Steve Hansen, rugby’s Wayne Bennett when it comes to giving an expansive answer to a journalist, was succinct with his summary of the All Blacks’ 54-34 monstering of the Wallabies in the first Bledisloe Cup Test of 2017.
“The first 50 minutes was probably as good rugby as you will see, and the last 30 some of the ugliest rugby.”
You have to go back to a freezing cold afternoon at Athletic Park in 1996, with driving rain coming in from the South Pole (or so it felt), and the first Bledisloe Cup Test of the professional era for a similar 50 minutes of sensational attacking rugby from the All Blacks.
That afternoon, playing into the wind, New Zealand scored four first-half tries and led 25-6. They scored another 18 points in the second half and held the Wallabies scoreless.
I was so cold in the atrocious conditions that I couldn’t take any notes. Yet the All Blacks handled the ball so comfortably, passed and ran with such tremendous effectiveness, that their play looked like a run in the park.
At Sydney 21 years later, for 50 minutes, the brilliance of the attacking lines and the invention behind some of the set-piece plays gave the viewer a similar sort of feeling. There was an effortless effectiveness about the sweeping attacking plays and enveloping defence against the Wallabies.
Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. Effectiveness is never without effort, both mental and physical.
The poet Virgil expressed a profound thought about high achievement with this insight: “Ars celare artem” (true art is to hide art).
The profundity here is that practitioners in any field who do the most wondrous things – whether it is writing plays like William Shakespeare (who was accused of never blotting out a line), bowling leg-spin like Shane Warne, batting with elegant effectiveness like Peter May or Greg Chappell, or playing sublime rugby, as the All Blacks did on Saturday night – make it look easy.
When the masters are at their best, they give the (false) impression that what they are doing is so easy anyone could emulate them.
The real truth is that this mastery comes from a fundamental understanding and control of the basics of what they are doing. It is so well understood, through study and practice, that doing the best thing becomes as natural as breathing.
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This attitude of doing the basic things supremely well is the great gift that the All Blacks bring to Test rugby.
When they are truly on their game, they reduce a complicated game, with complex laws, to a simple set of first principles and then honour those principles with 100 per cent achievement.
By smashing across the advantage line, varying the weight and length of their passes, adjusting the spacing of their attacking lines to allow runners to run in gaps, and playing with their eyes and moving into wider formations open to exploit mistakes in alignment and numbers, the All Blacks had taken a 26-6 lead after only 25 minutes.
It looked so simple. It was simple. But behind the method was hours of training and coaching, and many more hours of analysis.
At this stage, I wondered if we were going to see a repeat of the epic 2000 Bledisloe Cup Test in Sydney, when the All Blacks raced away to a 24-point lead only to be matched by the Wallabies at halftime.
But Michael Cheika’s Wallabies are nothing like the great Rod Macqueen Wallabies of 1999-2003.
Instead of an Australian comeback, the All Blacks scored four more tries – two just before and two just after halftime – to go out to a 54-6 lead, and what seemed likely to be a scoreline in the high 60s or even the 70s.
The Wallabies came back with four tries of their own to give seeming respectability to the final scoreline of 54-34. But by any measure, this scoreline represents a walloping.
Worryingly for Wallabies supporters, this walloping was handed out in Sydney.
What happened to ANZ Stadium being something of a fortress? What happened to the old notion that home Tests are invariably won?
I don’t go along with the notion that the final scoreline was respectable for several reasons, some of them statistical and others endemic to the game played.
The New Zealand Herald ran a story on Sunday regarding the records broken in this Test:
There were plenty of ‘almost records’ as well:
Is there an omen in this last note?
Next Saturday, the second Bledisloe Cup match will be played in Dunedin, in a covered stadium where everything will help the all-court attacking game the All Blacks played in Sydney’s cold and windy conditions.
We go back to Steve Hansen to try to understand why the All Blacks lost the last half hour 28-0: “I think we got a little seduced by the scoreboard and went away from fundamentals of what we wanted to do. ”
The Sun Herald (or, at least, its headline writers) took the attitude that it was a resurgence by the Wallabies, rather than undisciplined play by the All Blacks, that engineered the turnaround in the Test: ‘It’s not all bleak’.
Great headline, with its play on the New Zild pronunciation of ‘black’.
Tom Decent’s lead paragraph though, did not quite live up to the headline: “The Wallabies’ hopes of regaining the Bledisloe Cup were all but dashed after a shocking first half before they managed to salvage some pride in a bizarre 54 – 34 defeat at Sydney.”
This put the emphasis on the All Blacks’ play in the first 40 minutes or so, and the dire implications such an emphasis holds for next Saturday.
The Sunday Telegraph was sharper and more accurate in its headlines and analysis: ‘Fools gold: Record-breaking All Blacks turn Wallabies into laughing stock’.
Jamie Pandaram made these pertinent points: “Australia’s second-half comeback must be seen in context — the All Blacks brought on reserves and took their foot off the gas. When they wanted to play, they were on a different level to anything this group of Wallabies players can ever expect to achieve.”
Michael Lynagh was furious after the defeat and was not distracted by the second-half comeback, saying on Britain’s Sky Sports, “I can’t overestimate how angry I am at seeing an Australian team with skills that are non-existent. Passing and catching and making tackles and trusting the bloke beside you are pretty basic, even at schoolboy level. Australia has had a month to work together to try and create stuff, and they come up with that first 40?”
These reactions by a former Wallaby great and by journalists are at variance with the reactions from within the Aussie camp.
And this unwillingness to accept that the Wallabies were walloped at home and because of coaching (especially with the defensive systems) essentially means that these defeats are going to continue.
Here is Michael Hooper: “Our defence just wasn’t up to scratch and there was a bit of unravelling there for a bit. We were able to get back in it with some really good fight.”
Michael Cheika did admit “it was pretty plain to see our defence wasn’t good enough”.
Then the coach made the strange argument that it was the implementation of the defence system, not the system itself, that was at fault: “In the adherence to the way we defend plus the tackling in itself. It’s got to be better.”
This head-in-the-sand attitude from Cheika is not good enough.
When asked if he still backed Nathan Grey and his defensive systems, despite the eight tries recorded against it, Cheika replied: “One hundred per cent.”
How can the coach defend a system that has been leaking tries and defeats for years? It seems to me that if Cheika supports his defensive coach 100 per cent that he is 100 per cent supportive of the system. And if this is the case, criticism of it needs now to be directed at Cheika rather than Grey.
There is nothing in the defensive system – and the abysmal recent defensive record of the two teams that have been using it, the Waratahs and the Wallabies – that gives supporters cause for hope.
The key element of the system is hiding poor defenders out of position and away from the shoulder-charging attackers. The hope is to alleviate pressure on the poor defenders, rather than intensifying pressure on their opponents.
It’s all about hiding the Wallabies’ weaknesses, rather than exploiting opposition’s weaknesses.
A consequence is that the Wallabies are often not sure where they should be (Israel Folau in the line rather than at fullback, for instance) or whether the situation requires a up-and-tackle response or a drift.
Cheika complained after the Test that too often his players did not commit to the system. By this, he meant that they did not charge forward to make a tackle when confronted with several runners.
This charge-forward, confident attacking-defence is what happens when you leave players in the defensive positions they have played in all their lives.
The best way to improve a player’s defensive play is to improve their tackling and their understanding of the system, rather than hiding them somewhere remote on the field where you hope the opposition will not have plays to exploit them.
It has been easy enough in recent years for the All Blacks coaches (and for Super Rugby coaches too) to work out the weaknesses in the system and exploit it ruthlessly.
In the first 50 minutes of the Sydney Test, the All Blacks broke through in the middle of the field, out wide (especially) and from broken play, with the Wallabies continually getting their numbering-up wrong.
For the Wallabies, the wrong defenders were in the wrong places at the wrong time. And the All Blacks seemed to know how to exploit the uneven match-ups they were creating.
I sometimes get criticised for quoting Sun Tzu, but here we go again with one of his most famous aphorisms: “Every battle is won before it is fought.”
The All Blacks coaching staff, and players who mastered the game plan developed for them, won the Test before they actually walloped the home side on the field.