Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – “the more things change, the more they continue to be the same thing”.
Those words of the French journalist and critic Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr still echo across three centuries of human activity.
Had he been a rugby journalist, there is little doubt that events in Johannesburg over the weekend would have drawn a similarly bitter but witty epigram from the 19th-century editor of Le Figaro.
Despite a heavy 35-17 loss to a largely second-string Springboks side, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika went the other way. He was still finding justifications, still complaining about refereeing decisions like the yellow card issued to his bench tighthead prop Taniela Tupou in the second half:
“I make it as the wrong call. The other guy (Springbok) should have been sent to the sin-bin for a shoulder charge.
“The fourth official (should have) focused on the green guy who came in with a shoulder charge and then Taniela came in after that to get him, with his arms wrapped at the right height.
“I’m not sure if big contact is a penalty these days but that’s the wrong decision.”
In fact, Tupou’s act of retaliation left referee Paul Williams with little choice.
Somehow, the concession of five tries also equated to good defence in Cheika’s summary after the game:
“I was happy with a lot of the things we had been working on.
“I know it was five tries, but our defence was good.”
It seems that nothing changes in the world of the Aussie mentor’s post-match comments.
The coaching group, with newly installed assistant coach Shaun Berne, had a different plan of attack to the scheme under Stephen Larkham. There were also clear signs that Nathan Grey had finally abandoned the ‘musical chairs’ defensive structure from lineout, with everyone in the backline defending in their natural spots.
The forward pack featured a Pooper-less back-row, the twin openside arrangement shelved in the injury-enforced absence of David Pocock. Instead, there was a much more orthodox selection, with an out-and-out ball-carrier at number 8 in Isi Naisarani and a bigger unit at blindside in the form of Lukhan Salakaia-Loto.
The areas of lineout and ball-carrying were indeed reinforced. The Wallabies looked more secure on own-throw and more of a threat on opposition ball, edging the South African set-piece.
Naisarani carried the ball up to the line with evident determination throughout. According to the official stats, you would think that Naisarani and Salakaia-Loto defended well, making 12 tackles between them and missing none.
So far, so good. But it here that neither the official statistics, nor a coach’s post-match comments, give the rounded or complete view which is available to in-depth analysis.
It would be more accurate to say the defence was not better than it had been previously, but that the areas of weakness had changed.
In the absence of Pocock, the Wallabies had to wait until the 75th minute for their first turnover of the game in contact – a ball-rip by Tupou – and the 78th for their first turnover on the ground, by captain Michael Hooper.
The only serious on-ball attempts over the span of 77 rucks built by the Springboks were five by the Australian captain, and two by hooker Folau Fainga’a. South Africa themselves enjoyed no less than seven turnovers from exactly the same number of Wallaby rucks, with three from their jackalling expert at number 8, Francois Louw, outweighing the entire Australian total.
The Wallabies appeared to be employing a policy of no-contest from the second man at the breakdown:
In both instances, there is a window of opportunity for a genuine on-ball attempt. In the first example, Pieter-Steph Du Toit is momentarily over-extended on the deck, but none of James Slipper, Naisarani or Salakaia-Loto put their heads in over the tackle ball:
In the second, Springbok left winger Makazole Mapimpi is held up by Dane Haylett-Petty and exposed, but Samu Kerevi has his hand up and is focused on organising the defensive line for the next phase:
The collective will to compete at contact situations which I examined in last week’s article on the Junior Wallabies was therefore lacking in the seniors at Johannesburg.
The Springboks announced from early on in the game that they intended to pay special attention to the Wallaby short-side defence, even from first phase set-pieces, and this was the second major area of defensive concern:
In the first example, South Africa do not even deign to form a ruck before bringing the ball back against the Wallaby forwards near the site of the original lineout; in the second, Frans Steyn ploughs Bernard Foley out of the road in midfield before the ball is switched back to Du Toit on the blindside on the second phase.
There are two important points to observe from these instances. Because he starts in the tram-lines from lineout, the Australian halfback Nic White is now responsible for organizing the shortside defence in early phases:
White is on the outside of the line, with Slipper and the two second rowers underneath him.
The second example shows how quickly the defence loses its shape without the scrum half present to call the shots:
With replacement halfback Will Genia dragged to the openside by the strength of Steyn’s run and temporarily out of the picture, Salakaia-Loto has unaccountably dropped out of the line as Du Toit surges through the hole.
This provided the theme for South Africa’s first try of the game:
The touch-paper is lit by a Francois Louw turnover in midfield, with Nic White still breakdown hopping, well away from his forwards on the near side of the field. Unlike the Wallabies, Louw had no hesitation in attacking the ball on the ground:
Slipper, Rory Arnold and Naisarani are all caught on the same side, and at the key moment the big Fijian-born number 8 has to make a decision whether to take Elton Jantjies man-and-ball, or back off to join up with left winger Reece Hodge on the left edge of the field:
He falls in between the two stools, and that moment of uncertainty costs Australia a try.
The second Springbok try (at 1:10 on the previous reel) was also based around the idea of absorbing the Australian 9 on first phase, and then attacking a disorganized blindside defence:
Jesse Kriel runs over Foley and Rynhard Elstadt ensures that Nic White stays on the ground next to him, then a huge gap opens between Izack Rodda and the Wallaby front-row forwards:
It became obvious as the game wore on that the Wallabies’ back-row defenders at 6 and 8 lacked the strong voice and positional awareness needed to organize the short-side defence when their halfback was absent, and that was instrumental in the fourth Springbok try, too (at 3:39 on the reel).
The Wallaby defence has matters under control when Dane Haylett-Petty ill-advisedly moves into the tackle zone to have a poke at the ball. None of the forwards to the left of the ruck react to the fact that there is now no shortside defender in the five-metre corridor:
As soon as Haylett-Petty stepped in, there needed to be urgent communication between Rory Arnold and Sakalaia-Loto on the openside of the breakdown. In the traditional back-row arrangement, the number 6 has to be responsible for what happens on the shortside, especially as Bokke halfback Herschel Jantjies’ intention to dart down the five-metre corridor became obvious ahead of time.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same”. It was an apt summary of the Wallaby performance in Jo’burg over the weekend.
Despite the presence of a new attack coach, shifts in defence structure and changes of personnel in the back-row, the result was eerily familiar for any Wallaby supporter of recent times – as were the excuses made by the Australian head coach afterwards.
It is hard to understand why Taniela Tupou’s yellow card mattered so much to the outcome of the game. Yes, South Africa scored 14 unanswered points in the tighthead’s absence, but equally Australia had emerged from their own power play in the first period (when Bokke centre Andre Esterhuizen was binned for a high challenge) with no advantage to show for it.
It is likewise, impossible to understand how the concession of five tries can be considered good defence in the professional arena. I suspect that a number of the changes made by Nathan Grey will have long-term benefits – such as the abandonment of the musical chairs system from lineout.
But in the meanwhile, cutting off one of the Hydra’s heads has sprouted two new ones – competition at the tackle area which was all but invisible; and a chronic weakness in shortside defence, especially when the forwards in that area are left to their own devices without any help from the scrum half.
The game on Saturday afternoon illustrated very clearly the negatives of replacing the ‘Pooper’ with a more traditional back-row. While Isi Naisarani showed several signs of promise with ball in hand, neither he nor Lukhan Salakaia-Loto possessed the positional awareness and decision-making ability of a Scott Fardy in shortside defence. I remain convinced that Salakaia-Loto is a Test-match second rower masquerading as a blindside flanker at this level.
Although it may get another run against the Pumas, this is not a back row to take on the All Blacks in Perth on August 10 or, for that matter, Wales or Fiji in Japan later in the year.
The pill of hard reality cannot be swallowed quickly enough in time for the encounter with a tough Pumas outfit in Brisbane next Saturday. It will be a great test for that innate sense of ‘where we really are’, because Argentina are everything that the Wallabies are not – hard-nosed on defence, tenaciously over-competitive at the breakdown, giving nothing away for free.
It is just the trial by fire Michael Cheika needs to assess Australia’s progress more realistically in advance of the much bigger Tests to come.