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The Wrap: Resurgent Wallabies place one hand on the Bledisloe Cup

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11th August, 2019
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Decorated US Army General Douglas Macarthur, never a man short of a quote, once said, in an address at West Point in 1962, “In war there is no substitute for victory.”

As much as Rugby Australia would consider itself at war with nobody, both the administration and the sport itself has, in recent years, faced no shortage of antagonists variously prepared to attack the game from within, talk it down, or in the most troubling cases, turn away from rugby altogether.

In that context, the record-busting 47-26 win against the All Blacks at Perth’s Optus Stadium is a victory with implications well beyond the match itself, an important milestone on the path to turning the negative sentiment that envelops Australian rugby.

In just a single match, how can this be so? For one, nobody who left the ground on Saturday night will have done so talking about Israel Folau or Cameron Clyne. Mainstream media yesterday furnished the sport with headlines about the quality of the Wallabies’ play, not its off-field burdens.

And if there remains a cohort of rugby people in the west who resemble the fabled Japanese soldier in the jungles of the Papuan highlands, still fighting a war that everyone else has moved on from, many more fans in WA and beyond will today find themselves starting to be drawn back in.

Drawn back because the game is always bigger than any individual, or any single episode. Drawn back because fans of the game – of any sport – can’t help but react when their sportsmen play with skill and panache, grit and determination.

It is the very reason ex-Australian cricket captain Steve Smith was cheered as a hero at Edgbaston last week, by fans on both sides of the Ashes battle – man enough and good enough to take responsibility for re-shaping his own legacy, and for understanding that people recognize you far more for what you achieve now, than what you might have failed at in the past.

No doubt as this week progresses, there will be sober rationalization around how one swallow does not make a summer. True enough, and it would be a nonsense to suggest that key trans-Tasman differences around structural pathways into professional rugby, player and coach development flowing into depth of elite level players and so on are no longer evident nor meaningful.

But whatever happens next week at Eden Park, a Wallabies graveyard since 1986, what the Wallabies have achieved in Perth, via their best performance in almost five years under Michael Cheika, is to deliver a genuine sense of hope for rugby fans in Australia.

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Hope that the game perhaps isn’t the basket case that many claim it to be, and hope around the looming World Cup now being something worth investing their time and emotional energy into.

The reason for this comes not from the score, as convincing and unexpected as it was, but the manner of the win, both in terms of strategy and execution.

Indeed it was Macarthur who also said, “Preparedness is the key to success and victory”, and it is here that the seeds for this win were sown.

Demonstrably fitter than at any time in recent memory, the Wallabies took on the All Blacks in a speed game, keeping the ball in hand where possible, not shying away from the breakdown threat posed by Ardie Savea and Sam Cane, instead demanding of themselves that they step up to the plate to ensure safe retention and recycling.

In that sense – attacking the All Blacks at one of their strengths, and playing positively rather than seeking to negate and nullify – the game resembled Ireland’s famous victory over New Zealand in Chicago in 2016.

In doing so it also made nonsense of the popular theory that the only way to beat the All Blacks is to keep them under 20 points and scrap your way home through opportunist tries created by defensive pressure, kicking all your goals.

By playing the match on their terms, the Wallabies won 146 rucks (over double that of the All Blacks) and lost only four – two of which were immediately turned around anyway.

In normal times, a possession percentage differential of 65/35 to the Wallabies wouldn’t worry the All Blacks, who would expect to get the ball back via an errant kick, a tired fumble or a silly penalty, and make hay on the counter.

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But here the Wallabies gave them almost nothing, their handling secure, their discipline spot on, and for once, their execution across the whole 80 minutes matching Cheika’s tactical ambition.

An important tactical nuance was to have halfback Nic White consistently pick the ball up at the base of the ruck, thus to offer three play options – a short pop to a forward runner, release pass to the outside, or White to run himself.

Nic White Marika Koroibete

Marika Koroiebte and Nic White celebrate. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

On another day, against a ready defence, playing so much off No.9 can impede the backline play, but here it had the desired effect of surprising the All Blacks, keeping their defenders on their heels more, and forcing them to guess at who the receiver might be, as opposed to launching a full, rapid press on the Wallabies runners.

Already contributing to a number of missed tackles in the first half against 15 men, this tactic was perfect against 14, ensuring that the Wallabies didn’t fall into the trap of chasing fools gold on the edges, but instead kept their focus on quick recycle and short bursts up the middle, before stretching a tiring defence to either side.

Unsurprisingly the tries followed, the best of them to White when Marika Koroibete and Samu Kerevi decisively worked the short side, isolating Kerevi on two of the All Blacks’ smaller defenders before his bullocking pins did the rest.

It is fair to say that in addition to orchestrating their own good fortune, a few things went the Wallabies’ way. For a moment an early floated pass seemed to offer an intercept try to Anton Lienert-Brown, but instead James O’Connor skillfully turned it into an easy run in for Reece Hodge – that moment alone justifying his selection at centre.

And a bobbled catch by Rory Arnold that on another night might have killed off the try-scoring opportunity, this time actually created one, the scent of the fumble drawing in Ben Smith, inadvertently allowing Arnold to put his hands into the newly created space in behind, to provide Lukhan Salakaia-Loto with the score.

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That the game started too with renowned non-kicker Korobeite putting one on the toe – surely the best kick in his whole career – and chasing hard to gain over 40 metres, was perhaps another signal that this was always going to be Australia’s night.

But wishy-washy things like fate and destiny aren’t what win Test matches. What matters more is that the work rate and controlled intensity that Cheika craves from his side was still as evident in the 80th minute as it was in the first.

No better was this illustrated than by the tireless Michael Hooper. And the Wallabies’ bench – in particular Taniela Tupou and Adam Coleman – provided the impetus that the All Blacks’ replacements have so often used against them.

And with that, added to an already impressive set-piece platform, the Wallabies suddenly looked like a top-tier international side once again – just the type of thing that will bring the crowds back if it is maintained.

The best thing about an All Blacks loss is that the response is always worth watching. Typically the group becomes more introspective, attitudes are hardened and the on-field response can either be brutally physical (as it was in Dublin after the Chicago loss), or bravely heroic (as it was last year in Pretoria when Scott Barrett and Savea crashed over late, for match-winning tries).

Coach Steve Hansen was sanguine straight after the match, acknowledging the quality of the Wallabies performance and contemplating how, without Brodie Retallick and, almost certainly Barrett, he will be able to restore the physical presence up front that has so distinguished the difference between the two sides during this long period of Bledisloe Cup dominance.

The natural inclination will be to revert to a more traditional big-body at blindside flanker, which will at the same time restore the lineout to a more balanced, four-target proposition.

If the Cane/Savea experiment didn’t pay off, the Richie Mo’unga/Beauden Barrett one was a qualified success, if only for the reason that in any loss where 46 points are conceded on 35 per cent possession, the New Zealand brains trust aren’t likely to fall into the trap of blaming the backs when the engine room fails to fire up.

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Certainly, on the scraps of ball obtained in the first half, it was a delight to watch how Barrett’s extreme pace allowed him to turn defensive depth at fullback into an attacking threat in the front line, in the blink of an eye.

Barrett’s 54th minute try – off a Mo’unga pass – was the culmination of the All Blacks’ first sustained spell of repeated phase possession in the whole of the match – suggesting not that the deckchairs need re-arranging, but that they need to be put to good use a lot earlier.

Other little positives will be taken from Reiko Ioane looking sharper than he has in recent weeks, and captain Keiran Read full of hard work in a shift that suggests he has timed his run well for Japan.

On the downside, the relative inexperience of Atu Moli was exposed, absent-minded in the way he strayed off his defensive pillar, opening up an easy try for Koroibete.

Self-evidently, the All Blacks will feel that, compared to the Wallabies, they have considerable improvement in them. For example, in how many matches would they have only thrown to the lineout four times, including a loss the only time they had a throw in the attacking 22?

Three lineout balls in 80 minutes provided no platform whatsoever to build from, and when added to their inability to disrupt the Wallabies’ possession, or apply sufficient pressure to force penalties, it is clear that defensive intensity and physical presence will need to ratcheted up considerably this week.

They will hopefully do so with the aid of a full complement on the field for 80 minutes, Barrett’s 39th-minute dismissal an obvious talking point arising from the match.

Predictably, most commentary afterwards settled along parochial lines and, as always, the best way of considering such matters is to reverse the jerseys of the protagonists and try to honestly reassess from there.

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The question thus being for Australian fans, is whether they would have been happy to see Izack Rodda sent off for the same action?

For what it’s worth, the law provides for referee subjectivity with respect to the degree of force used, and Barrett did not launch a clear-cut forceful ‘shoulder charge’ in the manner that say Sonny Bill Williams did against the Lions, or Sekope Kepu did last year against Scotland.

Barrett’s action resembled that of a block, typically used close in by forwards protecting their own goal line – as it happens in the manner used by Argentine forwards Juan Figallo and Tomas Lavanini (ironically also in the 39th minute) to prevent Franco Mostert from driving over the try-line in their match yesterday morning.

In these situations forwards are trained to defend with the whole breadth of their combined inside arm and shoulder, as they drive forward to meet contact, literally blocking the attacker, as opposed to tackling conventionally, which even if successful, may not prevent a try being scored.

Barrett’s problem was that he was not on his try-line and Hooper was not driving through Dane Coles’ tackle, or sneaking low around the side of a ruck, to score. With Hooper being low to the ground and leading through with his head, Barrett’s action was clumsy and ill-advised, with high potential for contact around the head and neck region, not shoulder on shoulder.

The judicial panel will no doubt sort things out and Barrett will cop whatever his whack is, perhaps a potential saving grace being uncertainty around the actual point of contact.

If a lengthy suspension follows – and with the World Cup only two more matches away, anything more than a four-match suspension will be crippling for Barrett and the All Blacks – and officials are consistent in their interpretation, then all players are going to have to very quickly adjust to where the new bar has been set with respect to adjudication of high contact.

Scott Barrett

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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Thankfully there was far less drama in Salta where the Springboks comfortably wrapped up the Rugby Championship, 46-13 against the Pumas.

Things started brightly for the home side with Nico Sanchez first running, then kicking delightfully, into space for Santiago Cordero to open the scoring.

But 13 penalties, half of them a result of a feeble scrum unable to provide a true contest, not only crippled the home side but killed off the match as a spectacle.

If that armchair ride makes the Springboks’ attack hard to assess properly, there was much to like in both the speed and the strength of their defensive effort – coach Rassie Erasmus having quickly built what, right now, must be close to the most formidable defensive unit in World Rugby.

Finding a way to unlock that will provide a stern test for Steve Hansen in six weeks’ time, in Yokohama. In the meantime he has plenty on his plate trying not to be the first All Blacks’ coach to relinquish the Bledisloe Cup in 16 years, to a resurgent, revitalized Wallabies.