In the wake of Australia’s meritorious, hard-fought, 23-18 win over South Africa, coach Michael Cheika seemingly only wanted to talk about one thing – resilience.
The Australian government ‘Health Direct’ website defines resilience as the “ability to cope with unexpected changes and challenges”, and the “ability to cope with tough times by applying inner strength and engaging support networks.”
Just add the words “processes” and “structures” and you have pretty much any modern day player or coach interview right there. Resilience is a word not only for our times, but one that sits right near the top of Cheika’s value set.
It is no small affair for any side – let alone one under the pressure that this Wallabies side is consistently under – to be faced with three late changes to the starting line-up, all of them senior, experienced players.
So it was that the Wallabies were forced to shuffle players around, placing an important context to a win that might have lacked in style, but compensated for in character.
Cheika appeals as a man who might enjoy less a comfortable and flowing 40-0 victory than the delights of gutsing it out in defence for a one-point win against the odds.
“We’ve had a lot going against us in the back end of the week and everyone held their nerve pretty well in the game”, he proudly explained post-match.
There were indeed plenty of heroes in defence, loose forwards Pete Samu and Lukhan Tui putting in huge shifts, with frequent flyer Matt Toomua faultless in shoring up the midfield.
Even so, it was a close-run thing, Francois Louw appearing to score in the 78th minute before TMO Glenn Newman found a knock-on in the lead-up. At 23-23, with Handre Pollard kicking for the win, it would have been a bitter pill for the Wallabies to swallow, but in truth, it was more than the bumbling Boks deserved.
After conceding early to Michael Hooper, South Africa steadily went about building an 18-7 lead until they hit the self-destruct button – hooker Mbongeni Mbonambi responding to what was a reckless line-out call on a slippery night with a poor throw that gifted Toomua a try under the posts.
A 53-metre boomer from Reece Hodge meant the game was back on an even keel at half-time, before the Wallabies enjoyed a strong third quarter, even if a combination of poor backline positional structure, lack of composure and staunch Springbok defence limited the damage to two penalty goals.
The Springboks largely contributed to their own demise on the night through poor handling and a strange lack of tactical awareness, given the number of senior players at their disposal. Kurtley Beale’s hurried exit kicks were unimpressive throughout, but at least he recognised the need to clear his defensive line – unlike his opponent, who seemed determined to avoid doing so at all cost.
Cheika indicated later that Beale will be given more time at fly-half. He was at his best when taking on the line directly, but needs to find a connection with Toomua and Hodge – and vice-versa – if the experiment is to be worth persevering with.
Also, his presence at a vital first-half breakdown offered nothing for his teammates, and was reminiscent of his laughable ‘effort’ on the side of the scrum last year against Wales.
The honeymoon period for Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus is well and truly over, with his side mostly clueless in attack, even on the occasions when they held onto the ball. Their forward runners were too static and lacked connectedness and the ability to subtly shift the ball away from the point of contact.
There was a feeling that the loss to Argentina in Mendoza was due in large part to Erasmus having been out of Super Rugby for some time and underestimating the travel factor, to the point where it impeded his sides’ preparation. But here, with a better lead-in, were the same lead-footed, concrete-hands runners.
The word ‘resilience’ could just as easily be applied to fans of both sides, forced to sit through a muddling, mostly skill-free affair, expected to front up again next weekend, anticipating a better performance.
Let’s hope that they do – heaven knows that Australian rugby needs bums on seats right now, and a sub-30,000 attendance represents a poor result for the Wallabies in Brisbane.
While fans at least know that the players are working hard for Cheika, their teammates and for them, it would be unwise for the Wallabies to rely on resilience alone next week against a resurgent Argentina.
Their win against South Africa was convincing, and they offered the All Blacks far more resistance than what the Wallabies did in their two matches – both in defence and attack.
We have seen in the past the Pumas trouble the All Blacks before folding against the Wallabies in Australia, but this side, under Mario Ledesma, feels different.
Gone is the rank indiscipline, staging and victim mentality that has plagued their rugby over a number of years, replaced by fluid ball movement and stepping and pace on the outside – Ramino Moyano’s swerving run and score a case in point.
Flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez is in the form of his life, a constant threat with the ball and bravely putting his body on the line to end Ngani Laumape’s night – and reinforce the recent curse of the All Blacks’ No 12 jersey.
It was Sanchez’ shimmy, angle, timing and positioning of a soft pass that created the Pumas’ third try to Emiliano Boffelli – notably the second successive match where the All Blacks have conceded a try directly from a five-metre scrum.
For all the praise (rightfully) heaped on Argentina, there remains a sense that they still don’t truly believe that they can beat the All Blacks. And while a creaky scrum resembles only a shadow of their halcyon days, that will remain the case.
But when their self-belief changes – as it finally did for Ireland in Chicago – that historic win won’t be far too away.
In his second Test, Shannon Frizell rightly captured the headlines with an impressive, energetic and physical performance that, in many ways, resembled the way Jerome Kaino finally came good on his promise and cemented the All Black number six jersey.
Frizell is far from the finished product – he was exposed running out ahead of the defensive line and needs to further develop his offloading game – but these are rough edges rather than serious limitations. He did more than enough to justify the faith shown in him by the selection panel.
Impressive once again was young centre Jack Goodhue. Comparisons are again being made with Conrad Smith, but it is actually All Black centre of the late 1960s Graham Thorne who more readily springs to mind – both players offering a compelling mix of pace, strength, ball skills and the knack of making good decisions in defence and attack.
As it happens, Thorne – a man who has had a colourful time of it post-rugby – for a time owned a boutique vineyard property in Upper Moutere, only a few kilometres outside of Nelson, which joined the ranks of Test match host cities in spectacular fashion, providing a superb playing surface, a bumper crowd and, by all accounts, excellent hospitality.
It wasn’t only the Argentine effort that posed problems for the All Blacks, who were required to make three injury replacements within the first ten minutes, the most concerning of those to Brodie Retallick, who looks set to miss the remainder of the Rugby Championship.
Retallick has a shoulder injury, which seemed obvious enough to all watching except commentator Justin Marshall, who insisted that Retallick had injured his knee. Should Marshall ever take up medicine it might be a good idea to steer clear.
As is the way with these All Blacks, there was enough of the sublime to keep fans enthralled, mixed with enough errors to keep them frustrated. But what was most encouraging was their ability to go up a gear after being challenged – to play directly and with intensity and purpose that the Pumas couldn’t match.
The final-minute try to Goodhue exemplified all that makes the All Blacks so lethal, immediately seizing on a turnover and transforming defence into attack, identifying space, swiftly recycling, players hunting in support, and hitting passes that had been popped into space for them to run on to.
Instrumental in that move was replacement halfback Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, enjoying a brief cameo that hinted at fruitful days ahead for him in the black jersey.
What is often misunderstood about the All Blacks’ ability to hurt on the counter-attack is that it begins with the actions of the halfback, knowing instinctively where the numbers advantage might be and when it is on to shift the ball quickly to that weak point, instead of taking time to reform and restructure the attack.
In this case, Tahuriorangi knew exactly what to do the instant the ball became available – aided it must be said by Damien McKenzie sprinting like a madman to position himself to take full advantage of the opportunity.
Australian fans waiting for the gap to close with New Zealand might ponder how what seems second nature to New Zealand halfbacks still seems foreign to their Australian counterparts. Earlier in the day, the NRC match from Concord threw up two Sydney Rays halfbacks, Mitch Short and Nick Duffy, both competent players who both lacked the urgency and pace to race to each breakdown and sweep the ball straight off the ground, a trait that halfbacks at this level should have.
Admittedly, it was the Rays’ first match and young fly-half Will Harrison positioned himself ridiculously deep, but it is the halfback’s role to set the tempo for the attack, not to merely play within themselves or go with the flow.
Last week, Melbourne Rising halfback Harrison Goddard – an Australian under-20s representative now with Super Rugby experience – arrived at the breakdown in an upright position, surveying what was ahead and around him, meaning that he had to position his feet first before bending over, leading him to be bustled off the ball before he could clear it.
None of this is intended to single three young players out for undue criticism, but it is an indictment on local coaching standards that these players have risen to professional and semi-professional levels without a command of their position – gained either from their club coaches or a halfback mentor.
All three would be well advised to watch the last few minutes of the Nelson Test match and observe how rapidly Tahuriorangi gets to the breakdown, how low to the ground he stays, how quickly he sets his feet as he arrives, and how his ability to move the ball rapidly off the deck stresses the Argentine defence beyond breaking point.
Will Genia enjoyed a strong match in Brisbane and remains one of the best in the business. But which young player is tirelessly working on these basics so as to put their hand up be Australia’s next great halfback?