The Sunday Mail had a brilliant but wrong-headed front page headline putting England’s 44 – 40 victory over the Wallabies in the third Test at Sydney into a xenophobic context: “Well done, England. Now a second continent hates you as well.”
The fact of the matter is that the Australian reaction to the series 3- 0 whitewash has been a mixed bag. There is (or there should be) dismay about the rugby IQ of the Wallabies, on and off the field. And praise for England’s performances in the Test series, on field and in the coaching box.
There has been sincere congratulations to Eddie Jones for his reconstruction of a fallen, abject and hopeless England side after their dismal 2014 RWC campaign into a side that is now ranked No.2 in world rugby, up from fourth in a matter of weeks.
This England side has inflicted three successive Test losses on the Wallabies. For the first time since 1971 and the era of the ‘Woeful Wallabies’, Australia has lost its first three Tests of a new season.
Part of the pain of this lost series is that it was not unexpected. The rugby community in Australia conceded hat England might, perhaps, just, possibly but probably not win one Test. But winning the series was out of the question.
The ARU even scheduled the second Test when the series was still open, no matter what the result at Brisbane, for Melbourne in the hope that this would ensure (as it did) a full house at AAMI Stadium there.
True believers like Sir Clive Woodward now boast that England has the coach and the players to challenge the All Blacks in the next few years as the best team in world rugby.
We will see. For now, coach Jones is eight from eight in Test wins. This represents England’s best run of successive Test wins since the glory days of Woodward’s England side that won the 2003 RWC Cup.
It is important to note, too, that this sequence of victories has been created by a relatively young England squad which clearly has a lot of growth left in it.
Some statistics establish this point: England’s starting XV had 240 caps compared with the 413 caps in Wallabies starting side. And England presented a front row of 98 caps that out-scrummed a Wallabies front row of 245 caps.
And here is another statistic that, in my view, is the most telling of all to come out of the series:
Owen Farrell, England’s latter day Jonny Wilkinson, attempted 26 shots at goal during the series. He kicked 23 of these attempts, with either penalties or conversions.
At Sydney, Farrell kicked 6 penalties (18 points) to the 3 penalties (9 points) kicked by Bernard Foley.
With the winning margin being 4 points, it is easy enough to see the significance of the Wallabies leaking penalties to England and Farrell banging them over.
Where was the coaching staff training the Wallabies to be more responsive to the laws of the game and to the interpretations of the Test referees?
The fact of the matter is that Michael Cheika’s abrasive game plan results, almost inevitably, in his teams giving away too many penalties.
This brings us to the valid complaint from Australian true believers. This centers around the lack of rugby smarts by the Wallabies, on the field and (I’m afraid to say) in the coaches box.
Michael Hooper offered this explanation for what went wrong for the Wallabies in his after-Test interview: ‘We flew into it: they were much more clinical.’
This is nothing against Hooper as a person or a player (he was one of the Wallabies’ best on the field) but this summary explains a lot about the reasons why the Wallabies lost at Sydney, and why the series was a whitewash for England.
In the chaos, shambles and confusion of rugby warfare you actually don’t want the priority of players to be flying into the rucks and tackles and high balls, without some instant analysis about the outcome.
If someone can find it there is a video of Richie McCaw (remember him) explaining his thinking before hitting a ruck for a clean-out or a turnover.
The essence of the McCaw message is that thought precedes action. Even if there are only milliseconds of time involved.
The best players think first, clinically, before flying into the action. When you get a team of players thinking like this, the All Blacks against Wales in their series and England in their series against the Wallabies, you are going to get a winning side most of the time.
In the 69th minute of the Sydney Test, for example, referee Nigel Owens told Hooper: ‘I can’t keep awarding penalties.’
He was telling Hooper that the flying in tactic was creating penalties against the Wallabies and that the yellow card was the only option now open to him.
You don’t win Tests or 50-50 penalties when the referee is thinking about giving someone in your side a yellow card.
This warning from Owens had come after a series of ruck penalties against the Wallabies, one of them for some spirited (over-spirited perhaps) Wallabies counter-rucking, with Hooper in the lead. The rucking resulted, unfortunately, in England’s halfback being tackled (illegally) while trying to get the ball out of the ruck.
Another example of the Wallabies not being clinical in their thinking came early on in the second half after England, through a series of mishaps including the ball hitting the scrum-cam camera, had won a 5-metre scrum.
The Wallabies presumed that England would go for a push over try. The Wallabies pack accordingly tightened up their binding, the eight pushed for all they were worth, the flankers stayed in tight pushing hard.
But England cleverly went for a quick strike. Billy Vunipola crashed over for a try on Hooper’s side of the scrum.
The flanker was still pushing furiously as Owens awarded the try.
You have to be clinical, too, on the coach’s bench.
Eddie Jones gambled on playing Teimana Harrison as England’s openside flanker. In the 31st minute, Harrison was benched. Courtenay Lawes came on and went into the second row and Maro Itoje went to No.6.
The change coincided with England moving ahead on the score board 17 – 15. More importantly, it gave England some additional forward power at the contact line that Harrison was not providing. The Harrison selection was not working, so he was hooked.
We did not see the same clinical decision-making from the Wallabies coaching staff. Will Skelton was left on the field far too long, even though it was obvious that he was going to make very little impact, aside from giving away the occasional penalty.
I noticed that in the warm-ups, Skelton was practising his lineout jumping. He seemed to get up quite quickly. But in the match he remained as fixed to the ground as a fence post.
Project Skelton needs to be abandoned for the Wallabies for the time being until he can get some mobility into his game.
Last week I mentioned on The Roar that Nick Phipps’ game has deteriorated to the extent that it makes the Wallabies ball-in-hand game an impossible dream.
“It is a credit to the work of the England pack and the nagging attentions of Ben Youngs, but Phipps has simply looked out of form and the berth looks exposed before the start of the Rugby Championship. Australia are historically adept at responding to a crisis, but to have issues at 9 is unsettling. Without flow and precision, the Wallabies are going to have a tough time in the weeks ahead.
The point here is that Phipps is a ‘flying in’ player rather than a clinical player. He is forever yapping away at the referee and at the opposition. What he isn’t doing is being clinical, in the manner of Aaron Smith say, in his distribution and weight of passing, and his sniping from the rucks.”
It is a pity that Michael Cheika did not take the chance to give Nick Frisby an extended time on the field with the instruction to play what was in front of him. Frisby provides a nice service to his playmaker and has plenty of speed to stretch the opposition with his breaks.
“This was a thunderous, pulsating classic. It is unlikely that there will be a better international this year, or for many a year. Both teams demonstrated courage and daring and glorious skill, while also finding the primal intensity to smash each other mercilessly.
“The lead change hands umpteen times, but when it mattered, the visitors found a way to round off their mission Down Under in memorable fashion.”
This is a fair appraisal of the Test. It was a terrific match. Both sides played their hearts and souls out. The 44,063 record crowd at Allianz Stadium loved the play, even if the result was a bitter one for Wallabies supporters.
But before the Test, Cheika told reporters he refused to play the ‘dull’ England way: “We are not set up to play kick-and-chase footy. We play running rugby and you need a platform, a mobile tight five who can also be strong in set-pieces. Ever since I came in, our game has been based on the double playmakers… Matt [Toomua] will definitely add that… I’ve always been involved with teams for whom playing footy is part of their identity.”
All this is excellent stuff. Anyone who has read The Roar over some time will know that these are sentiments I have expressed and endorsed many time.
Being clinical does not mean dull play, necessarily. It means accurate play, which the ball-in-hand game needs from all the runners and passers.
It is the height of folly to try and play running rugby without skilled playmakers. Just having playmakers isn’t enough. They have to be clever and skilled.
Moreover, the team has to be ultra fit to play the running game. And players from the props to the fullback, all the numbers in fact, have to have passing and catching skills.
Finally, a team that aspires to a successful running game philosophy needs have the players in specific positions to capitalise on the playmaking and finish off break-outs with tries.
Yet Cheika picks a back line with only Israel Folau with any speed. England had a fullback, two wingers and centre with equal (Mike Brown) or more speed than their opposite Wallabies numbers.
And what is Cheika doing about up-skilling his playmakers?
Phipps is out of form. Bernard Foley has started the last two Tests by muffing his first kick for touch from a penalty. At Sydney, he started attacking the line with square shoulders but towards the end of the Test began to go deeper and crab across the field.
The thing about the Wallabies this series, and it is a decided worry, is that there has been only marginal improvement with the skills and judgement of the players in the series.
Eddie Jones, on the other hand, celebrated winning the series with England’s victory at Melbourne by arranging for league legend Andrew Johns to give a master class to George Ford and Owen Farrell.
Both Ford and Farrell were flatter in their attacking lines and more creative with their passing and running than their Wallabies counterparts. Was this a coincidence?
One final question: Would the Wallabies have defeated England if the coaching staff were switched around? If Eddie Jones had coached Australia and Michael Cheika coached England, would the outcome of the series have been different?
This is a classic hypothetical question, of course. But, in my view, I think that this could have been the outcome. I reckon the Eddie Jones Wallabies would have defeated Michael Cheika’s England side.
Why? Jones has become a successful mentor coach in the last year or so after losing the plot in Australia some years ago as a boss coach.
“The mentor method is focused on improving the players, on and off the field. The boss method imposes the coach’s views, tactics and leadership on the players. The better the boss is with his selections and tactics, the more successful the team will be. Under the mentor method the players essentially own the team. Under the boss method the coach owns the team.”
With Michael Hooper’s description of how the Wallabies ‘flew’ into the rucks and maul whereas England were more ‘clinical’ as an explanation for the loss, go back to the moments before the two teams took the field at Allianz Stadium.
There is England, with skipper Dylan Hartley, a reformed bad boy if ever there was one, waiting calmly in the tunnel with his team behind him.
And there, back in their dressing room, are the Wallabies in a circle being harangued by Cheika.
And what was the value of the Cheika harangue when that fateful scrum went down in the 44th minute of play with Billy Vunipola charging through to score to take England out to a 22-18 lead?
England had clearly worked out during the week several tactics involving 5m scrums to test the Wallabies’ try-line defence.
Words, even those as impassioned as Cheika can conjure up, aren’t much use when 120kgs in an England jersey charges off a scrum unexpectedly… and you don’t have a plan to stop the charge.
The SMH article continued: “Most successful boss coaches end their careers with failure. Many successful mentor coaches maintain their successes throughout their careers. More importantly for 2016 and onwards, players from generation X,Y and certainly Z (when they come on stream) react more positively to mentoring than to bossing.
“With deep data so accessible and with coaches having the time with professional players to coach every aspect of their play, the mentor method is the way of the future.
“And it should be, even for Cheika.”
Mark Ella had the privilege of handing out the Wallabies jerseys before the Test. Glen Ella was in England’s coaching box as a skills coach.
The unwillingness of Australian rugby to use past champions like the Ella in coaching and mentoring our top players is dismaying.
You could include David Campese, the greatest broken field runner in the history of rugby, with the Ella, as well.
And Australia’s two RWC-winning coaches, Bob Dwyer and Rod Macqueen, a pioneer of the mentoring method of coaching rugby teams.
All these greats should be playing the same sort of role in Australian rugby that Wayne Smith and Grant Fox, to name two former All Blacks out of many, do in New Zealand rugby.
So here’s a final question: After this lost series can Michael Cheika transform himself, as Eddie Jones has done, into a winning mentor coach?