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The Wrap: Foley TKOs Cooper as Australian conference tightens up

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21st April, 2019
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Folau fatigue allowed Australian rugby’s second-most divisive talking point to resume centre-stage on Saturday night, with Waratah’s fly-half Bernard Foley showing that he’s not about to hand over the Wallabies No 10 jersey to Quade Cooper any time soon, helping his side to a 23-20 win against their conference rivals.

While this was an important match with implications far broader than two players squaring off against each other, these aren’t two ordinary players, so the opportunity to match them up in analysis is too tempting to ignore.

Cooper has enjoyed a strong, consistent year to date, but by every measure he was well beaten on Saturday night. To illustrate, I recorded the number of involvements by both players, rating them as positive (eg long kick to space or touch, high kick to contest, effective tackle, effective cleanout, et cetera), neutral (‘average’ touch-finder, standard pass, et cetera) or negative (missed tackle, missed touch, missed shot at goal, handling error, et cetera).

Cooper had a total of 14 positive, 22 neutral and 8 negative involvements. Foley’s tally was 21 positive, 21 neutral and 4 negative.

In Foley’s shame file were two early penalty touch finders that went dead in goal (perhaps worth double points?), but he settled into the game, grew noticeably in confidence, and was near faultless in the second half – an outstanding achievement for a playmaker on a tricky, slippery night.

Foley also won the key moment of the match, a one-on-one battle when Anaru Rangi overthrew to a 58th-minute lineout. Both players made a beeline for the loose ball, Cooper attempting to snatch it and spin, while Foley hit it chest on.

It was Foley who emerged out the other side with the ball, into clear air on his way to the try that would prove to be the winning of the match. A knock-out punch!

Behind the statistics, it is clear that Foley benefitted from the excellent platform his pack provided in the second half, compared to Cooper who struggled once his side lost all semblance of shape.

In fact a number of Cooper’s involvements came at halfback, with the Rebels so ragged and lacking in ‘go forward’ that any opportunity for constructive backline play, already deemed marginal due to the greasy ball, was lost.

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Denied front-foot ball, and with Will Genia’s penchant for being the central point of the Rebels’ attack, Cooper should by no means be written off. He once again made a couple of excellent tackles and provided a vital clean out in the lead up to Bill Meakes’ first-half try.

But this was Foley’s night. His body language and demeanour told the story at the end of the match – he had been served up a challenge to his Wallabies starting position and he answered it in the most emphatic way possible.

Bernard Foley

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

So the Rebels now have the same questions being asked of them as they were at this time last year – are they the real deal or not? Can they go the distance?

Certainly not if they continue to offer their opponents a head-start with the poorest discipline in the competition. Of the seven consecutive penalties that cruelled their second-half, some were due to nothing more than sheer inattention and laziness.

They are not a lazy side – far from it – but there will need to be some soul searching over their bye week to ensure that the values of hard work and playing for each other are once again brought to the surface on match day.

It is this that will concern Dave Wessels more than the fact that the Rebels missed an opportunity to put space between them and the chasing pack – with the Reds and Brumbies both winning on tour, the Australian conference now resembles the ‘Titus Afficius’ South African conference.

The Brumbies are no strangers to winning in Africa, but this was one of their most noble efforts, required to effect no less than 224 tackles on their way to beating the Stormers 19-17.

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They also took their opportunities, Pete Samu and Rory Arnold showing impressive finishing skill for their first-half tries, before holding their nerve to free up Tom Banks for an easy run-in to put them ahead mid way through the second.

It was a lead they would never relinquish, the Stormers growing increasingly frustrated by their inability to turn possession into the points that came so freely in Melbourne only a week ago.

The story wasn’t much different for the Reds in Durban, their 21-14 win demonstrating a growing maturity in Brad Thorn’s side. This was a composed effort, built on defensive intensity and willingness to run in support, as for Tate McDermott’s excellent second half-try.

Tate McDermott

(Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images)

For the Sharks read the Stormers – an off week at home and a missed opportunity to skip clear in the conference.

The Lions are not the high-flying side of recent seasons, but they were another side to get the job done impressively away from home, 23-17 against the Chiefs.

The Chiefs fell back into the bad habits of the first three rounds, showing little respect for possession, miracle offload attempts merely turning into a regular supply of possession for the visitors.

The Blues will have to wait a while longer for a win at Forsyth Barr Stadium, the Highlanders stepping up in the second half to close the game out comfortably, by 24-12.

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Blues blindside flanker Tom Robinson has (rightly) been receiving plaudits for his energetic and physical performances this year, which seemingly served to spark Shannon Frizzell into a dominating performance, his best of the season – just the type of game to warm the hearts of three All Black selectors.

Club golfers know the feeling of whenever things go well early in the round, when their score is ahead of the card and a good result is looming, of tensing up and playing defensively on the back nine to ‘protect’ the score – invariably moving away from the things that were serving them well in the first place.

That’s exactly what happened to the Sunwolves who, after jumping out to a 23-7 lead against the Hurricanes, stopped playing far too early, kicking away possession and allowing the Hurricanes to take the game back to them.

23-29 represents an opportunity lost for Tony Brown’s team, while the packed bleachers represents an opportunity lost for SANZAAR and the game. The Japanese Rugby Union may well see their future closer to home and outside of Super Rugby, but this type of tribal, enthusiastic support is sorely lacking in Super Rugby.

Quite simply, more should have been done to find a way to keep the Sunwolves in the competition.

Meanwhile, anyone seeking relief from ‘Folau fatigue’ by focusing on the federal election campaign instead should have quickly regained their senses and be eying off Folau’s code of conduct hearing, tipped to take place sometime during the week starting 29th April.

This hearing is not a court case, and as such, Rugby Australia’s legal eagle Justin Gleeson SC, merely has to convince the three-person tribunal that Folau has breached conditions of his employment.

If the panel agrees that Folau is in breach, then the matter will run its course; Folau will be terminated, and will either accept his sacking (unlikely, despite previous assertions to the contrary), or initiate court action against Rugby Australia for unfair dismissal, which would then result in either a court hearing, or a negotiated settlement.

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The chances of the matter proceeding to court are the same as Folau ever playing rugby for Australia again – somewhere between very slim and zero.

Rugby Australia will not allow the matter to fester in the media and court of public opinion, continuing to divide the game, when its very action in calling Folau to account was designed to take the discussion off the front and back pages.

If things were to be allowed to drag on, an opportunity to use the matter to galvanize widespread support around Rugby Australia’s values of inclusivity and respect would become mired in complex legal minutiae, religious diversion, free speech martyrdom and plain untruths – like Mark Ella’s comment in Saturday’s The Australian, where he erroneously claimed “Michael Cheika said this week that he would not pick Folau because of his religious beliefs.”

In crusading on behalf of Folau, Alan Jones unwittingly hit closer to the real nub of the issue from Rugby Australia’s perspective, mocking the involvement of Raelene Castle and Andrew Hore because they are “both Kiwis talking rubbish and questioning the character of Folau”, before adding, “The difference is, Folau is authentic.”

It is Folau’s very lack of authenticity that has so upset Castle and her administration. Not the genuine strength of his religious beliefs, but the fact that he was prepared to shake hands across a table, agree to a specific set of behaviours in turn for accepting a lucrative financial contract, before welching on his word.

For that breach of trust alone Folau deserves strong condemnation. It is also the very reason why ex-teammates have spoken out publicly against him.

Israel Folau

(Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

Also notable is the non-role that Folau’s manager Isaac Moses has played since the matter re-ignited. Moses is no shrinking violet, but a fearless advocate and negotiator on behalf of his clients, regarded by some in the NRL as more powerful than CEO Todd Greenberg.

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Yet in this case he remains conspicuous by his absence, perhaps because Folau is now taking counsel closer to home.

Castle would have had a realistic expectation that her past role with NZ Netball, and relationship with star shooter Maria Tutaia, would have provided her with an ‘in’ to Folau, at least to the point of reinforcing the spirit of last year’s negotiation.

That door has been slammed shut, and in the process, it will make for a frosty negotiation between Castle and the power couple, who, for the reasons stated above, know how keen Rugby Australia will be to avoid taking the matter to court, even if their advice suggests that they will win.

Whatever the eventual settlement, Rugby Australia can also expect to be pilloried about the ‘cost’ – which would conveniently ignore the fact that it was Folau, not they, who brought the situation on, and that Folau’s salary is not an additional cost, but an amount already budgeted for.

Also, the confident assuredness in the play of Kurtley Beale, Reece Hodge and Tom Banks at fullback on Saturday night, and the looming return of Dane Haylett-Petty, suggests that there already exists viable alternatives for the Wallabies within their existing salary structure.