Like every good crisis to engulf Australian rugby, reaction to the Wallabies’ loss to South Africa in Johannesburg has been a rush to stem the blood flow while forgetting about why the bleeding started in the first place.
This reaction-by-overreaction is as predictable as ever. It’s just the way we do things in Australian rugby.
It’s why the CEO must be sacked if the Super Rugby teams continue to finish mid-table. Indeed, it’s why a Super Rugby team had to be cut, rather than addressing why Super Rugby teams lose so much money.
It’s why Sydney’s failure to embrace the NRC could very well lead to a complete competition overhaul. It’s why a prominent radio host maintains he’s helping the game by taking his weekly newspaper column pot-shots.
It’s why Taniela Tupou’s yellow card at Ellis Park was all the fault of Paul Williams making a decision in that moment, rather than the various defence coaches – or the player himself – who have failed to recognise the need to change a technique that has now racked up several similarly unnecessary cards over the years.
And it’s why the online and social commentary after the loss was about which players must be dropped and which players must be selected for the Argentineans in Brisbane next weekend.
As always, changing the personnel will do nothing without adjusting the game plan. And the Wallabies found this out themselves during the first half, when Nic White adjusted his delivery in the face of the Springboks’ rush defence.
With the ‘Boks getting up quickly in the face of Bernard Foley and the scrum half himself, White went from passing from ground to taking a step or two out and away from the base of the ruck, which had the effect of forcing the defenders in the immediate vicinity of the ruck to just hold off and see what White was doing. This is turn slowed the rush enough to give Foley and Kerevi a bit more time.
But interestingly, the Wallabies weren’t ever able to get enough out of their forwards in terms of ball-carrying – something Michael Hooper conceded.
“We couldn’t get those guys into the game in the second half, unfortunately. Go down a man, and I thought the South African team controlled the momentum really well,” he said post-match.
“We had a minimal amount of possession percentage and territory percentage, so what we’ll look at is how we how we can get our forwards into the game in the right areas of the field in that second half.”
That’s really a good idea, Michael, because the stats don’t make for great reading.
Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Rory Arnold, Izack Rodda, Sekope Kepu, Folau Fainga’a, Jordan Uelese, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Taniela Tupou, Rob Simmons, and Jack Dempsey all carried four or fewer times each.
Kepu, Uelese, and Simmons didn’t carry at all. Tupou and Dempsey carried once each.
From the bench, Uelese, Johnson-Holmes, Tupou, Simmons, and Dempsey carried just five times for one collective metre between them. No Australian forward managed an offload.
In fact, the Wallabies only offloaded nine times for the match in total. Three of them were Samu Kerevi, and three more were Kurtley Beale off the bench.
So why was that? Why is the Wallabies game-plan such that noted ball-carriers like Tupou and Dempsey couldn’t make a metre between them from the bench?
How is it that Salakaia-Loto would only carry three times for a metre, or that Rory Arnold coming off arguably his best ever season for the Brumbies was only used for four pick-and-drives that didn’t add up to a metre, and didn’t once offload?
Ditto Tevita Kuridrani. One of his best seasons for the Brumbies with run metres, line break and offload numbers any coach would love, yet he was hardly sighted?
What is going on with the approach that guys who make a living out of ball-carrying suddenly don’t? What messaging was being provided in-game and at halftime to try and address this very obvious issue?
It was great to see the great improvements in White’s kicking game, but why in the second half when the Wallabies could not get out of their half to save themselves, was it left to White to kick from behind the ruck deep in the Wallabies half? Why were the bigger boots of Dane Haylett-Petty and Reece Hodge not utilised more?
The nature of the loss was always going to give way to the call for mass change, and ‘heads needs to roll’, and all that kind of commentary, but let’s be honest – if the Wallabies make ten changes this week but run out this weekend with the same approach for no change of fortune, was the Ellis Park loss really the fault of the players dropped?
There will have been a critical internal review into the player performances by the coaches, but does Scott Johnson’s remit allow for a review of the game plan those same coaches put together?
In many ways, this is one of these situations where I’d quite like to see the Wallabies go into the Brisbane Test against Los Pumas unchanged on the team sheet, but challenging themselves as a playing and coaching team to see if they can come up with a better approach.
The team as selected was widely lauded. The excitement was there that the Wallabies were going into a Test with a huge chunk of the 23 in really good form coming out of Super Rugby.
So what on earth happened in the month that followed the provincial season? What went on in the Wallabies training camps that guys whose form demanded selection would turn in such lacklustre performances?
That’s the biggest question the Wallabies need to address this week in Brisbane.
No more scapegoats. No more ‘we was robbed’. Forget all the “drop him, he’s not up to it” talk.
It’s a World Cup year, and the Wallabies coaching team owe it to the playing group to send them out onto the field with the right approach to allow them to compete in games.