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SPIRO: What went wrong for the Wallabies? Everything

Jamie Roberts of the Lions celebrates a try with his team mates. (Photo: Paul Barkley/LookPro)
Expert
7th July, 2013
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I was on the one of the first trains out of ANZ Stadium on Saturday night, a mouse scuttling away from the good ship Wallabies which went down 41 – 16 with all hands on board to a surfeit of Lions.

There were only Wallabies supporters on the train. They were stunned and silent.

It wasn’t just the fact that the British and Irish Lions had won that provoked the dour mood. It was the way the Wallabies had lost.

46 minutes into the Test the Wallabies had turned a 19 – 3 scoreline into an acceptable (and potentially match-winning) 19 – 16 by scoring a converted try in injury time at the end of the first half.

Then within six minutes of the second half, the Wallabies had forced and successfully converted two penalty goals to put them within a try of taking the taking the lead.

Even when the Lions had scored a further 10 points, taking them to 29, the Wallabies still had a chance of snatching a victory with two converted tries when they stormed the Lions tryline for a number of minutes sometimes getting to within a centimetre from the tryline. But in the end, the phase after phase of attacks petered out with dropped balls and wrong options taken within the shadow of the goal posts.

In the last 20 minutes of the Test the Lions finally unleashed their backs and simply carved up the Wallabies out wide. Leading the way was Leigh Halfpenny.

David Lord wrote on Sunday that Halfpenny is the best rugby player in the world right now. He received flack for this comment from Roarers with a New Zealand orientation. But Lord is right.

It has to be conceded that Halfpenny’s play, his kicking both for goal and in general play, his positional play, his defence and his darting, swerving, probing running and his adroit passing to his outside and inside runners (Johnny Sexton for his try) was in the Daniel Carter territory for class and efficiency.

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I thought I’d never see a better all-round display of all the skills of a back than Carter’s fabulous performance for the All Blacks to sink the Lions in the crucial second Test at Wellington in 2005. But I would place Halfpenny’s play on Saturday night right up there with Carter.

On the train, as it made its funereal (for us passengers) way back into Sydney a couple of chaps engaged me in a conversation about the game.

“Spiro,” one of them asked, “what went wrong for the Wallabies?”

I found it hard to give a quick answer because there were so many issues to be considered. My initial remarks were along these lines: there was no zip, no spark to the Wallabies. They didn’t seem to come to play. They took wrong options. The scrum was monstered.

This rather tame reaction is an indication of the somewhat shell-shocked state I was in. The terrible Wallabies performance was so unexpected. At Brisbane they had played one of their best Tests, despite losing, in many Tests according to experts like Rod Macqueen. And at Melbourne they had held the Lions in the scrums and come away with a victory to even u[p the series.

Losing to the Lions in the third Test was perhaps not unacceptable, as in 1989. Everyone knew (or should have known) that the Wallabies beating the Lions was never going to be an easy challenge. After all, in 22 Tests since 1899 up to Saturday night, the Wallabies have only won six times.

And aside from the one-off Wallaby Test win in 1930, the Wallabies have only won one series in 114 years. That was in 2001 with one of the greatest of all Wallaby sides captained by the finest Wallaby forward ever, John Eales, and coached by the greatest ever Australian coach, Rod Macqueen. And even that side was totally out-played and out-scored in the first Test of the series.

But losing the way the Wallabies did at ANZ Stadium is not acceptable. It was a debacle. It was one of the worst Wallaby performances for some years.  And heads, from the top to the bottom, will have to roll, sooner or later.

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When I picked up my Sunday papers and a great coffee from the local deli near Centennial Park the next morning, Tony, the genial owner complained to me about the French referee, Romain Poite not understanding the game too well.

I am as ready as anyone to complain about referees getting it wrong, so I went back home to study the replay to see if there was something in Tony’s argument. But Tony was wrong. Monsieur Poite mainly got his decisions right.

The most crucial decision in the Test, in many respects, was at the first scrum less than a minute after the kick-off when Poite called a short arm penalty against the Wallabies for going early on the hit.

This was crucial for two reasons. First, the Lions showed they were up for the game by quickly taking a tap when the Wallabies expected another scrum. After several phases from the Lions, Alex Corbisiero went across for a try. 7 – 0 to the Lions, after Halfpenny’s inevitable conversion.

You’d expect the Lions to be up for the game. But these opening minutes also revealed that the Wallabies were not up for the Test. There was indecision with taking the kick-off, admittedly a splendidly hanging kick that was enthusiastically hunted down.

Second, it is well-known and written about extensively before the Test that Poite, a former police inspector, forms a judgment about the relative strengths of the scrum at the first scrum. This judgment tends to inform all his subsequent decisions.

The Wallaby pack must have known, or should have known, that the first scrum was absolutely crucial. They had to get it absolutely right. And what did they do? They got it completely wrong.

It is clear from the video replays that the Wallaby pack went early. And what was more disturbing in hindsight, the pack went early without any conviction.

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This early hit enabled Poite to form the judgment that the Wallaby scrum was inferior to the Lions scrum. And his decisions at scrum time reflected this judgment. By the time the Lions had got the scoreline-up to 19 – 3 with successful four penalty kicks, they had won one short-arm penalty and five full-arm penalties from scrums.

Right at the end of the match, the Lions won another scrum penalty. In the beginning is the end. A team that is consistently penalised at the scrums and can hardly win its own feeds is never going to win a must-win Test.

I went through the scrums quite carefully on the video. There were a couple of occasions when Poite allowed the Lions props to hinge without penalising them. He also occasionally allowed the Lions to go down if they lost the hit without penalising them.

But for the most part, it was a terrible scrumming performance by the Wallabies, and there is no getting around this.

The back play wasn’t much better. The Wallabies spent about 12 minutes inside the Lions 22, and could only score one try. There didn’t seem to be any plan or method to beat the Lions rush attack, a Warren Gatland coaching trademark from away back in the days he coached Waikato.

This lack of game awareness came to the fore late in the first half when the Wallabies desperately needed a try. They set up a driving phase and then James O’Connor booted a kick-pass across to the wing. This was obviously a planned move to exploit Israel Folau’s leaping and catching skills.

The problem was that Folau was on the bench nursing a pulled hamstring.

As one of chaps on the train said: ‘This must be the last game for James O’Connor at number 10.’ I have to agree. I can’t understand why Christian Lealiifano wasn’t brought into number 10 and O’Connor pushed out into inside centre.

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It seemed to me, too, that Will Genia didn’t know where O’Connor was for most of the Test.

Genia often stood over the ball, uncharacteristically, looking around for a five-eighth or for a forward runner. The Wallabies seemed to be playing by numbers. And unfortunately, the numbers didn’t add up.

Jesse Mogg was the only bright spot in the backs. His speed was obvious, with his first touch resulting in tremendous burst down the field which ended when he was ankle-tapped. I would say that Mogg will now be a starter in Wallaby sides for the next few years.

Before the deciding Test, the rugby writers had a field day deciding on the wisdom of Warren Gatland dropping Brian O’Driscoll and Robbie Deans giving a starting jersey to George Smith.

Rugby writers in Australia and from the northern hemisphere were agreed that whichever coach was on the losing side of the series was finished. As Eddie Butler of The Observer noted: ‘Only a victory could possibly save the coach.’

The Smith decision, in fact, appealed so much to some anti-Deans Australian rugby writers that they claimed (this was before the match) that the selection decision might have saved his coaching career.

As it happened, Gatland’s decision proved to be a master-stroke. And Deans’ decision was completely over-whelmed by events relating to Smith (a head collision early in the game). Smith found it difficult to make an impression when the Wallabies over-all were playing so poorly.

Jonathan Davies, on the other hand, played a terrific match and fully justified his inclusion over the great O’Driscoll.

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Gatland, too, becomes something of a master-coach as far as northern hemisphere rugby writers are concerned. His less than stellar coaching of Ireland some years ago is now forgiven, if not forgotten.

For Deans, it must be the end of the road with the Wallabies. His contract is up at the end of the year. You would expect that he will coach the Wallabies at least until the end of The Rugby Championship. And the end of the year tour? I’d expect a new coach to take over then.

I have made no bones about my admiration for Deans as a rugby coach. I would argue that the decision to appoint him in 2008 was the correct decision for Australian rugby. And the decision to re-appoint him for two years before the Rugby World Cup 2011 tournament was also the correct decision.

Here is not the place to discuss his legacy. But I would say that his record is well on the positive side of the ledger.

As for his successor? In my opinion, it has to be Ewen McKenzie. Brendan Cannon and many others are pushing for Jake White. But there are problems with a White appointment.

To begin with, are Australian rugby supporters prepared to put up with the Wallabies trying to play the negative and boring Springboks Rugby World Cup 2007 game of kick-maul-penalty style that is the White trademark. I know that former Wallabies like David Campese won’t have a bar of it.

And I don’t think Australian rugby can endure another round of inane Trojan Horse accusations from, say, Greg Martin and others if a White-coached Wallaby side loses Tests to the Springboks.

For now, losers are losers and winners are grinners as far as the Lions are concerned. In the media room before the Test, a person with an interest in the future of the Lions told me that the Lions had to beat the Wallabies for the future viability of the Lions brand. And this was the approach taken too by the British rugby writers.

Indeed, Sir Ian McGeechan, the last successful Lions coach  (will Gatland now be knighted, too?), was adamant at the start of the tour that further Lions tours were in jeopardy if this one was unsuccessful.

That horror eventuality is now removed. The 2013 Lions tour of Australia broke ground records at all the Test venues. It brought rugby alive in Australia for six glorious weeks.

Something similar will happen in New Zealand in 2017, even more so in that rugby-mad country.

And there is the tantalising prospect that a number of the Lions backs, especially, and I’m thinking of Halfpenny, Davies and North, will be in their prime in four years time.

So, what went wrong with the Wallabies? In essence, everything went wrong for them. It was a Test they wanted to win. But they were playing a side that had to win and did just that with great spirit and style.

Let’s hear it for the Lions roar!

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