The loss of the series to Ireland could be the defeat the Wallabies needed to have, provided the right lessons are learnt from it by Michael Cheika. The main lesson (and there are several others) is that the Wallabies need a world class playmaker at number 10.
If Johnny Sexton had been the Wallabies playmaker, does anyone doubt that they would have won the Test?
The Rugby Australia media release headline of its match summary detailing Ireland’s 20 – 16 victory over Australia at a packed Allianz Stadium gave a passionate reaction to an enthralling and dramatic Test match: “Heartbreak For Qantas Wallabies As Ireland Claim Epic Series Decider.”
The last few minutes of the Test were described this way: “A controversial late Sexton penalty pushed the Irish lead back out to four, but the Wallabies launched one final raid after regathering the restart.
“After surging down field and pressing the Irish line with numbers to the right, a long ball from Foley found touch as the final siren sounded. French referee Pascal Gauzere sent it up to the TMO to check whether it had been touched by an Irish defender, but Aussie hopes were crushed when he ruled the vision inconclusive.”
Let us deconstruct these sentences by wringing the understandable emotion out of the words and concentrating on the facts that should underpin what is being said.
The penalty was “controversial” because it appeared to the Australian rugby journalists, taking their lead from the Fox Sports commentary team, that the referee had made a mistake in penalising Wallabies hooker Tolu Latu for his attempted turnover at a ruck.
The first point to make here is that regulations regarding the ruck were changed a little while ago to make it harder for turnovers to happen.
A player has to go for the ball when the ruck is formed. He has to come through the gate at the back. He must not have his hands touching the ground in front of the ball to impede a release. He must not have arms or knees support contact on other players. He can only have one grab at the ball.
We have to understand, too, that until the advent of professional rugby the laws and regulation of rugby assisted defensive sides.
With professionalism and its imperative to make rugby a spectacle to draw in the crowds (and the massed audiences watching on television) there was a need to change the laws orientation from helping defence to encouraging attacking play.
All the law changes in the last 20 years can be seen in this light. And the new ruck regulations/laws are a case in point.
Most Test teams, as Ireland did on Saturday night, play to the imperatives of the new ruck regulations that make it dangerous in terms of conceding a penalty to go into the rucks with the hands.
Ireland was selective, to the point of being circumspect, in trying to get turnovers at the rucks. Their main turnover ploy was to try to force a maul from a tackle.
The Wallabies, though, attacked virtually all the rucks with their hands. Under the new regulations this is a high-risk tactic. This has been a consistent tactic.
Sometimes it works, as it did in the second Test when the Wallabies attacked 34 rucks with their hands and only conceded one penalty.
But sometimes it doesn’t work and part of the reason for this is due to who is actually the referee.
Wayne Smith, in The Australian, provided excellent analysis of the penalty rates at rucks before the Sydney Test, (“Cheika’s rip and tear with restraint”), warning that the referee “like all French officials… tends to referee the side without the ball, which is not what the Wallabies would want to hear.”
This is something that Cheika, with his knowledge of European rugby should have understood, or the High Performance unit should have given him a detailed briefing on.
But look what the did. They attacked all the rucks with their hands, as they did in the second Test. And after half-time, Tolu Latu, an inveterate poacher, was brought on to replace the starting hooker, Brandon Paenga-Amosa.
To my mind, this was a tactical change intended to give the Wallabies another poacher to back up David Pocock, an inveterate poacher himself, after Michael Hooper had to leave the field after 21 minutes of play.
Given the difficulty of making a clear-cut turnover against a shrewd, well-disciplined Ireland carrying side, it was always on the cards that Latu or Pocock would give away a crucial penalty at the ruck.
Wayne Smith, rightly, made this predictive analysis in his pre-Test analysis: “When Joe Schmidt’s men get their hands on the ball, they are an incredibly selfish team, not at all wanting to share. So the Australians will need patience tonight, not trying to force the turnover… ‘Patience,’ ‘restraint,’… does that sound like a standard Cheika team talk?”
Good question. It did not on Saturday night. And in the end the lack of patience and restraint, given the age-old truism that the referee is always right, put the Wallabies in the position where a crucial penalty was conceded.
The direct consequence of all this was that a try was needed by the Wallabies in the last minute of play to win the Test, after Johnny Sexton successfully kicked the penalty.
We move to part 2 of our deconstruction of the media release final sentences concerning the “long ball from Foley” that went into touch.
Israel Folau won the crucial kick-off and the Wallabies surged on to the attack. A series of plays took the Wallabies to within 10 metres of the try line.
Now stop the tape for a moment. Several famous victories in recent Tests have been won by sides after the final whistle. Part of the reason for this is that defending sides are reluctant to give away a penalty and allow the attacking side easy metres towards the try line.
Ireland, for instance, did a 43 (according to one count) phase attack to put Johnny Sexton in position to drop-kick a 40m goal to beat France in the opening match of this year’s Six Nation Tournament.
Now let’s go back to looking at the tape.
Bernard Foley has the ball in hand, there are players streaming up outside him, the slant of the attack is manifestly sideways, the sideline is about 15m aways. The one play that is not on is the long cutout pass which brings the sideline into play.
What does Foley do?
The long cutout pass!
There is a controversy over whether an Irish player touched the ball in flight. This is an irrelevant discussion, in a way. The pass should never have been made.
The attack should have been straightened by Foley taking the tackle and then continued with the possibility of the big forwards driving to the tryline or going wide to Folau and others in the backline.
All of what follows is, admittedly, tough on Bernard Foley. But for some years now Cheika has played him as his playmaker and, most importantly, has not even tried to develop an alternative starting playmaker.
The point that is being made now is that on the evidence of this “grand final” third Test, he is not up to this task.
When the Wallabies were leading early on in the Test 6-3, Foley kicked a ball aimlessly downfield. Ireland won a kickable penalty driving the ball back, which Conor Murray missed. But why was the ball kicked away in the first place? This is something Foley does a lot when he is under pressure.
Foley did put through a neat grubber kick for Marika Koroibete to score from. But his kicking in general play was poor, especially his attempts to get Israel Folau into the action.
Here is a crucial question: would the Wallabies have won this Test if Johnny Sexton had been their number 10?
Of course, there is no definitive answer. But I believe that with a Sexton running the Wallabies backline the home side would have defeated Ireland.
Aside from invariably straightening the line, attacking the line, his square-shoulders running, his accuracy as a kicker in general play and for goal and his awesome variety of passes, Sexton has an almost uncanny knack of making the right play at the right time.
To take one example of many, just before half-time Foley kicked a penalty to level the scoreline to 9 – 9. Sexton kicked off down the middle of the field with a high, hanging strike. A Wallaby recovered a knock-on from an off-side position. Sexton successfully kicked the penalty. Ireland went into their changing room with a 12 – 9 lead.
The rugby intelligence of this kick-off and its execution was impressive.
It is clear to me that the Wallabies won’t make the great leap forward to have a realistic chance to win the 2019 Rugby World Cup tournament without a playmaker of unquestionable quality, the sort of quality demonstrated by Sexton in his master class at Allianz Stadium.
Every team that has won the Webb Ellis trophy has had a world class number 10.
Look at the other leading teams around world and they are all concentrating on making sure that their playmaker is world class.
The All Blacks are so obsessed with the importance of a quality playmaker that they already have blooded three (including two against France on Saturday), all of whom are better than Foley.
This leads me to the question: Why hasn’t Cheika tried to develop, at least, a back-up to Foley since RWC 2015?
Mark Ella suggests Kurtley Beale should be the Wallabies playmaker. But he is too mercurial, in my view, for this position. He is better value for the Wallabies running off the ball and making devastating breaks than being put in the more patient role of setting up other runners and managing the game, in the Sexton manner.
Looking around the Wallabies squad and the Super Rugby franchises, the only possibilities (and this is leaving matters very late, if not too late) are Reece Hodge (who has played no.10 for the Wallabies in a Test) and Jack Maddocks, a gifted runner with many skills who might be coached to play the Stephen Larkin-style playmaker game.
But as the Chinese saying goes, on a journey of a thousand miles it is necessary to take the first step. Where is Cheika’s first step in trying to develop a world-class playmaker?
There is much to admire with what Cheika has done with the Wallabies after the debacle of the Ewen McKenzie era.
The spirit of the team is strong. The set pieces (often a weakness, especially the scrum) are good enough now to force penalties against even strong opponents. The Wallabies can, as they demonstrated against Ireland in the opening minutes of the second Test, score some sensational ensemble tries.
Last year the Wallabies defeated the All Blacks and could have won another Test against the best team in the world. And in the series against Ireland, the first Test was won comfortably and the second and third Test lost with tight score-lines.
Wayne Smith, again, has provided some interesting statistics (before Saturday’s Test) about the record of several of the most recent Wallabies coaches percentage of Test wins, if their team didn’t have to play the All Blacks: “John Connolly’s percentage would rise from 64 to 71, Robbie Deans’s from 58 per cent to 71, Ewen McKenzie’s from 50 to 69 and Michael Cheika’s from 53 to 60.5.”
Incidentally, Joe Schmidt’s winning percentage with Ireland, acknowledging that his team has played very few games against the All Blacks (but with one historic victory), is 72.
All this puts Cheika’s record into a better perspective. It is actually below par for a Wallabies coach, despite the obvious qualities the Wallabies have shown under his coaching regime and the fact that Cheika was the only coach in Smith’s list to take the Wallabies to a RWC final.
I would argue that Cheika’s coaching style is partly to blame for this fast start to his stint with the Wallabies, and its general decline since the @015 RWC tournament.
I divide coaches into brain coaches and heart coaches.
The best brain coaches are generally quiet, reserved, calculating and look to the long term with shrewd selections and nurturing talent to achieve great things. Brain coaches, too, can be ruthless with dropping even their star players if they are not performing.
The best heart coaches are generally passionate, outspoken, emotional and generally look to the quick fix by geeing up their teams with emotional gimmicks. They tend to be very loyal to their favourite players.
History suggests that the best brain coaches produce teams that win the big tournaments, their teams play smart rugby rather than over-the-top emotional rugby and their teams last longer as champion sides than do the great sides developed by the gut coaches.
Only one heart coach, Sir Clive Woodward, has won a RWC tournament.
Michael Cheika is a heart coach and Joe Schmidt is a brain coach.
These qualities were exposed in their approaches to the Israel Folau yellow card incident.
Folau was given a yellow card in the 31st minute of the first half when he tried to take a kick-off and was given a yellow card for taking out Peter O’Mahoney in the air.
To my mind, there was no doubt that Folau grabbed O’Mahoney in the air. This is illegal play under the laws of the game.
And I could not understand Rod Kafer’s argument that the Irish lifted had “a responsibility” to ensure that the lifted player came to ground safely.
That rule applies to lifters if (and this is the crucial point) the jumper has been unimpeded. This is why when jumpers who are lifted and then taken out in lineout are awarded a penalty. It is why, too, that Folau was cited for an earlier incident in the 9th minute of play when something similar happened.
The jumper in the case of the yellow card, O’Mahony, was clearly impeded, grabbed by Folau as photos of the incident show, which culminated in him being injured so badly he took no further part in the match. A yellow card had to be given.
The way the two coaches reacted to all of this is illustrative, I believe.
Michael Cheika was clearly still seething about the incident and “invited” the referee to the press conference to discuss the incident.
This is the typical reaction of a heart coach. The inevitable result of this sort of reaction, my player right or wrong sort of thing, is that Folau will probably offend again in a similar sort of circumstance.
Joe Schmidt showed how a brain coach reacts by pointing out that “once a player is up in the air and lifted, if you do grab him, whether you win the ball or not, you’re running the risk.”
The key to Ireland winning this terrific series and the Wallabies losing it is, in my opinion, encapsulated here. Cheika was concerned about protecting his player from condemnation. Schmidt was concerned about the technicalities of why the player, Folau, had broken the law.
How can Folau ever get his technique right if his coach denies that he has a problem with his instincts in the air?
The Wallabies turned on a Folau-Air game in the first Test that bewildered Ireland and lead to a famous victory for Cheika’s team.
But in the second and third Test, Ireland had worked out how to stop Folau-Air (or almost how to stop it) and, as a consequence, both these Tests were won by the side that looked out-classed in the first Test.
And there, in a nutshell, is why heart coaches have won only one Webb Ellis trophy and brains coaches have won all the rest of the RWC tournaments.
Brain coaches improve their players and therefore, their teams. Heart coaches can inspire their teams.
Improvement is permanent. Inspiration tends to be temporary.