As many of you fellow Roarers would know, I have been highly critical of Robbie Deans when it has come to his handling of the All Blacks.
This is a question that Deans has simply been unable to answer during his near five year tenure as Wallaby coach.
It’s now time for me to put up or shut up. What would I do to beat the mighty All Blacks if I were coach?
Well, I would start from the ground up.
To build a good castle you need to build it upon a foundation of strength, one which will stand firm and true in the heat of battle.
That sure foundation, that the Wallabies so desperately lack, is a winning culture. Winning is a habit. When you do it often enough it becomes an expectation, not a hope.
The inertia and momentum gained from consistent success can’t be quantified – it is priceless. Therefore, the material used to build this castle must also be made of ‘the right stuff’.
The cornerstone of this castle is respect. Respect for yourself, respect for your team-mate, respect for jumper and for those who have worn the jersey before you, respect for the fans, respect for the opposition and respect for the game itself.
Personal discipline has to permeate into every fibre of your ‘Wallaby-being’, coupled with an understanding of what is expected of you and what will not be tolerated.
No longer can there be rules for some and not for others. No more factions, no more ‘us and them’. Ground rules for all.
If you don’t like it, you can always carve out a career in second division French rugby.
As coach, I would ask each player to conduct an honest assessment of himself as a player, including to truthfully answer whether he believes the Wallabies can win back the Bledisloe Cup in 2013.
Furthermore, I would have the team psychometrically assessed to establish their individual mental faculties and characteristics. I want to be in the mind of my players. Those who don’t think they can win will not be considered for selection.
Negativity is a cancer which cripples, and winning begins with belief. The genesis of winning starts in the mind. If 22 players have the same winning mind-set, momentum will come. But there is no room for doubt.
It’s like that wonderful movie, Field of Dreams, with its famous line “build it and he will come”. You will not find me punting ‘Gilberts’ into a corn field waiting for a John Eales or Mark Ella to return.
What I take from that line is this: build a winning culture and the right players will come. Not just to play, but to take ownership of that culture and move it forward.
It is absolutely essential for a coach to empower the team. The players must take ownership of the their own performance – it must be all in, 24/7.
As a coach, it’s about getting the best out of the 22. It’s not about getting 22 players to do what the coach wants them to do to the very last detail.
After all, the players are in the trenches taking the knocks, not the coach. Rugby players are actually better rugby players than their coaches. Coaches should recognise that, and welcome player input into the game plan.
I would separate the playing 22 into three groups, with a mixture of backs and forwards and a mixture of provincial representatives. Sit them down with a pen and paper and ask them to come up with some basic team ‘Do’ and ‘Do nots’.
Then I would ask each group to develop a strategy, which would be presented to the entire team. As a result, the team as a whole would collectively know how ‘we’ wanted to approach the game.
Once that game plan has been established, it’s locked door time. No media, no ARU, no wives, partners. It’s time to earn your pay without distraction, and to adopt a siege mentality.
To assist in game plan development, I would identify some key points about the All Blacks. There are plenty of things that they are simply doing better than us at the moment. On top of that, we are failing to do some crucial things, the result of which is that the All Blacks seem better than they actually are.
The Kiwis are living off our lack of skill, mistakes and poor decision making. It would be my job to identify New Zealand’s Achilles’ Heel, but firstly we need to fix ourselves.
The Wallabies lack match intensity. We should train how we aim to play. Watching the Wallabies train, they sometimes look like ‘Brown’s Cows’.
It comes as no shock to me that nothing has quite clicked for the Aussies, as they don’t appear to train with the intensity required to actually win a game.
For too long, the Wallabies have been 50 minute performers, going to sleep at vital parts of the game. This needs to be trained out of the players.
The answer is shorter, sharper, more intense training sessions which last for 90 minutes. That isn’t much longer than an actual game, but intensity is the key.
My advice would be to ‘keep it simple, stupid’. Rugby is actually quite a simple game, and is only made difficult by those who play it.
For too long, the Wallabies have employed style over substance. There have been some stunning tries scored in defeats to New Zealand. What’s the point? The scoreboard is all that counts at the ned of the game.
The work up front needs to be done first. This love affair with width must only come as a reward for toil up front – it isn’t a first option.
New Zealand do not like to have the game dictated to them. The best way to unsettle them is to get points on the board early and get in their face.
Aggression was poorly lacking in both the Sydney and Auckland tests. Australia did play with heart. But I don’t mistake heart for aggression and mongrel. When did we ever bash them? Never! We just need to man up.
Australia did do some good things in Auckland, but only sporadically. We must learn to maintain pressure and convert field position into points.
There is no pressure like scoreboard pressure. If there is nothing on, we should work ourselves into a position where a drop goal can be taken and pull the trigger.
Imagine if we were up 6 or 9 nil after 20 minutes, instead of seeking miracle tries. Let’s find a way to put the pressure back onto New Zealand. The field goal is a simple way to do it.
We also need to keep the ball off the deck, because that is where McCaw and Read really profit. I would look to maul when the opportunity presents itself.
Jake White’s Brumbies used the maul exceptionally well in Super Rugby. Australia employed it once against New Zealand in Auckland and made yards. Ironically, it was Read who stole the ball from that maul, but that was only due to poor mauling skills on our part.
Effective mauling is a proven way of drawing the opposition in tight, which then gives the backs every opportunity to find space or, even better, draw a defensive penalty.
I would give the players a crash course in mauling from Laurie Fischer, and work on developing good body height (both in the maul and in general play). We are too tall and often too lateral in the contact. We must become ‘rutting stags’, as the great Bill McLaren would say.
When the ball does find its way to the backs, we must be flatter and on the front foot. Giving the backs the ball is pointless when we are stagnant. It’s suicide against a rush defence.
However, when the opportunity presents itself, we can’t just crash the ball up – there must be bodies in motion, giving Beale at least two passing options. The Ioane try against Argentina was an exceptional example of this.
Australia should not forget that a well executed kicking game has its place. In Auckland, the kicking was aimless. It had little direction, and it smacked of desperation.
A good kicking game can be just as important as a running game. We should never forget the 1986 Auckland test, in which Alan Jones’ Wallabies nullified the referee and the All Black pack by turning them around time and time again with the boot of Michael Lynagh.
Kurtley Beale has that ability; he just needs to lose the grubber and chip kicks. I am not averse to the ‘Garryowen’ – as the All Blacks themselves have shown us, peppering your opponent with the high ball can be effective, but that rests with the chase.
When it comes to restarting the game, New Zealand is clearly dominant at the kick-off in both attack and defence. This is an area which needs to be addressed, as it is ‘pay-dirt’ for the All Blacks.
In attack, we have control over where the ball is kicked. In Auckland, Barnes kicked too deep, too often. The kick-off needs to be an area of competition.
It sounds simple. Find a Cory Jane or a shorter, isolated player just over the 10 meter line, put up a high ball and flood the area with three of your tallest chasers.
Chances are you’ll do alright. The target should be selected before you set, so the All Blacks have no time to adjust. It’s always a good idea to plan for the next phase before you get there.
It is obviously harder in defence. Kieran Read is a genius in this aspect of the game and a go to man for the All Blacks. I would tag Read with two tall players, in an attempt to take him out of the play. If we disrupt Read, we will frustrate New Zealand.
As far as the scrum is concerned, Tony Woodcock is the best loosehead in the world, so we need our best tighthead available. For me, that is James Slipper, not Ben Alexander. Slipper is a brawler, not a boxer. He will compete all day long.
It is at tighthead prop that we should look to cause the All Blacks trouble. Owen Franks is a very good prop, but he isn’t brilliant. Greg Holmes is not a man who scrums for parity; he actually looks to attack his opposite. I would therefore go with Holmes at loosehead prop.
Benn Robinson simply is not playing well enough to deserve selection, so I would use Ben Alexander off the bench.
In training, the Wallabies should be packing live scrum after live scrum to prepare for game day. We know what’s coming. Let’s prepare as best as we can and have a crack at these blokes.
We simply can’t forfeit this aspect of the game. Make the All Blacks earn every scrum win. Nothing comes for free anymore against our scrum anymore.
We must start using the scrum as a base from which to launch plays in attack. Too often in Sydney and Auckland, the ball was passed from the base to our flyhalf, playing into the All Blacks’ defensive pattern.
Everybody knew where the ball was going. We were either ushered over the touch line or caught well behind the advantage line.
I get that Robbie wants to make it over the gain line, but you don’t do that by starting further away from it. We should look to attack from our scrum much more often, because it negates the All Blacks’ line speed, it brings us closer to the gain line and it draws McCaw and Read into the fray.
A quick recycle would then give us immediate, front foot ball with the All Blacks’ back row working, not waiting. It is vitally important that we keep McCaw and Read in tight, as that gives us a better chance at the next break down if the ball is recycled quickly.
The Wallabies generally look good working the short side channel, but I would like to see Digby come off his blind wing and run off Phipps, angling toward Carter. At the same time, Hooper and Samo should run a ‘shield’, getting traffic in front of McCaw and Read from the scrum.
Australia must find a way to get Ioane more involved, beyond his role sitting off the flyhalf. This will force Carter into the game defensively. Daniel is no slouch, but Digby is a real handful.
In the 2011 Brisbane test, the Wallabies profited greatly from running down that channel. With Hooper and Samo right behind Ioane, and the All Blacks down a back in the defensive line, quick ball to the open side may lead to an overlap situation if we are quick enough.
Then again, if the recycle is slow and in range, take a drop goal or pick and drive.
The breakdown is New Zealand’s. We simply must improve our clean-outs, getting in lower and hitting with greater accuracy.
We have been playing with too much width, getting pinned behind the gain line and making the breakdown a picnic for McCaw and Read. To stop this from happening, we must play more directly, creating space on the fringes before choosing to go wide.
Now, the lineout. This is a facet of the game that we should, but don’t, dominate.
The Wallabies generally play a taller pack than the All Blacks, particularly when Samo and Higginbotham are selected. Coupled with Sharpe and Timani, these guys tend to tower above the Kiwis’ back row.
However, our throw-in has been consistently dreadful. This needs to be fixed, especially if Tatafu Polota-Nau is playing. With all due respect to Tatafu, he has been haunted by the six ball and faded four ball.
We should look to go shorter and flatter in the lineout, reducing the amount of risk that comes with going long. Sure, New Zealand will catch on, but small variations in our lifting pods, along with gaps in the line, can confuse them.
Seriously, give up on the long throw boys. It’s the chip kick of lineout throwing.
In defence, the Wallabies must attack New Zealand’s two ball on every lineout. With the height we have, we can theoretically put two jumpers onto their one. As a result, we should force the opposition into a long throw.
We have simply been too limp in this aspect of the game. I genuinely believe that if we cut back on risk-taking and compete in the lineout, we can cause some real headaches for the world champions.
In that 2011 Brisbane test, Kieran Read was injured early in the game. He also did not play against the Irish in Christchurch – a game the All Blacks came very close to losing.
It is no coincidence that the All Blacks are more vulnerable without Read. With all due respect to McCaw, Read is the man we need to nullify. He is an outstanding loose forward, and the only way to negate his impact is to draw him in tight.
Let’s get him where we want him: in tight, not loitering around the next breakdown, and not supporting Nonu, Smith or Carter.
A wonderful part of All Black rugby is the fact that they run where you aren’t. For example, in Auckland, Rob Horne was caught coming out of the line in defence. Cory Jane recognised this and changed the angle of his run, tracking toward Horne’s defensive channel. With Kieran Read loitering on the wing, New Zealand had the overlap and scored a short time thereafter.
Read is a master at identifying where the overlap will be. He simply needs to be tracked and tagged. He is just that good, and for me, if you shut down Read you go a long way to winning.
This would be my team for the upcoming Brisbane test:
1. Greg Holmes
2. Tatafu Polota-Nau
3. James Slipper
4. Sitaleki Timani
5. Nathan Sharpe (C)
6. Scott Higginbotham
7. Michael Hooper
8. Radike Samo
9. Nick Phipps
10. Kurtley Beale
11. Digby Ioane
12. Ben Tapuai
13. Adam Ashley-Cooper
14. Dom Shipperley
15. Pat McCabe
16. Stephen Moore (Saia Fainga’a)
17. Ben Alexander
18. Kane Douglas
19. Liam Gill
20. Brett Sheehan
21. Mike Harris
22. Nick Cummins
In closing, as coach, I would tell my players not to be afraid of making mistakes. I would say that we aren’t here to criticise each other. We’re mates, we’re family and we are one in, all in. This is the Wallaby way.
Ironically, I picked this up from Joe Stanley, the great All Black centre who (despite being a man of few words) said basically the same thing when he captained the All Blacks against a French Selection XV in 1990. I thought it a wonderful, brief, succinct speech which got the message across.
The final word, and the final speech before the anthems would be from a favourite film of mine, ‘Rocky Balboa’:
“Now if you know what you’re worth then go out and get what you’re worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain’t you! You’re better than that! I’m always gonna love you no matter what. No matter what happens.”