Why are the Wallabies a team that can’t finish?

Spiro Zavos Columnist

By Spiro Zavos, Spiro Zavos is a Roar Expert

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    As I walked into my local Centennial Park Deli, I heard Tony behind the counter tell a good old boy customer: “The trouble with the Wallabies is that they’re a team that can’t finish.”

    “At least,” the good old boy replied, “they didn’t lose this time.”

    This exchange about the frustrating 23-all draw between Australia and South Africa in Perth on Saturday night got me thinking.

    In sport, especially a home Test that the Wallabies were expected to win (closely admittedly), a draw is essentially a loss. It is a non-win. You must win home Tests to maintain credibility as a rugby power.

    I say that the Wallabies were expected to win this Test, despite two successive losses to the All Blacks and the terrific record this season set by the Springboks, because Australia have won four out of five home matches against South Africa in the Rugby Championship.

    Moreover, going into the Perth Test, the Wallabies have won two out of three home Tests in the professional era. Aside from the 3-0 whitewash by England last year, the only team in recent years that has some significant winning success against the Wallabies in Australia has been the All Blacks, who else?

    There needs to be a slight adjustment to all of this to take into account the Perth South African support factor. Often in Perth, the support of the ex-pat South Africans for the Springboks makes the Test seem like a home Test for the visitors.

    Saturday night seemed to be one of those nights. The support for the Springboks was evident. The support for the Wallabies was diminished, it seemed to me, by the chants of “Force! Force! Force” throughout the Test, especially at the beginning and end.

    Western Force Protest

    (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

    There have been 84 Tests between Australia and South Africa and only two of them have ended in draws, both of them at Perth. The first drawn Test was in 2001 at Subiaco Oval, 14–14. The second came on Saturday night at nib Stadium where a pulsating 23–23 result was played out by the Wallabies and the Springboks.

    The significant point in all of this theorising is that with a 20–10 lead with less than 30 minutes of play left, the Wallabies should have gone on to win the Test comfortably.

    Moreover, with this lead, they were camped for a time inside the Springboks 22. But a crooked lineout throw, poor scrumming and inept clean-out play at the rucks by the Wallabies allowed the Springboks to storm back into the lead, before conceding a penalty that Bernard Foley kicked over.

    Even toward the end of the Test, with the scores level, the Wallabies had set pieces inside the Springboks half and managed to mess them up, allowing the Springboks to rampage towards their posts and, finally, set up a drop kick attempt.

    Right at the end of the Test the Wallabies tried bravely to run the ball back from deep inside their territory but made a mistake and any chance of a rabbit-out-of-the-hat victory was lost.

    This desperate breakout was magnificent. But it was charge of the Light Brigade stuff. You never sensed, as you do when the All Blacks are making a last-minute comeback charge, that there was any method in the onslaught.

    The Wallabies ran the ball back but what was the plan?

    Were they trying to set up a long-range drop goal attempt? Or force a kickable penalty? Or go for a runaway try?

    You can make a lot of territory in the last play of the match by smashing up the middle against a side that is cautious about conceding penalties. But you had no sense that the Wallabies were aware of this possibility in their last desperate attacking plays.

    They forced plays rather than playing deliberately and in a calculated manner to make their way up field, patiently generally and then explosively when gaps had been created.

    This lack of calculation, a deadly ruthlessness that all great teams have as part of their DNA, indeed the reason for their greatness, was exposed when the Wallabies had the Springboks at their mercy early on in the second half.

    Will Genia Australia Rugby Union Championship Bledisloe Cup Wallabies 2017

    (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

    Slovenly lineout work and sloppy scrumming allowed the Springboks to get off the hook of an impending defeat.

    I know some readers will react poorly to this comment, but it is moments like this when you need calm, canny and inspirational captaincy.

    The Wallabies did not get this.

    The Springboks lineout, for instance, threw up two jumpers in tight situations when the Wallabies were throwing in. Where was the obvious response of throwing short and driving through the spaces in the South African lineouts left by the second jumper?

    This was done once, admittedly, when Tatafu Polota-Nau crashed over for a try from one of the best rolling mauls the Wallabies have constructed for many years.

    Why wasn’t this play used again?

    At half-time, Michael Cheika told the Fox Sports commentators that the instruction to his Wallabies was to be more physical at the rucks. This instruction was not acted on by the players and the Wallabies paid the consequences for seemingly ignoring the coaching staff.

    The question needs to be asked again: Why was the instruction ignored?

    Teams that win and, more importantly, win when the run of the game goes against them, invariably rectify situations and plays that are going against them.

    In the tight situations, there is no substitute for calm, authoritative leadership.

    We saw that earlier in the evening when the All Blacks came back from being down at half-time, their first time in New Zealand against the Pumas, to storm back to a 39–22 victory that looks better on the scoreboard than it did in reality.

    Down 22–15 down with a player in the sin-bin, the All Blacks looked to be in terrible trouble with the Pumas capitalising on the nervous, ill-disciplined play by the home side.

    You could see Kieran Read gather the players around him and give them the instructions about how they were going to turn the Test around.

    This dire situation, then, became the catalyst for the best All Blacks play of the Test with flanker Vaea Fifita, playing his first Test, charging 40 metres like an unstoppable force of nature to score one of the great individual tries in Test history.

    That made it 22-22 thanks to a terrific sideline conversion from Lima Sopoaga, on as a substitute for the sin-binned Beauden Barrett.

    Then, within minutes, the score went to 29–22 with another terrific try, this time an ensemble effort scored by Damian McKenzie and converted once again from the sideline by Sopoaga.

    Beauden Barrett All Blacks New Zealand Rugby Union 2017

    (AAP Image/SNPA, Dianne Manson)

    The point in all of this is that sides that win consistently do so because the players play with a ferocious attention to detail to ensure that victory is gained.

    They not only follow their leader, they also become leaders themselves when they have the responsibility of making a run, throwing in at a crucial lineout, scrumming at a crucial scrum, kicking a crucial goal and making a crucial tackle.

    I just don’t see this ferocious attention to detail from the Wallabies. Yet.

    And I don’t see the players rising to the responsibility of creating a flaming victory from the ashes when they have the chance to do so.

    Having said this, it must be conceded that this year’s Springboks look like being one of their best sides in the last decade or so.

    Up to the Perth Test, they had scored more tries, 21, than they scored in 12 Tests last year, 20.

    This statistic and the way they played at Perth, never giving up using the ball in passing movements, presenting a strong scrum and lineout, and attacking the rucks with vigour and skill, suggest that the Wallabies are in for a terrific challenge when they play the return Rugby Championship Test in South Africa.

    The change in attitude and play of the Springboks should be inspirational for the Wallabies. And the fact that they really should have defeated them.

    This season’s results for the Springboks show that teams can be revived within a season from ineptness to where they can challenge the best in the world.

    If the Springboks can become virtual overnight winners, why not the Wallabies?

    Once the physical element is put in place, and the Wallabies have done this, the challenge becomes mental. The minds and temperament of the players have not really reached the high levels needed for the Wallabies to be a team that can finish off their opponents when they are ready to be buried.

    To get back to Tony’s assertion that the Wallabies are a team that can’t finish, the problem is now mental rather than a matter of applying skills and tenacity.

    The hardest thing in coaching is instilling the courage in the players of daring to win.

    This is the challenge for Michael Cheika now. Perhaps his final real challenge with this group of players.

    In the last two Tests, the Wallabies have shown they can put themselves in a position to defeat two terrific teams. But the victories have not come.

    Losing is the easiest thing to achieve in sport. Winning is the hardest. But once winning is achieved, it can become a habit, a virtuous circle to enchant players, coaches and supporters.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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    The Crowd Says (165)

    • September 11th 2017 @ 6:59am
      Maddie said | September 11th 2017 @ 6:59am | ! Report

      Cheika has to go.

      • September 11th 2017 @ 10:43am
        Bakkies said | September 11th 2017 @ 10:43am | ! Report

        and de Clyne

      • September 11th 2017 @ 12:03pm
        Ryan said | September 11th 2017 @ 12:03pm | ! Report

        Maddie – leave him alone, he’ll come right #Abs4Ever

      • September 11th 2017 @ 8:20pm
        Noodles said | September 11th 2017 @ 8:20pm | ! Report

        Nope. Spiro is right in a way. But he takes no account of the gulf between the ABs in depth and experience and the team Cheika is building. For starters, the biggest improvement is in the tight five. We now have three and maybe four solid locks. Two of them might be great. Only one has been around for any length of time. The front row has two experienced rakes and one experienced prop. The rest of settling or new. Our 7 is very young but is playing into real status. Our six is new and underweight. Eight is a good player underweight. Compare all that with the ABs.
        We’ve one good half. A 10 who can be really good, but strays. 12 and 13 look settled, with a little depth emerging. One wing is experienced, but now out for the year. Others are good, but none has depth of experience. Our 15 can be great but seems still to lack awareness at times as if he’s new to rugby.
        In short I think Cheika is building a good side but we need to give the players time to settle and Cheika time to find more players to pressure every position.

      • September 11th 2017 @ 9:29pm
        PiratesRugby said | September 11th 2017 @ 9:29pm | ! Report

        The clown is a failure. Do we have to sacrifice our chances at RWC19 before we sack him? So far we only have victories against Fiji and Italy. He’s not building anything other than a record of failure and an astonishing number of second rate Waratahs with ARU top ups.

        • September 12th 2017 @ 10:03am
          taylorman said | September 12th 2017 @ 10:03am | ! Report

          Well its going to get to a point when it doesn’t matter if its his fault or not. When the numbers do the most talking he’ll go. Can’t argue with the numbers, and that’s what his loyal fans are bravely trying to do with each loss.

    • Roar Guru

      September 11th 2017 @ 7:20am
      stillmissit said | September 11th 2017 @ 7:20am | ! Report

      There can be no “ferocious attention to detail” when the coach has no ferocious attention to detail. I am a half and half with Cheika but he has a couple of weaknesses, selections and details are a couple of them.

      There is no obvious replacement for him and he is capable of getting the team up for big games ie second test v AB’s.

      I cannot see another coach coming in and making a huge improvement. Deans had good attention to detail but the players would not listen to him. Cheika told them to attack the breakdown in the 2nd half and the players did not listen to him….I think there is something in this ie the players do not respect the authority of this coach and most probably any coach.

      • September 11th 2017 @ 7:48am
        Fionn said | September 11th 2017 @ 7:48am | ! Report

        Deans had some really, really poor losses, but don’t forget that even in 2012, when people were furious with our results, we won 9 matches, drew 1 and only lost 5. That is the sort of record that Cheika would be very enviable on. Deans did much better between 2008-2011, and we lost a lot of close matches to the All Blacks.

        I think whether the players respect the coach depends totally on the players. You can’t seriously tell me that the Force boys didn’t respect Wessels, and I know the Brumbies respect Larkham. I also think that the players do respect Cheika, they slavishly follow Cheika’s game plan (which is the polar opposite of Deans’ ‘play what’s in front of you’).

        The problem is that there is a skeleton of a good team between TPN, Kepu, Arnold, Coleman, Hooper, Genia, Naivalu, Beale, Kuridrani, Folau and Alaalatoa. The issue is with our poor game plan that comes from Cheika and the fact that he continually picks passengers in the team.

        • Roar Guru

          September 12th 2017 @ 7:24am
          stillmissit said | September 12th 2017 @ 7:24am | ! Report

          Fionn: I struggle to see a game plan. One week we drive the ball up, in one off madness, until we turn it over. The next we are throwing it out wide. The only consistent thing I see (as an ex fwd) is the pathetic lack of effort and smarts at the breakdown.

          Deans was a better coach than Cheika but that don’t help anything.

          I realise it is clutching at straws but I am wondering if Mick Byrne wouldn’t do a better job.

          • Roar Guru

            September 12th 2017 @ 8:48am
            Train Without A Station said | September 12th 2017 @ 8:48am | ! Report

            Cheika doesn’t get caught up in those fancy, newfangled this like game plans.

      • September 11th 2017 @ 11:28am
        markie362 said | September 11th 2017 @ 11:28am | ! Report

        U said it all when u said read told the abs what to do.where was hooper for the wbs.hes not a captains bootlace.

      • September 11th 2017 @ 2:05pm
        Dummy Scissors said | September 11th 2017 @ 2:05pm | ! Report

        No replacements for Chieka ? that’s a real shame, I didn’t know that people weren’t coaching rugby anymore …

        • September 11th 2017 @ 10:38pm
          Bakkies said | September 11th 2017 @ 10:38pm | ! Report

          DS it’s down to who is available and good enough to take on the role. Apart from Jake White who else would put their name in the hat?

      • September 11th 2017 @ 9:29pm
        nickbrisbane said | September 11th 2017 @ 9:29pm | ! Report

        The only detail that he is scrupulous about is that the player comes from the Tahs

    • September 11th 2017 @ 7:53am
      Luke Ringland said | September 11th 2017 @ 7:53am | ! Report

      This was half a great Springbok Team. With their forward dominance, it should have been they, not the Wallabies dominating. Even at 20-10 up, I struggled to see the Wallabies gaining a stranglehold on the match, such was the lack of continuity and cohesion generated from attacking breakdowns.

      And so yes, half a great Springbok team. A great forward pack. Their backline does not look like it will trouble the really top teams at the minute. And they won’t bully the AB pack, or dare I say the English pack, like they did the Wallabies. They have a lot of improvement to do.

      The Wallabies on the other hand, are close to the real deal. But, as the never ending disagreement around selections will show, we are 2-3 test class forwards away from dominating. The other mail on the Roar is that we lack a good enough 10. But the Beale-Foley combination is a very good one because of the way they compliment each other’s games, and certainly good enough to direct around a very talented outside backline.

      • September 11th 2017 @ 11:46am
        Ruckin Oaf said | September 11th 2017 @ 11:46am | ! Report

        They did play some dumb rugby at times the Bokkies. Far too much kicking in the first half rather than trying to dominate the midfield with some driving play.

        Good pack and great work at the set piece and breakdown though,

        How is it thought that the very talented outside back-line of the Wallabies didn’t manage to score 1 try despite 56% of the territory and 57% of possession?

        • September 11th 2017 @ 12:55pm
          Luke Ringland said | September 11th 2017 @ 12:55pm | ! Report

          Jeese, watching that match I would never have figured those were the stats. But you know what they say about stats. We seemed to lack for quality ball for much of the match.

        • September 11th 2017 @ 5:00pm
          Suzy Poison said | September 11th 2017 @ 5:00pm | ! Report

          Well it depends at what stats you look at. If you look at the following stats.
          Metres Australia: 596 Metres South Africa: 307
          Carries Australia: 120 Carries South Africa: 74
          Passes Australia: 167 Passes South Africa: 94

          Australia dominated those stats. But the fact that Australia didn’t score more points shows you the Australian attack was easily defended. In other words they mostly went backwards in the tackle.

          Then if you look at these stats, you see that with a lot less possession, South Africa were a lot more dangerous with the ball in hand.
          Defenders Beaten Australia: 17 Defenders Beaten South Africa: 21
          Clean Breaks Australia: 7 Clean Breaks South Africa: 17
          Offloads Australia: 4 Offloads South Africa: 7

          In fact I know of only one other team, that deals with scraps of possession better…yeah we all know who that is, the Darkness.

          • September 11th 2017 @ 5:05pm
            Suzy Poison said | September 11th 2017 @ 5:05pm | ! Report

            And agree with you Luke. It’s half a good Bok team. No where near good enough to challenge the Darkness, but they are improving. And that for us Bok fans is encouraging.The defence and set piece was good, as was the loose trio. Kicking in general very poor and Jantjies had a poor game.

            • September 11th 2017 @ 5:25pm
              Fionn said | September 11th 2017 @ 5:25pm | ! Report

              You’ve got a forward pack that is arguably as good as the All Blacks and England.

              • September 11th 2017 @ 6:56pm
                Jacko said | September 11th 2017 @ 6:56pm | ! Report

                Based on what Fionn? Not that i rate the ABs or England pack as anything special in set piece but the SA pack has yet to prove they can dominate any of the top sides. Maybe they are but I want to see it before i rate them

              • September 11th 2017 @ 10:23pm
                Fionn said | September 11th 2017 @ 10:23pm | ! Report

                I’d have Marx over Coles, arguably the locks are even, 2017 Kolisi over any AB 6 in 2017 and Kriel over Cane. Their props aren’t as mobile but they scrummage super well.

                The Boks’ line out destroyed our one when the All Blacks’ never even threatened and I feel that the Boks’ scrum is better too.

                The du Preezs, PSDT and princess props they have coming up are all sick too.

                They may not have the skill of the AB forwards, but they have more power.

                I think it is a top up as to who is better.

              • September 12th 2017 @ 1:59am
                StevieB said | September 12th 2017 @ 1:59am | ! Report

                You wouldn’t get too many people agreeing about Coles, the all black locks are number 1 and 2 in the world with estebeth and maybe Itoje next, number 8 no contest, props demolished the lions then the wallabies scrum, even Cane maybe even of not better

              • September 12th 2017 @ 10:07am
                taylorman said | September 12th 2017 @ 10:07am | ! Report

                Yeah he gets a bit carried away now and then Jacko…

              • September 12th 2017 @ 10:15am
                Fionn said | September 12th 2017 @ 10:15am | ! Report

                Taylorman, as Neutral View From Sweden has said, you know a lot about the All Blacks and NZ rugby, but your lack knowledge about anything outside of New Zealand is rather sad. Your bias and your inability to rate or give credit to foreign players is very sad.

                Stevie, Coles has been injured half of the year, and hasn’t shown fantastic form. Marx has been far and away the most dominant hooker in the world in 2017.

                I’d say that Whitelock and Retallick are probably ahead of EE and Mostert, just, but it is much of a muchness (and the English locks are equal too). But PSDT and the English reserve locks are better than the AB ones.

                Read has lost some pace, but yes, he is much better than Cassiem. Is 2017 Read more valuable than Whiteley or Vermeulen though?

      • Roar Guru

        September 11th 2017 @ 2:53pm
        Corne Van Vuuren said | September 11th 2017 @ 2:53pm | ! Report

        Agree luke, this is exactly what you suggest.

        Half a great Springbok team.

    • September 11th 2017 @ 7:56am
      Ben said | September 11th 2017 @ 7:56am | ! Report

      Just a small point..it was Vaea Fifitas second test..he subbed on against Samoa and scored a try then as well.

    • September 11th 2017 @ 7:57am
      Grotto said | September 11th 2017 @ 7:57am | ! Report

      Rather than aggression at the breakdown, I thought chieka said “accuracy at the breakdown “. The wallabies still failed on this count(better in second half) but more of this can be pinned on the boks being clever with the way they attacked the breakdown , usually in pairs…

      Great to see the focus on the forwards though.
      Hooper will cop flak (again) but I thought he and the locks were excellent in the face of a fast and fit Bok pack.

      • September 11th 2017 @ 8:42am
        jameswm said | September 11th 2017 @ 8:42am | ! Report

        Hooper carried our back row. Cheika has really got that wrong, but won’t admit it.

        • Roar Guru

          September 11th 2017 @ 9:27am
          PeterK said | September 11th 2017 @ 9:27am | ! Report

          very true

        • September 12th 2017 @ 5:52am
          Dan from Fiji said | September 12th 2017 @ 5:52am | ! Report

          Imagine if Hooper was bigger than he currently is. Would be a beast. Cheika needs to have 6 & 8 much bigger to compensate for the smaller Hooper.

      • September 11th 2017 @ 12:59pm
        Markus said | September 11th 2017 @ 12:59pm | ! Report

        Yeah tough to blame Hooper. The whole point of the unconventional Wallabies back row was to accommodate Hooper’s strengths (ball running and work rate) with selections that compensate in other areas (breakdown, lineout and potentially tight ball running).

        Hanigan is weak at the breakdown (not at all like ruck monkey Fardy), weak in contact (4 runs for 1 metre, turned over in his final run) and while he is supposedly a strong lineout option (I question just how strong) he is not actually being used so added little to a poorly performing lineout.

        McMahon is not a complement to Hooper, he is a substitute. He does not provide a strong lineout or breakdown presence. And while he goes all in when running the ball, he got smashed back over the advantage line or isolated himself and turned the ball over.

        • September 11th 2017 @ 7:02pm
          Jacko said | September 11th 2017 @ 7:02pm | ! Report

          Markus your views on McMahon may well be right but he was far better at the 2015 WC so either he has slipped in ability, which I find hard to believe, or he is not being motivated correctly at the moment. At hs best he has proven to be very distructive but so far has failed to impress this year

          • September 12th 2017 @ 12:18pm
            Markus said | September 12th 2017 @ 12:18pm | ! Report

            McMahon barely played in the RWC (one match against Uruguay and 40 minutes against Wales in the pool stage, did not feature in the finals), and I would argue that performance against Uruguay is not a basis for comparison against Tier 1 test teams.

            He has proven to be a destructive ball runner at Super Rugby level.

    • September 11th 2017 @ 8:01am
      Bob Wire said | September 11th 2017 @ 8:01am | ! Report

      It was not an enjoyable test. Bok forwards could not capitalise on a terrible Wallaby forward effort. The Wallabies never got going. To finish, you have to start, the Wallabies never got started.

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