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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.
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.
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.
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.