The problem with Michael Cheika’s Wallabies is not that they lost nine points to six to Wales at Cardiff.
The sequence of 13 successive Test wins against a formidable opponent like Wales is extremely hard to maintain. Moreover, Wales were playing at home and rather cunningly it seemed, left the roof of the Millennium Stadium open to make things difficult for the Wallabies ball-in-hand game as showers came down.
It is how the Wallabies lost, why they lost and the reaction of coach Cheika and the captain Michael Hooper to that loss that is a matter of urgent concern.
If you don’t identify why the loss happened, you will be condemned to repeating the mistakes that caused the loss to happen.
It’s imperative before the 2019 rugby season starts that heads must roll in the coaching staff of the Wallabies, in the playing squad and, just as importantly, within Rugby Australia with officials, starting with the board, through to the executives, and on to the coaching director.
The sandpaper ball tampering incident in a cricket Test between South Africa (at home) and Australia brought to a head all the problems associated with the leadership and culture of the Baggy Greens and of the officials involved with running cricket in Australia. This loss to Wales has done the same thing for the Wallabies and Rugby Australia.
Anyone with a modicum of rugby understanding watching the Test would see fundamental problems with the way the Wallabies play and the way the team is selected.
All the back moves, for instance, were launched metres behind the gain line. As well, the backs crabbed across the field in a way that telegraphed the attacking point for the Welsh defenders. Passers invariably turned towards the receivers in making their passes.
The elementary principles of backline play in rugby going back over a 100 years (and once demonstrated by a golden line of fabulous Australian backs) are square shoulders taking the ball up to the line, drawing the defenders outside shoulder and playing close to the advantage line.
In rugby theory and practice, the team that wins the battle of the advantage line will win the game. And the best way to win the battle of the advantage line is to play as close to it as possible.
This ensures that collisions and tackles are made by the attacking side close to the advantage line ensuring that support at the ruck or for a break involves players going forward, not tracking back as the Wallabies did against Wales.
Coach Michael Cheika has worked with his number ten Bernard Foley and his inside centre Kurtley Beale for years. He has not been able to get them to play flat or square.
Bringing in Stephen Larkham, a superb running number 10 who played flat, has done nothing to straighten and flatten the Wallabies backline play. In fact, during the Test against Wales, the Wallabies backline seemed to play even deeper than usual.
Admittedly, Wales ran a defensive system that involved elements of rushing in it. But I can’t recall a significant line break made by the Wallabies. Moreover, there seemed to be no tactic, other than the occasional inside ball, to thwart the rush defence of Wales.
It is remarkable, too, that since the 2015 Rugby World Cup, coach Cheika has done nothing to develop a world class number ten to take over from Bernard Foley, who played his best rugby then and has been disappointing since.
Turning the spotlight on the forwards, we saw the Wallabies make crucial mistakes in lineouts and scrums, especially in attacking position, something that has dogged the side and led to its many losses this season.
The scrum problems relate to the technique or a lack of it from some of the front rowers.
The lineout problems relate squarely to the fact that the Wallabies are short of a lineout jumper when David Pocock and Michael Hooper, two natural (and shortish) number sevens, are playing. As a consequence, the Wallabies lost several crucial lineouts, something that has dogged the side, whoever is the hooker, throughout the season and again in this Test.
The fact of the matter is that Pocock and Hooper between them, but not separately, combine to make up a complete open side breakway.
Pocock is a terrific tackler and is world class as a jackal over the ball. He won three turnovers against Wales to two by Justin Tipuric his Welsh counterpart.
Hooper is a strong and fast runner with the ball and plays with more bustling energy than Pocock.
Playing the two of them together, though, deprives the Wallabies of two other bigger loose forwards to take the ball up hard in the close quarters, make the really big tackles and be a viable lineout option to keep the opposition jumpers guessing.
Alan Jones, a successful Wallabies coach and one of the best selectors Australian rugby has had, always talks about the concept of “shape” when deciding who to select for a side.
The concept acknowledges that a great selector does not play his 15 best players. He selects the best players to play the various roles that the different positions on the field require to be filled.
The concept implies, too, that players should be picked where they play best.
These principles suggest, to me at least, that Pocock should be selected in his best position at number seven, the open side breakaway, and Hooper be selected as a reserve to come on when his energy and dash are required.
The further consequence of this thinking is that Hooper should not captain the Wallabies, even when Pocock is not available. The plain fact of the matter is that he can’t read a game and almost always in a crisis makes the wrong decision.
In the Wales Test, with the scoreline reading 3 – 3, and deep into the second half, he three times turned down kicks at goal.
The first time was a penalty from near halfway.
The second and third time the penalties were near enough to the 22 and eminently kickable.
All the penalties should have been attempted because it was clear at this stage in the Test that it was going to be a low scoring match.
Admittedly, Bernard Foley has a shortish range on his penalty kicks. But Kurtley Beale can boot them over from halfway and he should have been given a chance to convert the first penalty, at least.
After the Test, Hooper admitted that “I should have gone for goal … probably my reading of the game there was amiss with the fact it was going to come down to penalties in the end.”
I don’t believe this mea culpa.
Hooper generally goes for the 22, even when the match situation calls for a shot at goal.
Moreover, he called himself in the first lineout near the Welsh try line.
This play suggests to me that Cheika and Hooper had worked on a play that could, if it came off, strengthen their hand when the “Poopper” option is criticised.
As it happened, Hooper made the lineout catch. But he was not strong enough or big enough to withstand the Welsh forward surge. The surge forced the Wallabies, going backwards, to cough the ball up and the scoring chance was lost.
Despite his obvious weaknesses as a player and a captain, Rugby Australia have signed Hooper up for another five years in Australian rugby.
This is a truly dumb decision.
To begin with, it is doubtful whether Hooper is even the second best Australian number seven.
David Pocock is clearly ahead of him. Sean McMahon is also, in my opinion, ahead of Hooper. And Liam Gill, now playing somewhere in France is probably the best of all the current Australian number 7s.
Now we come to Cheika’s bizarre comments after the Test that the loss had no bearing on the next World Cup, even though the Wallabies play Wales in a pool round match:
“I don’t think it has any (bearing), but everyone has a different opinion on that stuff. My opinion is when you get to the game (in the 2019 RWC tournament), no one is thinking about what happened ten years ago or one minute ago … All I can do is get the guys improving on the things we didn’t do well today.”
As Tom Decent in his Sydney Morning Herald report noted: “Australian fans are losing patience with a team that constantly talks about its grand plans but so often fails to come up trumps on the scoreboard.”
There was nothing good for the Wallabies that came out of the Test, either. As Decent also pointed out: “This was the fewest points Australia have scored against Wales since 1975 and the six points they chalked up is their lowest number since August 2012 against any team.”
Since the 2015 World Cup, the Wallabies have won 16 Tests from 40 starts. And as Tom Decent again notes: “This year the Wallabies have lost eight of their 11 matches. Their winning record of 27 per cent in 2018 is the worst in a calendar year since 1958, when ten matches or more were played.”
The lesson from this is not Cheika’s wildly optimistic read that “the scars you collect … are only going to help us.”
You don’t win the Webb Ellis trophy with a side with a 27 per cent winning record prior to the tournament.
Heads need to roll if the Wallabies are to have any chance of going beyond the quarter-finals in RWC 2019.
A clean out of the board and most of the executives of Rugby Australia is desperately needed. Like the Cricket Australia executives, they have failed their community, in this case the rugby community, with a self-indulgent and arrogant concern about matters outside of the interests of the rugby community.
Any board faced with the failed record of its main money-maker, the Wallabies, would clean out most of the people who helped create that failed Wallabies record, including Rod Kafer who is RA’s director of coaching.
This means, also, that attack coach Stephen Larkham, defence coach Nathan Grey and the forwards coach Simon Raiwalui should go at the end of this tour.
I would like to end this pessimistic column on a slightly positive note by offering these names as possible candidates to help turn things around in 2019.
Replace Kafer with Scott Johnson, currently helping to turn around Scotland.
Glen Ella, who has been overlooked time after time by Cheika (why?), has shown with his short time with England that he can get a backline fizzing. Ask the All Blacks about the questions posed by England’s backs during that titanic battle this weekend at Twickenham.
During the broadcast of the Wales – Australia Test, James Horwill, a former Wallabies captain and second-rower, was used to give an Australian perspective on the play.
Horwill’s commentary was terrific. He explained in detail why the Wallabies scrum and lineout failed from time to time and why the various penalties at the breakdown were awarded against the visitors.
The contrast with this informed commentary and the nonsense about “the referee got it wrong” from Rod Kafer and Phil Kearns on Fox Sports broadcasts was illuminating.
Horwill should be brought into the Wallabies camp as a forwards coach, as soon as possible, or at least in the lead-up and during the RWC 2019 tournament.
Someone like Alan Jones or Rod Macqueen should be included in the Wallabies camp as a selector and adviser.
And why not bring in Jake White, a coach who knows how to win the Webb Ellis trophy, to help with tactics, processes and the management of the Wallabies squad leading up to and during the 2019 Cup.