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So the Michael Cheika Wallabies have failed to win a Test against the All Blacks in 2018, going down in the 37-20 wipeout at Yokohama’s Nissan Stadium on Saturday.
This is the stadium where the 2019 Rugby World Cup final will be played. On the display given by both teams on Saturday, only the All Blacks have valid aspirations of taking part.
Last year, at least, the Wallabies were able to win a dead rubber Test against the number one side in world rugby. But even this sort of small comfort was denied to Wallabies supporters by the national rugby side this year.
As Jim Tucker in The Sunday Telegraph suggests, the Bledisloe Cup Tests this year, with 38-13, 40-12 and 37-20 losses by the Wallabies to the All Blacks, represent a “dire 2018 ledger.”
To be fair to the Wallabies, there were passages of play at Yokohama that suggested the Wallabies were an improved side from last year. At times the big forwards ran in the manner of the Springboks’ bash-ahead monsters and made gains through the defensive line of the All Blacks.
Israel Folau, too, made some incisive runs and scored a typically brilliant try.
The Wallabies ran for 426 metres, which compares well to the 442 by the All Blacks. They made 106 carries, the same number as the All Blacks. They completed 132 passes to the 139 by the All Blacks. They made 16 offloads to the 15 by the All Blacks.
But they conceded 18 turnovers to seven and the penalty count, as Michael Hooper acknowledged after the Test, was a punishing 11 against the Wallabies to five against the All Blacks.
Also, as Tucker points out, “Rob Simmons and winger Dane Haylett-Petty were both denied on the try-line and breaks by David Pocock, Folau, Michael Hooper and Scott Sio were all shut down in the opening minutes.”
However, results are the final arbiter in these matters.
In 2018, the Wallabies have lost all three Tests against the All Blacks and Rugby World Cup triumphs are not foreshadowed by such losses.
The worst aspect of the loss was that when the All Blacks pulled out a new set move, with the scoreline a precarious (for them) 20-13, the Wallabies showed a total lack of awareness of what was happening around them.
The move I refer to started with a crooked lineout throw by Tolu Latu, who had just come on to the field as the replacement hooker.
From the ensuing scrum, the All Blacks set up a brilliantly conceived set move which totally confounded all the Wallabies.
TJ Perenara ran a few steps to the open side and drew all the defence with him before passing to Beauden Barrett.
Barrett passed back across the flow of play to blindside winger Reiko Ioane and (importantly) sprinted outside him.
Ioane smashed through a couple of weak tackles before releasing Barrett to gallop away for a sensational try.
It summed up everything that is right about the All Blacks.
It was a simple move that involved three relatively easy passes. It was superbly executed from the slight wheeling of the scrum to turn the blindside breakaway, to the crisp execution of the passes, the inside burst from Ioane and the pace of Barrett to get outside his winger for the final pass.
The move had the virtue of being unexpected.
It exploited the strength of Ioane and the dazzling speed of Barrett.
It was also pulled off at the correct time in the match and in the correct place on the field.
Finally, it showed that the All Blacks coaching staff had analysed, in some depth, the Wallabies defensive system from scrums. They identified weaknesses in the system. And they devised a move that could exploit them.
On the other hand, the try summed up what is wrong with the Wallabies.
First, a weakness in skills summed up by a careless crooked throw.
Second, a weakness in awareness from the blindside flanker and the blindside winger. Just watch Jack Dempsey put up his head from the scrum and start jogging to the open side of the field. This lack of awareness is fatal in Test rugby.
Third, a weakness in coaching with the Wallabies defensive coach setting up an overly complicated defensive system that put defenders out of position and all the players not ‘playing what is in front of them’, on attack and defence.
The fact of the matter is that the coaching staff of the Wallabies are not getting the best out of the players they select.
Take the case of Israel Folau.
He is a great player. But he is not a great fullback, where Cheika has preferred to play him, or centre where he ostensibly played on Saturday.
Folau’s problem with these two key positions is that he does not understand rugby particularly well and, consequently, he cannot read the build-up of plays or where the flow of a certain run of play is going.
As a consequence of his lack of feel for what is happening on the rugby field, he can drop out of matches for long periods of time, as he did on Saturday.
He is a terrific try-scorer and runner with the ball, as he demonstrated on Saturday once again. But as a centre/fullback, the role he played on Saturday, he rarely got the ball. On one occasion, with few defenders in front of him, he kicked rather than ran.
He is also unparalleled in world rugby in the air, as he demonstrated with his one chance on Saturday.
Imagine what the All Blacks coaching staff would do with Folau.
To begin with, they would take his problem of a lack of feel for rugby out of the equation by playing him on the wing and giving him specific chasing and running tasks fitted to that position.
They would use every kick-off to exploit his leaping skills.
I am hostile to the box kick but when you have someone like Folau in your side and on the wing, use the tactic, especially inside your opponents’ 22.
When did Australian rugby last convert very good players into great players?
You have to go back to the Rod Macqueen and Bob Dwyer eras for Wallabies who were Hall of Rugby Fame great player material.
There is no one over the last ten years, outside of Folau with his phenomenal try-scoring record, who is Hall of Fame potential. Perhaps Will Genia, before his injuries, is a candidate too.
There is something seriously wrong with coaching, at all levels of Australian rugby, right up to the Wallabies, that the assembly line of great forwards and backs playing in the gold jersey, has somehow closed down.
For the Wallabies coaching staff, the task is to enhance the performance of the players they select for the national side.
The problem here is that this is not being done.
There is no one in the current squad who plays better for the Wallabies than he does for his Super Rugby team.
Look at Ireland, say, or the All Blacks and even now the Springboks, where playing for the national squad, with access to the best coaching and facilities, has led to great improvement in the play of their senior and younger players.
I have said for a long time now that the Wallabies need an old and successful former coach to provide the deep insight into how to improve individual players and the team.
I was watching the interviews after the Test at Yokohama when this point came home to me during an interview with the player of the match, Reiko Ioane.
He mentioned how thrilled he was that his provincial side Auckland had won the final of the ITM Cup against Canterbury, the winners in the last four years.
Auckland, apparently, haven’t won the tournament for over a decade, despite being the source of a large number of players who go on to play brilliantly for other franchises and then the All Blacks.
Auckland had a new coach this year, Alama Ieremia.
He did one very smart thing. He brought Graham Henry into the coaching box.
Henry is one of the most successful coaches in the history of rugby. In my view, it is no accident that the almost miraculous revival of Auckland has coincided with Henry’s appointment as a coach of the provincial franchise.
What Henry was able to do for Auckland, I feel someone like Macqueen or Dwyer could do for the Wallabies.
Only something as drastic as this can save the Wallabies from further ignominy next year.