Last Saturday, the Wallabies again failed to compete at Eden Park, slamming the brakes on the accelerating speculation about their World Cup chances.
The Wallabies are a wonderful team, but they hate a cauldron. All too regularly they’re rattled by the viciousness that permeates the badlands of world rugby – places like Pretoria, Mendoza and Auckland.
The Wallaby forwards took a knife into a gunfight at Eden Park and were duly dispatched. It seems that whenever the battle descends below the belt, the Wallabies look shocked at the turn of events, like the Marquis of Queensbury getting kicked in the groin.
The main battle lost was the battle of the ground – the 15 inches over the top of the ball. This is where the sewer fight happens, where only the ruthless, the brutal, and the merciless survive.
Starting without David Pocock in this respect was like squaring up to Kimbo Slice without an axe. Forget about relying on the referee for ruck parity – it is a pointless exercise, because while the referees generally enforce the law, the momentum stays with the most aggressive team and the one which is prepared to bend the law not quite to breaking point.
As the Wallabies submitted politely to their nemesis, I couldn’t help but think of the old gutter fighter himself, one half of the World War II ‘Heavenly Twins’, Bill Fairbairn.
I have no idea if Fairbairn was a rugby fan. If he was, it would have only been for the violent bits. Regardless, he would have been disappointed at the Wallabies – if not for their meekness in allowing themselves to be conquered, then certainly at their failure to learn the lessons of 20 years of North Island beatings.
In 1907, Fairbairn answered a recruiting call from the Shanghai police department. Shanghai at that time was known as ‘The Whore Of The Orient’ – a city with so many drug addicts, thieves, pirates and hustlers, that it contained an estimated 100,000 criminals.
Fairbairn had been a Royal Marine, trained in close combat and traditional warfare. Arriving in Shanghai, he felt that he had a better-than-even chance against most bad eggs, and was known to be able to hold his own in a street fight. Unfortunately no-one told the Chinese crooks the rules. During an encounter on the docks one night, a willing Fairbairn shaped up to five thugs, and in his own personal Eden Park horror story, was beaten almost to death.
After being taken to hospital by rickshaw, a slow recuperation followed, during which Fairbairn had plenty of time to think. Upon recovery, he made a vow to never again be beaten in a fight – legal, illegal, or otherwise.
To make good his promise, and as soon as he was able to walk again, Fairbairn sought out Cui Jindong, a martial arts master who taught Wing Chun – the art of crippling your opponent and ending fights quickly by hitting the most vulnerable parts of the body fast and hard.
Fairbairn remained true to his oath. Over the next 20 years, according to official police records, he engaged in and survived over 600 knife fights, brawls, street battles and gunfights, crippling, maiming and killing hundreds of men and perfecting the art of survival in the most brutal environments.
He developed his own fighting style, named ‘Defendu’, and also his own patented assassin’s knife.
Eventually the name Fairbairn became synonymous with the most savage kind of underhanded, immoral and effective techniques employed by any fighting force in the world. Fairbairn was so vicious and calculating that, together with fellow close-combat instructor Eric Sykes (the other Heavenly Twin), and at the age of 58, he was called upon to train British, American and Canadian commando forces in close-combat, pistol-shooting and knife-fighting techniques during World War II.
All this was wonderful of course, but Fairbairn’s greatest achievement was not in his own murderous exploits, but his success in changing the mindset of the neophyte Allied guerrilla forces, recently formed by Winston Churchill.
While the rest of the army maintained certain battle etiquette, Fairbairn grimly emphasised the simple choice for the secret soldiers: life or death.
The key to the Fairbairn-Sykes style of combat was forgetting any idea of gentlemanly conduct or fighting fair. Said Fairbairn, “I teach what is called ‘gutter fighting’. Get tough, get down in the gutter, win at all costs. There’s no fair play, no rules except one: kill or be killed.”
Future leaders of the CIA were some of his students during World War II. One later recalled that Fairbairn had “an honest dislike of anything that smacked of decency in fighting”. Another said of training, “Within 15 seconds, I came to realise that my private parts were in constant jeopardy.”
But as Fairbairn reminded them, “There will be some who will be shocked by the methods recommended here. To them I say ‘In war you cannot afford the luxury of squeamishness. Either you kill and you capture, or you will be captured and killed’.
“We’ve got to be tough to win and we’ve got to be ruthless. Tougher and more ruthless than our enemies.”
Fairbairn didn’t want screw-loose crazies either. He immediately dumped braggart candidates who promised to blow the head off the first German they saw. “We don’t want these sort of heroes,” he explained. “We want disciplined types who live and keep fighting.”
It was hard not to think that the Wallabies could benefit from a Fairbairn-esque shift in mindset. Certainly the All Blacks appear to have long ago heeded the lesson. After all, media and supporter allegations of offside play and ruck deviousness by the New Zealanders are as common as pennies.
Only last week, according to New Zealand resident and columnist Mark Reason, the All Blacks committed several offences that went unpunished:
Twice in the opening half an hour Conrad Smith played the catcher when he was in the air. The absence of a yellow card beggared belief,” Reason wrote for Stuff.co.nz.
“On Saturday [Brodie] Retallick and [Tony] Woodcock assaulted players with cheap shots. In the lead-up to the turnover that led to the All Blacks opening try, [Kieran] Read pulled Will Skelton down and out of a driving maul on one side and Richie McCaw lifted Wycliff Palu’s leg on the other side, the same offence for which Romain Poite yellow carded Rob Simmons a few months ago. Not even a penalty.”
Reason loves the controversy, and the point of discussion here is not that the All Blacks are a dirty side. The far more interesting question is whether their fringe methods help them to intimidate sides and win games.
They certainly worked out long ago what they can get away with and play to the absolute edge of the laws, physically, technically and mentally. And why not?
They give away no more penalties in the big picture than any other team, but create much greater uncertainty in their opponents than anyone else, and as Fairbairn also said, “Create enough uncertainty in your enemy and you can paralyse him.”
The All Blacks create uncertainty partly through deft execution and a litany of technical chicanery, but mostly with a hard edged, retaliatory physicality. Everyone denies being frightened of the All Blacks, but the proof is as plain as a prison mugshot.
How many times after the Wallabies’ win in Sydney did you hear someone say, “We’ve tweaked the tiger’s tail now – they’ll be angry in Auckland.” The implication seems to be that it is almost better not to win in case you get bashed next time. Just give them your lunch money and maybe they’ll leave you alone.
What a glorious psychological trick for the All Blacks to have in their kitbag.
This is the problem the Wallabies face, that virtually no-one has ever described them as intimidating. The Wallabies fight hard, but just too fair altogether. The All Blacks, on the other hand, fight cunningly to the edge of the laws, and then some.
As Michael Cheika pores over his final selections for the Rugby World Cup he will rue the lack of any genuine guerilla factor across the field. Oh for Owen Finegan, Jacques Potgieter, Bismarck du Plessis or Brad Thorn.
On the sole criteria of ruthlessness, there aren’t many candidates – perhaps Kane Douglas on an angry day, occasionally Scott Fardy, maybe Michael Hooper, at least in the tackle.
It remains a problem for the Wallabies, but for those who make the cut, they know where the edge is to be found – after all, most of them took it in the teeth first-hand at Eden Park.
If they are to compete in London, the Wallaby pack could do worse than remember Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar…
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
That all pity will be choked off,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice,
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war”
Bill Fairbairn would approve.