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The Wrap: Australian rugby, ‘You may ask yourself, how did I get here’?

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25th November, 2018
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On Saturday night I had the privilege to watch a team at the peak of its powers deliver a performance for the ages.

I witnessed a triumph of planning, strategy and leadership. I saw individuals who were masters of their own craft, intricately layering their own efforts in a way that elevated the outcome to something far greater than the sum of its individual components could ever provide. It was utterly enthralling.

You’ll have guessed by now that I’m not talking about the Wallabies, 37-18 losers to England, the result capping off another miserable 4-win, 9-loss season.

What I am talking about is David Byrne, surrounding himself with a dozen musicians of extraordinary quality, who, in the outro to Once in a Lifetime, one of a number of show-stoppers, sang repeatedly, “same as it ever was, same as it ever was”.

Well, perhaps not for those old enough to remember 1984 or 1991, or even 1999, a time when Australia led the world in its adaptation to professional rugby. But certainly for Michael Cheika’s Wallabies, since the World Cup final of 2015, for whom history keeps repeating.

Setting aside the outlier that was Salta’s ridiculous extremes of low and high, Cheika’s Wallabies have found their level. Their world ranking asserts it, the brief flashes of brilliant attack strewn amongst repeated defensive errors and tactical ineptitude reaffirms it.

Same as it ever was.

Cheika’s demeanour and language afterwards bore not even the merest hint of a man under pressure to retain his job. This despite the vast majority of fans having lost confidence that this Wallabies team, under this coaching set-up, can return itself to the top league of rugby nations.

Cheika remains a man on a mission, in every sense believing he is the main component of the solution, not in any way, the problem.

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Prior to the start of this tour Cheika fronted his bosses at Rugby Australia to restate his plan to win the 2019 World Cup. Chief Executive Raelene Castle did as any CEO would do – publicly backed her man and sent him on his way to deliver three wins in Europe.

She has been delivered only one – a scratchy affair against Italy – and no matter how hard Castle tries to retain the status quo, she can now only be doing so out of hope rather than conviction.

Michael Cheika

Michael Cheika, coach of Australia (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

The transactional costs in sacking Cheika are enormous, financially and because it comes out of an established World Cup cycle, which means that almost all of the likely candidates to replace Cheika are gainfully employed elsewhere.

But no matter how hard the Wallabies work on the training track, and no matter the belief from players and those close to the side that a turnaround in results is just around the corner, the bald truth is that the Wallabies continue to regress under Cheika.

Weighed down by confusing selections, positional switches, overly complex attacking and defensive structures – all layered on top of a pathway and coaching system that has failed to deliver skilled, Test-ready players – Cheika’s Wallabies are failing Australian rugby and its fans, and nobody is buying the ‘carrot at the end of the tunnel’ story any more.

Australia’s Socceroos went into this years’ Football World Cup with an interim coach, as did Spain, so a form of precedent exists for a stop-gap solution.

Cheika will be called into Rugby Australia HQ again between now and the end of the year to review his position. Surely this time, unlike the last meeting, Castle will be doing far less of the listening and far more of the hard talking.

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It took barely a minute for England to lay the platform for their victory, an attacking scrum sending the Wallabies back at such a rate of knots, the blindside defense was fatally compromised, and Jonny May was left with a simple put-down in the corner.

Somehow the Wallabies stayed in the fight – a Cheika trademark – and could have gone into halftime with the lead, had a couple of calls gone their way.

Journalists were keen afterwards to press Cheika on how the officials deigned to rule out a try to Dane Haylett-Petty, because of a forward pass, and to once again absolve serial offender Owen Farrell for not using his arms in an attempt to prevent Isack Rodda from scoring.

Both incidents were troubling, in the first instance, not because the pass wasn’t forward – it certainly looked as if it was – but because the process was haywire.

In their efforts to keep TMO’s out of the game, World Rugby has inadvertently provided fertile ground for a ‘pseudo TMO’, the local broadcaster, to step back into the breach. If the try was to be reviewed, it should have been at the behest of the TMO, not 80,000 fans urging referee Jaco Peyper to watch one of the replays that were playing on the stadium screens.

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As for Farrell, there were some, Angus Gardner and this writer included, inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt in the recent Test match against South Africa. But while this once again wasn’t a classic ‘shoulder charge’ laced with evil intent, Farrell clearly prefers to keep his arms close to his body, not – as is required by law – to use them to wrap in a tackle.

Therefore it is high time he was held accountable and Peyper, a ‘feel’ referee who just happened to lack feel on this occasion, should have been the man to do it. With nothing but Farrell’s shoulder between Rodda and the tryline, awarding Australia a penalty try should have been the bare minimum.

With a seven-point lead, who knows if the second half might have played differently for Australia? But as Cheika said in his post-match presser, ‘you can’t just have the good bits, you have to have the bad bits too”. Of which, unfortunately, there were plenty.

When normally reliable defenders like Haylett-Petty get their bodies into poor positions and fall off one-on-one tackles as a result, then you know – as All Blacks’ coach Steve Hansen suggested last week – that something ‘isn’t quite right’.

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England got far more impact from their bench, with the Wallabies once again losing structure the further the game went on.

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They also got more out of some of their starters too, Brad Shields enjoying his best game in white, and the oft-maligned Kyle Sinckler stepping up to the plate with a commanding display at set piece and running the ball, that deservedly won him man-of-the-match honours.

This match also marked the 100th Test for halfback Will Genia, a fully deserving honour for a player who, at his peak, remains in the elite of world halfbacks.

He will be a vital component in Australia’s World Cup challenge next year – whoever might be playing at 10, and whoever might be coaching him.

Slippery conditions greeted the All Blacks and Italy in Rome, and the early stages of this match were punctuated by handling errors from both sides. Italy charging up in the defensive line like madmen was a factor too, although it backfired on them three times when the All Blacks nudged the ball in behind to the world’s deepest in-goal areas, for Damian McKenzie (twice) and Jordie Barrett to help themselves to tries.

It wouldn’t be stretching the imagination to suggest that this was Italy’s main contribution to the match – they failed to trouble the All Blacks with the ball in hand, and they will almost certainly be making up the numbers in Pool B in Japan.

Bearing in mind the significant drop in class from Ireland a week earlier, there were encouraging signs from New Zealand, and Steve Hansen indicated afterwards that he will rest more easily over the summer break.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

The return of Dane Coles has been carefully stage-managed, but here was the Coles of old, for the first time in what seems an age. Stepping and offloading in the wide channels, taking centre-stage in the front-row niggle – these were just the thing to warm the hearts of All Black fans and fill them with the belief that, no matter the sterling job Codie Taylor has done in his absence, their number one man is back in business.

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Another stand-out was high-stepping Vaea Fifita, whose powerful running was matched only by his work rate and effectiveness in defence. With Liam Squire injured last week in Dublin, the window of opportunity has opened for Fifita, who took no time at all to leap halfway through it.

His challenge over summer will be to convince/implore/beg/threaten John Plumtree and the Hurricanes coaching staff not, under any circumstances, to play him at lock during next year’s Super Rugby. An All Blacks No. 6 jersey and a trip to Japan might well depend on it.

The match had an interesting side-note when referee Matthew Brace pulled up short with a leg injury in the 24th minute, needing to be replaced by Pascal Gauzere. Because of the lop-sided nature of the match, potential concerns about consistency/inconsistency in interpretation were quickly brushed aside, leaving the biggest question around whether Gauzere had brought along his own whistle, or had to share saliva with Brace.

In other matches Wales muscled up to a slightly disappointing South Africa, who are still developing the player depth and consistency in performance that will return them to the very top echelon. 20-11 to the home side.

Wales meanwhile, has quietly gone about its business, sneaking up to nine wins in a row and a position where they are no longer under anyone’s radar. Having experienced the white-hot heat of a Lions tour to New Zealand, that won’t concern coach Warren Gatland in the slightest.

Scotland too remain on the improve, this week closing out Argentina 14-9 in a tight contest.

Meanwhile in Paris, Fiji scored a historic 21-14 win over France, their first ever. If that doesn’t make Wallabies’ fans who have booked expensive travel, accommodation and quarter-finals tickets for the Rugby World Cup nervous, then nothing will.