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Wallabies do it to us again. So what now?

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8th October, 2018
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With the Wallabies 31-7 down at halftime on Sunday, I said to my wife that I was getting angry and yelling more at a replay than any sane adult really should.

Through judicious use of what’s frankly becoming a superpower, I had again managed on Sunday morning to avoid all news, all social media, and all 400-plus messages from a What’s App group I was recently added to.

You blokes know who you are.

I can’t tell you my secret for pulling this off again and again, but the more I do it successfully, the more I impress myself.

This all meant that it was nearing midday on Sunday when I finally sat down to watch the game which by then had concluded well over an hour beforehand.

By 12:05pm I was beginning to wish someone somewhere had taken pity and blurted out the result to save me the pain. Trailing 14-0 after just five minutes, it really felt like the Wallabies were about to put in the coach-killing performance of all coach-killing performances.

Somehow, they’d managed to start even worse than the week before in Port Elizabeth. And I still had another 75 minutes of this to go.

A fascination with going wide in attack at any given opportunity had been coupled with a seemingly ludicrous desire to push passes and offloads no matter the looming turnover danger; it was as though the Wallabies had invented new ways of launching remotes at flat-screen TVs.

It was madness.

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But it was worse than madness, because the attacking ‘plan’ was being run in tandem with a complete inability to reset and re-align in defence when the inevitable turnover allowed Argentina to launch a counter attack.

Matt Toomua of the Wallabies

Matt Toomua of the Wallabies (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

Sevens coaches speak of the need to remain attached in defence; that is, to ensure that your movement in the defensive line – either laterally or forward – doesn’t create unnecessary misalignment or ‘detachment’ from the defenders either side of you. The Wallabies defence in the first half had all the attachment of a bucket of toy blocks thrown across the floor.

Even a random selection of Los Pumas highlights in 2018 would have shown their love of the counter and within that, a love of the inside offload. The Wallabies defended as though they’d never seen it before. It was mind-blowing, in terms of sheer hopelessness.

And so it continued. Argentina ran in two more tries before the halftime bell mercifully tolled, and their 31 points had all come from Wallabies mistakes in attack or some appalling efforts in defence.

Fullback Dane Haylett-Petty – who might have played his best Test (or at least his best half) for the Wallabies after climbing out of his sick bed – has since spoken of the Wallabies missing a bit of “heart”, which we might recall was pretty much exactly the point the angry fan on the Gold Coast made last month.

“Obviously the second half is how we want to play and the first half is not how we want to play, so to come out and be more consistent in that,” Haylett-Petty said on Monday.

“I think it wasn’t so much technical, it was just heart probably, we knew we had to respond, we knew this was an important game, we’ve been under a bit of pressure as a team and I think the boys came out and responded.”

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It’s certainly true that they came out and responded. But I wonder how much of that was out of sheer fear for what might have greeted them back in the change rooms on full-time if they didn’t.

Dane Haylett-Petty Wallabies Australia Rugby Union 2017

Are there glimmers of hope for the Wallabies? (AAP Image/Dan Peled)

Make no mistake, Michael Cheika gave the mother of all half time sprays. He tore strips, he lifted paint, he delivered the rocket; to use his own metaphor, he swung the big club harder than he’s ever swung it before.

But that it worked so extraordinarily well has just created all new problems for the Wallabies, for Wallabies fans, and indeed, for Cheika himself.

For one thing, he can’t possibly keep that level of fire-and-brimstone emotion up as a coach; it’s simply not healthy.

So how does he deliver his messaging now in manner that cuts through with all the subtlety of his halftime a-bomb, but that’s manageable, easily ingested by the players, and more importantly, understood and implemented?

How do the players judge their own first half performances, when by the regularity of the mistakes and the polar opposite nature of their second half performance – plus the aforementioned halftime spray – suggests that they either very obviously strayed from the game plan or completely misunderstood it?

And on the off chance the first half performance was actually as prescribed, how will Cheika hold his responsible assistants accountable?

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In fairness, Mario Ledesma might be having the same conversations back in Argentina, because just has the Wallabies have pulled off the biggest comeback in Tri-Nations and Rugby Championship history, so have Los Pumas found the biggest southern hemisphere capitulation since professionalism. But I think I’d still rather be in Mario’s shoes this week.

Last week I suggested that a pass mark for the rest of the year probably had to be four wins out of the five remaining games, and due credit, the Wallabies have won the first one.

But they’ve won in a way that doesn’t solve anything, doesn’t even paper over the cracks. Yes, they played some excellent rugby after halftime, and scored some great tries. But what will it all mean when they reconvene ahead of the Spring Tour.

Adam Coleman

Adam Coleman of Australia catches the ball (Photo by Daniel Jayo/Getty Images)

Apologies to long term readers, here, because I’m pulling out a favourite line again: The Wallabies aren’t as good as their last game, but rather they will only be as good as the next.

The next four games might be the most important in Cheika’s reign. If there’s no improvement, no obvious learning from the horrendous first half, then it’s hard to see how he can possibly remain Wallabies coach by Christmas, never mind the Rugby World Cup next September.

And that goes for Rugby Australia, too. It’s one thing to sit back and say you fully support the coach’s plan, but what are they doing to ensure that plan remains attainable?

I don’t mind if their preference is for Cheika to see out his contract, but how can they make such public proclamations without ensuring that they themselves have put the right measures and the right resources in place to breed the success that the plan they say they support is supposed to bring?

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They can’t. They have to address this situation as much as Cheika, his assistants, and the players have to.

So what’s next?