of these players.
Perhaps I have become so inured to his poor passing that I do not notice it any more, but I actually thought he had one of his better games of the season on Saturday night.
Nevertheless Matt Giteau’s ongoing struggles – I’ll be honest, I have been a champion of his cause but there is no point trying to deny that he has been a major disappointment this series – must at least in part be due to erratic service from his halfback.
But is there anyone better?
Call me a pessimist, but I struggle to understand the unbridled enthusiasm of many Roar readers for Will Genia. He’s had only a handful of starting games for the pathetically performing Queensland team, and yet somehow people are convinced he will solve Wallaby problems at halfback.
What is the sustained evidence that I am missing here?
Let’s also consider no. 8. Wycliff Palu had to be dropped, but what did we get from Richard Brown in his place? Let’s put it this way, Brown was at his most visible when he was in the sin bin, and for the rest of the match it was as if Australia still only had 7 forwards on the field.
But what other options does Deans have at no. 8? Does he start Smith there and bring in Pocock to start at 7? (Incidentally, it was interesting to hear last week that Laurie Mains – an excellent judge of rugby talent – rates Pocock extremely highly.)
Or does Deans do something wild like give Hoiles another go?
And what about Al Baxter?
The easy version of events is that he got humiliated again. But why does it happen only against Tony Woodcock? If Baxter is such a soft touch, how is it that he has stood up against South Africa and England in recent times, and how is it that he is always a pillar of strength for NSW?
So there you have it. I would urge people to judge rugby players not on their best moments, but on all their moments.
We have to accept that for most Wallabies, both current and wannabe, the resulting judgements are not flattering.
This all reminds me of a favourite story, about St Teresa of Avila. It goes that a mother was dropping off her daughter to become a novice.
“Is she smart?” asked the great woman.
“She’s very holy” replied the mother.
“I can make her devout,” snapped the saint, “but I can’t make her intelligent.”
The good news is that Robbie Deans understands this, which is why he personally spends hours and hours with individuals doing skills drills.
But what Deans cannot do is make individuals more naturally talented.
Both natural talent of the highest order and hours and hours of practice are needed to produce a player who is not just brilliant on occasions but who makes the right decisions and who successfully executes his skills over and over again.
No team will have 15 such players, but to beat the All Blacks and Springboks regularly, certainly Australia needs more such players than it currently has.