The Rugby Championship is all over, and it’s New Zealand first and daylight – or maybe the European clubs – second.
The All Blacks beat the Wallabies by an average margin of 19 points, the Pumas by 26 and the Springboks by 35. (Click to Tweet)
Ultimately, the competition was only for the minor places, and it is hard to see Australia getting much closer to the men in black at Eden Park.
New Zealand wins because of the coherence of it pyramid structure from top to bottom. Everything – from Super Rugby selection, to the integration of All Black coaching in the provinces, to the way the game is played at school level – is designed to help the success of the national side.
The same cannot be said of Australia, Argentina and South Africa.
Argentina has vetoed the selection of their European-based stars and found it difficult to develop further without them. South Africa is being pulled apart by political interference and leakage to European clubs.
Australia is suffering from the same talent haemorrhage to the Northern Hemisphere – rumours have it Tatafu Polota-Nau will be packing his bags for Bristol right now – at a time when the club-country relationship is in danger of falling apart in England.
Over the past week, directors have hit back at the timing England’s recent training camp in Brighton, in the course of which two autumn Test candidates were seriously injured. Anthony Watson returned to Bath with a broken jaw and Sam Jones went back to Wasps with a broken leg. Watson’s wing partner Jack Nowell was also ruled out for weeks to come with a quadricep injury.
All this, two weeks before the beginning of the Champions and Challenge cups – the two major domestic events in the European club calendar. As Saracens director Mark McCall pointed out:
“We already have a league where our best players do not play for half of the campaign. That is a big enough thing but to have them away before a game as big as Wasps on Sunday and 10 days before the Champions Cup is not ideal…our England internationals have had a tough Monday and Tuesday. We have had to be careful with them since they returned and that compromises your preparations, unless you are mad.”
According to Exeter’s director Rob Baxter, Nowell was even sent back to his club from England’s training camp with a clean bill of health, despite having a 10-centimetre tear in his quad.
The CEO of the Rugby Players Association, Damien Hopley summarised the fallout neatly:
“Sometimes the demands of club and country are polar. Clubs want their players peaking for 25 games a year, England want them peaking for 10 games a year. Until you’ve got a properly structured season it’s incredibly hard.”
What does this mean for rugby in Australia and the rest of the southern hemisphere? Long-term, it means that players who go to Europe will probably never play international rugby again, 60-cap rule or no 60-cap rule.
As the rift between club and international agendas widens, the clubs (who after all own primacy of contract) will become more hard-nosed and less willing to cut their Wallabies, Springboks and Pumas some slack with international release. And there can be no doubt that those players will continue to emigrate to secure their own financial futures and that of their families, especially late on in their careers.
Will Genia is one obvious case in point. He has proven in 2016 beyond any doubt that he is the best Australian 9 by far, but he was not available for the summer series against England because of commitments to his club, Stade Francais. His absence helped change the course of those games against England and retarded Australia’s progress over that period.
Fast forward to the end of year tours, and IRB Regulation 9.7 (b) makes allowance for player release over three weekends in November, between the second to fourth weekends. From October 22 and December 3, Australia has six matches scheduled: against New Zealand, Wales, Scotland, France, the French Barbarians and England.
Three of the matches, plus any training commitments fore and aft, fall outside the designated window. Will Stade Francais be willing to release Genia out of their own generous good nature? I doubt it. They will want him playing Top 14 and European Champions Cup rugby, and that means Nick Phipps and back to square one at scrumhalf for Michael Cheika.
The most unfortunate aspect for Cheika and his coaching group is that the Wallabies are making steady progress as his younger players bed into Test rugby. Samu Kerevi and Dane Haylett-Petty in the backs, and Adam Coleman, Rory Arnold and Allan Alaalatoa up front have all shown to one degree or another a definite aptitude for Test match rugby.
Last weekend’s encounter at Twickenham added Lopeti Timani to their number. Timani enjoyed a solid and promising debut as a full-time starter at #8, even though I suspect he will be moved to #6 eventually when Sean McMahon or David Pocock return.
Timani had 32 involvements in his 70 minutes on the field, divided up as follows:
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|“+1” maul driver
Timani also won one KO repossession, offered one ‘lead block’ on a first phase lineout move, and had one failed jackal attempt at the breakdown. He was not used as lineout ball-winning option.
Let’s add a little more flesh to the statistical bones.
Timani made 20/22 of his tackle attempts for an impressive 91 per cent completion rate. More than one-third of his completions I categorised as ‘effective’ and shifting the initiative towards the defence. Among the significant positive events was a line-break stop at 18:22 and two forced fumbles at 29:26 and 30:42.
Timani’s technique in the tackle is sound. Unusually for a man with so much power, he wraps well with the arms and takes the ball carrier’s base away, rather than just speculating with a ‘flying shoulder’. But once he hits them, they stay hit! The only refinement I would suggest is targeting the ball with his shoulder to increase the forced fumble ratio.
On the negative side, his two misses were in space with the target moving away from him (at 29:58 and 41:30), he was ridden over near the goal-line for the Pumas try in the 22nd minute, and the number of ‘effective’ tackles declined markedly in the second half, with the last occurring in the 44th minute. He also conceded one penalty for ‘no roll’ out of the tackle area in the 48th minute.
Only four carries in total, although the drive at 60:19 was significant in giving the Wallaby exit some breathing-space so close to their own goal-line. The most encouraging feature of Timani’s presence as a ball-carrier was his ability to switch back-and-forth from the ‘hard yards’ positions in the Stephen Larkham attacking structure (the 4/5/8 pod bouncing back in off the sideline at 9:29, the goal-line exit at 60:19), to being the wide singleton delivering a nicely weighted pass to cut Samu Kerevi loose down the 5-metre corridor at 11:45.
If he can offload as well as he can carry with power, he will increase the options and flexibility within the Wallaby attack pattern significantly.
The ‘engine’ of the lineout drive
In my very first article for The Roar, I illustrated Pocock’s ability to be the maul engine from lineout, latching on to the receiver before passing the ball back to the ‘driver’ behind him.
The Wallabies began the game by positioning Timani in Pocock’s ‘+1’ spot at halfback from lineouts, but he clearly needs some work on this aspect of his game in order to be effective.
At 12:30 he is static and upright, and the Wallabies only commit three Puma defender to the drive, at 23:34 he is first uprooted, then pancaked by the Argentine loose-head as the referee calls the first maul ‘stop’.
Lopeti Timani looks to have a big future with the Wallabies as the power-player in their back-row. His tackling is already both sound and sticky, he offers an enticing mix of tight carries and wide offloading ability on attack and I am sure there is more lineout ball-winning capacity waiting to be developed.
The issue for Timani, as with other promising young Wallabies like Kerevi, Coleman, Alaalatoa and Arnold is the volatile nature of the international rugby setting in which they are growing up.
Michael Cheika will never be able to select consistently if the migration of Australian talent continues at the current pace, and if he cannot call upon his top Europeans with ironclad assurances of their availability throughout the calendar year.
As we speak, with the angry noises of the verbal brawl between the English clubs and the national set-up only just subsiding, that possibility is becoming ever more remote.