Unlike Australia’s earnest but bumbling rugby side, golf’s Ryder Cup never fails to deliver.
By now we will know if the USA managed to fashion an unlikely win or not, but if the events of the first two days are any guide, the ridiculously huge and overtly parochial galleries, housed gladiator-style right on the top of the players, certainly seemed to electro-charge the European team more than the visitors.
Nobody does body language better than Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, but Tiger Woods this weekend gave him a run for his money, rather than feeding off his comeback tour victory last week, instead fixing a permanent scowl to his face, a droop to his shoulders, and shuffling around Le Golf National like the man who wasn’t there.
The format provides for two rounds of foursomes, where pairs of players hit alternate shots. It’s an interesting psychological challenge which some golfers deal with better than others. Not only do you still have yourself to blame but, in this game, if you find yourself hitting out of gnarly, shin-high rough it’s because a thoughtless teammate put you there.
Alternatively, slapping one into a water hazard cannot be shrugged off as easily, when it is someone else who has to step forward and fix up your mess.
And so it was for the Wallabies in Saturday night’s Port Elizabeth Test, with Kurtley Beale teeing it up on the first and inexplicably wafting one wide to the right, out of bounds as it were, putting his teammates behind the game right from the get go.
The Springboks’ lead was doubled soon after, when Handre Pollard took advantage of Folau Fainga’a and Ned Hanigan losing contact in the front line, and whatever happened after that – and the game certainly evened up – the Springboks never seriously threatened to lose control of the scoreboard.
The frantic start did the Wallabies no favours, a combination of lineout and handling errors under pressure, and their dogged determination to kick for Israel Folau to chase, not allowing them to retain possession and settle into their work.
Accordingly, while holding steady in the scrum, new starter Taniela Tupou spent 50 minutes chasing his tail and will today be wondering about a ‘different’ style of Test rugby that he will need to learn how to adapt to.
He was no lone ranger in that regard, the Wallabies struggling all match to distinguish between when to ‘flick the switch’ and seize an opportunity (like when Genia darted to the blindside to set up his own try), or to draw breath, focus on their line-out execution, and build pressure through sustained control of possession.
They are not the first team to visit South Africa and become confused by the defensive centre and outside winger dashing up out of the line, to create the illusion of an ‘umbrella’. One way to beat that is to play hard and directly on the advantage line, another is to employ a judicious, accurate long kicking game to try to force the Boks to play back at you.
A third way is to be intoxicated by the space left vacant on the edges, and to play around or over the umbrella, to free up flying runners. However the Wallabies mostly offered up Reece Hodge or Michael Hooper on the outside – both played well but neither had the pace to burn the Boks in a way that would stop them baiting Beale to keep throwing the ball wide across the field.
The Wallabies attack thus felt reactive and disjointed and – as it has done all year – continues to lack any real sense of identity and understanding about what cohesive style it is, that the players are actually locked into.
Some players seem more focused on maintaining positions than running hard in support of teammates, and as a result, tackled players were too often left exposed at the breakdown, without an offload option or enough strength in numbers to protect the area.
Jack Maddocks standing over the tackle, solo, is simply never going to cut it against a pack as abrasive as the Springboks.
There will be criticism too for ignoring kickable penalty goals but remember that the Wallabies did kick for goal twice in the first half and missed, and there was a sniff of a yellow card in the air, which came to fruition when Aphiwa Dyantyi lingered too long in the wrong place.
But that strategy is only as good as the ability to secure the ball from the attacking lineout, and here, once again, the Wallabies set-piece execution let them down.
If a call has not already been made, the manager of the Wallabies’ hotel in Salta should already have roped off the hotel car park to allow for continuous lineout practice (as will the Pumas hotel by the way – if you’re staying in a Salta hotel this week, best leave the car at home).
For their part, the Springboks weren’t overjoyed with their effort with the ball either, missing multiple scoring opportunities through a lack of composure at vital moments. They also offered Hooper too much latitude at the front of the line-outs that did work – the All Blacks successfully repeating that tactic a few hours later with Ardie Savea.
But for next week, these are mostly moot points – by now everyone knows not to read anything into how this Springbok side performs against other sides compared to the mindset they adopt for the All Blacks.
Tackling machine Peter-Steph du Toit continues to make every post a winner at flanker – he and hooker Malcolm Marx noticeably physically stronger than their direct opponents, in the contact areas.
The All Blacks of course will relish the challenge, heading off a rousing, but deeply flawed, Argentinian effort, in Buenos Aries, 35-17.
This was an enjoyable match of high intensity, emotion and much chaos – one that should hold many of the less experienced, developing All Blacks in good stead for the future.
The Pumas were soundly thrashed in the scrum, which effectively killed off their structured backline attack and any winning chance they might have had, however it didn’t stop them dishing up waves of determined runners, particularly in the second half.
Once again heading the effort was Nicolas Sanchez, truly in the form of his life, although his cross-kick from an attacking penalty, straight to Waisake Naholo, managed to out-do even Beale’s pass, for bone-headed concept and execution.
That play capped a chaotic period where referee Mathieu Raynal (who enjoyed an excellent first 40-minutes) seemed to go off-piste, asking the opinion of TMO David Grashoff about a double movement by Tomas Cubelli, being provided with an accurate account, then summarily dismissing it, then also seemingly inventing a new law interpretation on the spot, to penalize Beauden Barrett for a dangerous tackle.
Raynal demonstrated to Barrett how he needed to wrap both of his arms around Sanchez in the motion of tackling him, not just one arm. Most likely, Raynal was indulging in some minor pants-wetting at the force of the collision, rather than accepting that there is nothing in the laws that prevents Barrett – or any player – using the full force of their shoulder in a tackle, simultaneously with that arm wrapping around the tackled player.
Sonny Bill Williams, Jonny Fa’auli, Steven Luatua – these are famous cases where dangerous shoulder charges have been rightly sanctioned. But sometimes a hard tackle is just a hard tackle.
Relishing that hard stuff was Savea, who grasped an unexpected starting opportunity at No. 8 with both hands, his trademark energy and determination proving a handful for the Pumas all night.
Another stand-out was the late cameo from Richie Mo’unga, who showed dash and composure, before expertly laying on the final try for Anton Leinert-Brown. This not only silenced the crowd, but also saved the Pumas’ scrum from the humiliation of conceding a penalty try.
With the win, the All Blacks sealed their 16th Tri Nations/Rugby Championship title, from 22 attempts. An argument remains that this degree of dominance is hurtful for the competition, although there can be no doubt that this year’s iteration has been the most competitive and interesting for some time, and that there will be no lessening of intensity next week.
At the other end of the table, the Wallabies are in danger of securing their first wooden spoon since 2009 – even a close win by less than seven points will not be enough to lift them off the bottom.
This is a week to forget about whether Michael Cheika’s job is on the line or not, but for his side to calmly focus – individually and collectively – on how to front up to a Puma’s side that, scrum aside, will feel that they have the Wallabies’ measure.
The Wallabies could do worse than to look at the exploits this weekend of Mac (Tommy Fleetwood), Belushi (John Rahm), Alby Mathewson (Tyrell Hatton), Ricky Riccitelli (Francesco Molinari) and the rest of their European teammates.
Despite an incredible amount of noise and external distraction, despite weight of expectation and fear of failure, delivering on the elite stage is about channeling the right amount of energy and emotion into the performance so that performance is enhanced rather than impaired.
It’s fair to say that the Springboks found this zone in Wellington, and the Wallabies… well it’s a while since they’ve been there.
The news that Tolu Latu is flying to Argentina as reinforcement is hardly inspiring – Latu was hooked before halftime for NSW Country against the Fiji Drua, after no less than half a dozen lineout throws failed to find their mark, some by quite a distance.
Both Salta and Pretoria promise plenty – the least of all, with an eye to a World Cup now less than a year away, being some ripping post-mortems.