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There’s not much grey area in allowing 12 tries in two Bledisloe games.
It’s plain and simple: the Wallabies’ defence isn’t up to scratch.
Of course, the All Blacks are in imperious form, comfortably the best side in the world. Beauden Barrett and his rampant team would’ve battered many international sides given their momentum and mood at Eden Park last Saturday night.
Speed. Skill. Intensity. There’s no team that lays it on as thick as New Zealand when they’re in a groove.
But Wallabies fans are rightly questioning how and why Australia have capitulated so rapidly over the past two weekends. Like a neck roll on David Pocock, it’s been painful to watch the second-half slumps.
The scorelines are stark: a 38-13 loss in Sydney followed by a 40-12 hammering in Auckland. A bulky 78 points conceded. It’s not rocket surgery – as The Badgelor would say – to note that Tests will scarcely be won when you’re leaking like that.
Michael Cheika’s job as Wallabies coach has been called into question following the two stinging defeats. But maybe it’s worth peeling back a coaching layer to help pinpoint one of the Wallabies’ problems.
Nathan Grey is in his fourth season as Wallabies defence coach. This season is his first full-time, having previously been part-time with the national side when he was contracted with the Waratahs – which included being defence coach for the Tahs in their 2014 Super Rugby title-winning season.
However, he entered this season on the back of his stint at the Waratahs in which NSW – in 2017 – recorded their worst-ever defensive record.
The Tahs let in 40 points or more seven times in 15 games in a woeful campaign, and they conceded, on average, close to 35 points. They leaked 40-plus points on 12 occasions over the previous 281 games since 1996, and even went seven years – between 2003-2010 – without doing it once.
Last season, the Wallabies were dismal defensively in Sydney when carved up 54-34 by the Kiwis, the contest all but over after 30 minutes. Scotland piled on the points in November as the Wallabies went down 53-24 at Murrayfield. The previous week England cruised to a 30-6 victory at Twickenham.
Any swagger the Wallabies had after making the 2015 World Cup final was lost when they were wiped by England the following year in a three-Test series: 39-28, 23-7, 44-40. The All Blacks belted the Wallabies 42-8 a fortnight later in Sydney.
The Wallabies’ deficiencies in attack have been significant over the past two-and-a-bit years, and their inconsistency in the lineout and scrum have been at times infuriating.
But their defence has been well below expectations over the same period, although they’ve kept a lid on South Africa, Argentina and Ireland, and last year’s rare triumph over the All Blacks showed grit despite the clash being a Bledisloe Cup dead rubber.
Cheika’s exasperation has been distinct over the past two heavy defeats, particularly with his team’s inability to contain the quick-to-counterattack All Blacks.
Should Grey take the heat for this?
A defensive coach would spend most of his time on structure at set pieces in different parts of the field, as well as tackling technique and line speed. Maybe drilling into his players the need to react quickly when they lose possession is more about attitude. Nonetheless, Grey should have to take responsibility for that too, along with Cheika.
Cheika’s Wallabies record is now poor: a 50 per cent winning strikerate — 50 Tests, 25 wins, 23 losses, two draws.
As a coach, wins are your currency and imploring that you’re executing a strategy with the World Cup in mind shouldn’t ensure immunity from getting the axe.
The Wallabies have lost six of their last seven Tests. Grey’s recent record isn’t flattering, and being full-time for the first time with the Wallabies leaves few excuses. We were told the Wallabies were fitter than ever.
The squad had an extra week off than a big chunk of the All Blacks. The high-intensity internal match at Leichhardt Oval – a first for the Wallabies leading into the Bledisloe – was perfect preparation, we were told. They spent a week at an island resort near Auckland last week in a bid to break their Eden park hoodoo.
But the carve-up continued.
As a player, I loved watching Grey. Tough and gritty. All energy. It would seem that his enthusiasm and rugged edge would translate nicely to coaching. But for whatever reason, despite hard-earned wins against the Springboks and Los Pumas, defensively Australia have opened up too easily too often.
“Defence is a reflection of the strength of your culture and your ability to dig in for each other,” Dean Mumm said last year after the Waratahs’ 2017 season flop.
“We can say all we want on that front but perception is reality when you look at the numbers.
“There comes a time when you can no longer rest on what has been.
“So the establishment of a new culture becomes really important. And culture matters… You earn respect from the way you play, not what you have done previously.”
I understand that the buck should stop with Cheika, but for Grey – given his poor exit from the Tahs and his below-par record with the Wallabies – time is running out to prove he’s best suited as defence coach.
For Grey it’s black and white: the Wallabies need to be frugal against South Africa and Argentina – both home and away – and pin their pride on their tryline.