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Rust turns into dross as Wallabies face a 0-3 series debacle

Stephen Moore has been as captain, and from the team, for the Fiji Test. (AAP Image/Dan Peled)
Expert
19th June, 2016
335
9451 Reads

Before the Australia 7-23 England Test at Melbourne, BMW put out a full-page advertisement with the catch line: ‘ONE DOWN, TWO TO WIN’.

If only.

The Wallabies are now facing the unthinkable (two weeks ago, at least) prospect of losing the series 0-3. “We want to win three nil,” Eddie Jones, England’s transformational coach, told the rugby writers after his side’s historic victory.

Given what has happened in the first two Tests, who is brave enough among us to predict against rugby’s grinning headline?

This was a Test that proved the validity of the adage that statistics reveal everything but the truth.

More of the wash-up from Wallabies vs England
» Pulver not happy with AAMI Park surface
» Nine talking points
» Roar Forum – what changes should the Wallabies make?
» WATCH: Highlights from the match

Has there been a Test where the statistics were so overwhelming favourable to the losing side? A Wallabies side, moreover, that conceded its biggest loss to England in Australia, despite their statistical over-kill.

The Wallabies ran for 962m, England ran for 282m. The Wallabies made 172 carries, England made 53 carries. The Wallabies made 12 phases of over 7 plus ruck recycling, England made no phases of 7 plus ruck recycling.

In the second half of the Test, the championship part of any game, the Wallabies had 72 per cent possession and 76 per cent territory. As Tom Decent, the aptly-named SMH rugby writer, noted: “More than enough to win a game of Test footy.” Write on!

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There are two other statistics, though, that trump all of the above. The Wallabies made 15 handling errors and they made nil off-loads. England made one handling error.

There was a lot of talk after the Test about the Wallabies playing at the wrong end of the field. The embattled Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, for instance, had this to say about the persistent ball-in-hand tactics: “We played in the wrong areas. I’ve got to really own that as a coach. We prepare that in the prep of the week. I’ve got to explain it to the lads more forcefully.”

Surely the Wallabies “lads” in the crucial leadership positions are experienced Test players? It should not have taken some forceful words from the coach for the decision to be made on the field that on a slippery field that was cratered with sand divots that some variety in the running game was needed.

Dane Haylett-Petty, for goodness sake, tripped over one of the sand eruptions and dropped the ball just as he was looking at a likely breakout.

Why weren’t the big centres in the mid-field, Tevita Kuridrani and Samu Kerevi, used more to bash their way through in the mid-field?

In actual fact, it wasn’t the ball-in-hand game that was the undoing of the Wallabies. Their direction of attack was all wrong. That was the problem.

As John Eales explained before and during the Test, the 2016 Wallabies have been running in an east-west direction in their attacks (across the field), rather than in a north-south direction, (up the field).

You don’t score points going into touch!

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Any back coach worth his money will tell you that the golden rule in taking the ball up is to square your shoulders going into the contact. Square shoulders by the runners means that the attack is directed properly, north-south.

Incidentally, square shoulders going into the tackle area allows the runner to make the off-load if he is strong and skilful enough.

What is Stephen Larkham, possibly the greatest of the running number 10s, telling his runners? Surely this deep-lying, crab-crawl across the field is not the method the Wallabies are practising? Tell me it isn’t so.

The Wallabies backs and forwards compounded their error of running across the field rather up the field by running from positions that were too deep. This meant that even though England missed 24 tackles, the misses were behind the advantage line and the runner was able to be knocked over before any real damage was done.

And compounding this error of standing too deep, the Wallabies had a half-back, Nick Phipps, who cleared the ball erratically, to put it kindly.

Phipps was often late to the break-down to make a quick clearance and even more often waited over the ball, even though it was sitting there available to be cleared, until the next attacking set-up was in place.

You could see Phipps signalling to his runners where he wanted them to stand and where the next attack was going to be launched. While he was frantically doing his signalling, the England defensive wall was being strengthened in the spots where the next Wallabies attack was going to come from.

This is rather like the cavalry making a break-through and then galloping back to their original starting point, allowing the defence to re-group to stop them again. This ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ method may be gallant. It is also self-defeating.

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I was so exasperated with Phipps’ slow re-cycling of the phase ball that I was writing down in my note-book: “Get rid of him … Just pass the ball! … Stop standing over the ball as if you are going to hatch it!”

The one possible blessing from the loss of the Test series is that Cheika can experiment with a new starting line-up to replace the line-up that is palpably not up to maintaining the current high ranking (number 3) the Wallabies have on World Rugby table.

There must be a new half back, presumably Nick Frisby but Nic Stirzacker could come back (possibly as a reserve) to clear the ball and to make the darts around the edges of the rucks that expose the slow legs of the defending pillars.

I would play Dane Haylett-Petty at fullback and use Samu Kerevi and Israel Folau in the centres.

And to round out the back line, the Wallabies desperately need some wingers with pace. Whoever are the quickest wingers going around, play them.

Cheika has tried to adjust to his use of slowish wingers by playing a system that has Michael Hooper or Scott Fardy running in the wide channels. This worked early on in the Brisbane Test. But England/Eddie Jones have worked this tactic out.

There is a desperate need for some speed in the Wallabies back line. England hardly run the ball very much at all. But with Mike Brown, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph and Jack Howell, they had four runners who are quicker than the quickest Wallabies back, Israel Folau. On crucial break-out plays this England speed has been decisive.

The Wallabies reserve front row at Melbourne should be the starting front row.

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I was wrong about Sean McMahon at number 8. He was massively (pun intended) out-played by Billy Vunipola. The boxing (and rugby) adage says it all: a good big man will always beat a good small man. McMahon is just too small to play number 8.

Where is Scott Higginbotham when his country needs him?

There isn’t a decent number 8 now that David Pocock is out injured and certainly no one anywhere near the class of Vunipola or Kieran Read anywhere in Australian rugby right now.

Through gritted teeth I suggest playing Dean Mumm there and retaining Michael Hooper and Scott Fardy (who had perhaps his poorest Test ever at Melbourne) on the sides of the scrum.

We get now to the matter of captaincy. Neither Stephen Moore or Michael Hooper (in his case right now) are captaincy material.

Moore is out on two counts, in my opinion. First, he often behaves like an idiot in the tense moments rather than as leader leading by calm, effective example. Second, he is not up to Test standard now in the twilight of his career.

Note his brain explosion early on in the Test when the Wallabies won two penalties from England in the same sequence of play.

Referee Craig Joubert let play continue to see if the Wallabies could get an advantage. A piled on ruck eventuated. There was some niggle going in the darkness of the writhing bodies.

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Then Moore charged in with his shoulder to smash an England player on suspicion that he might be up to no good.

Joubert ruled out the Wallabies penalties. England were awarded the penalty, despite their two earlier infractions. And some Wallabies pressure was released.

There was a photo, too, in the Sunday Sun Herald of Moore stomping on the stomach of Dan Cole out in open play that indicates a lack of discipline on the part of the Wallabies captain.

Throughout the earlier part of the match, especially, there was almost constant niggling. To be fair, it was coming from both sides. Joubert, in exasperation, called the captains over and told them: “Is this what you want the constant niggle? Get some leadership and get it out of the game.”

Moore tried to argue and niggle back.

England’s captain, Dylan Hartley, a serial thug before he was given the captaincy, accepted Joubert’s warning and spoke to his players about it.

This show of respect helped England when they were warned about giving away too many penalties on defence. Later they gave away another penalty inside their 22. Moore demanded a yellow card. But Joubert rejected his demand with the explanation that England played 24 minutes without giving away a similar penalty.

Moore, too, is not a good enough scrummer and is too slow around the field to be an effective Test player right now.

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He needs to be replaced as the skipper and the starting hooker for the Wallabies.

Michael Hooper is a different case. He deserves his position in the side. But he shouldn’t be regarded right now as captaincy material.

He was deeply involved in all the early niggling, for instance. After one of the scrums he threw some of the disrupted sand at Billy Vunipola.

This is marginally bad. Stupidly bad was his decision as the captain with Moore off the field not to take an easy kick for goal when the Wallabies were six points down and there were 25 minutes of play remaining.

As John Eales pointed out in the commentary, the Wallabies couldn’t score tries despite their territory and possession dominance, so instead of 5/7 point bites at the lead they should have taken the easy 3-point bite.

Instead of having to score a converted try to take the lead, the penalty points gave the Wallabies the option of kicking a penalty or drop goal for a draw or the option of winning the game with a try. Both options kept the series open for the Wallabies to win or draw.

Somewhere in the Wallabies squad there is a captain, perhaps Bernard Foley, who is guaranteed his place in the team and has the rugby nous to make the right decisions at the right time.

We get finally to Michael Cheika and his coaching of the Wallabies. Georgina Robinson, in the SMH, nailed his problems with the judgement that “Cheika’s honeymoon is over.”

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Is Cheika a flash-in-the-pan coach at the international level? This question is going to be posed a lot this week and in the weeks ahead, especially if the Wallabies lose the third Test at Sydney on Saturday night.

In the past, I have criticised Cheika for his reluctance to promote younger players. Squads, in my opinion, should always have a growth potential seeded in them.

Cheika’s squads have seldom had this. And now I am wondering whether a more alarming weakness is the lack of a smart leadership group being created within the Wallabies squad.

It has been very noticeable in this series that England, the underdogs, have generally taken the right decisions and the Wallabies have generally taken the wrong decisions on the field.

I don’t mean whether to take a kick at goal and things like that. I mean whether to drive the ball. Or whether to play more quickly, or slow play down, or to move it wide, or to keep in tight and so on.

These are on-the-field decisions taken in the flux of play that the players and their leadership group have to almost instinctively get right.

But to get it right on the field, the decision-making needs to be inculcated in the training and blackboard sessions.

I don’t see this with the Wallabies. No apparent leadership group seems stand out. And, as a consequence, poor leadership in times when strong, accurate leadership is needed has been the feature of the Wallabies play this Test series.

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I must say that my heart sank when I saw before the Test that Cheika was lecturing his players in the dressing room while England were lined up calmly in the tunnel waiting to take the field.

Graham Henry told me that the All Black coaches leave the team in the dressing room to themselves. It is the captain and others in the leadership group of senior players who makes the final pitch to the team before they go on to the field.

As this is as it should be. Leadership, like discipline, needs to be internalised and not externalised.

The greatest of the Wallabies coaches, Rod Macqueen, had a favourite quote from Sun Tzu that summed up the proper preparation: The battle is won before it is fought.

Players should not have to be revved up by their coach before they go on to the field. If they do, they haven’t been prepared or coached properly.

I come back to Craig Joubert (the best referee, with Nigel Owens, in world rugby) to nail down this point.

The Wallabies clearly had not been taken through the do’s and don’ts that players should be aware of when Joubert is refereeing.

First and foremost, any one who has had made even a cursory study of Joubert’s refereeing must/should know that he has a profound respect for fair play. He hates niggling, under-hand, and furtive play. He also treasures positive, open play.

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So when the Wallabies continued to niggle after they had been warned, when Stephen Moore thugged a prone English player with a shoulder charge and when Bernard Foley disrupted Owen Farrell’s attempt to catch a high ball (and got shoved out of the way for his efforts) they should have known that Joubert would penalise them.

In the first Test, the Wallabies did not read the French referee Romain Poite accurately and this was a critical factor in their loss.

In the second Test, the Wallabies did not read the South African referee Craig Joubert accurately and this was a critical factor in their loss.

The dismal report card on the two Tests, therefore, must read like this: The Wallabies need to improve dramatically, on the field with their play and off the field with much better coaching, to prevent a three-nil whitewash by England.