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Cheika's Wallabies need a revised Plan A for RWC glory

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18th August, 2019
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New Zealand 36 – Australia 0. For the Wallabies, the Eden Park hoodoo lives on.

The All Blacks retain the Bledisloe Cup for the 17th year. The Wallabies lose their 18th successive game to the All Blacks at Eden Park.

The Eden Park hoodoo worked for the All Blacks because they were better prepared, mentally, tactically and in personnel, than the Wallabies.

There is a truism in rugby, and in all sports in fact, that you learn more from defeats than you do from victories.

I say ‘truism’ because the saying presumes that you actually learn something that is effective when put into practice.

The 36–0 victory by the All Blacks over the Wallabies represents their second biggest in the history of Tests between Australia and New Zealand.

It is the first time since 2012 that the Wallabies have not scored a point in a Test.

And to make the contrast even more stark, a week before at Perth the Wallabies monstered the All Blacks 47–26, enforcing the largest losing margin on New Zealand by any Test team ever against the men in black.

The mistake Michael Cheika and his coaching staff made was to take the Perth game plan which worked so brilliantly and use it without much adjustment in the Eden Park decider.

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At Perth, the All Blacks defensive line was somewhat nonplussed by Nic White tactic of taking a step or so before firing a pass to a flat runner or someone coming from deep.

At Eden Park, this tactic of passing on the move was countered by the All Blacks defensive line putting pressure on White while hanging back a fraction on the initial charge to identify the designated runner.

White continued with his Perth innovation, even though the All Blacks were making his life and that of his runners the sort of misery you get when running into brick walls.

Occasionally, for instance, after several phases when the defensive line was being shortened, an All Blacks outside defender came in hard off the line cutting off the chance of a Wallabies overlap.

Nic White looks on after passing the ball

(AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

The effect on the Wallabies was that their attack, so effective a week ago, was reduced to making a few breaks that could not be built on.

The All Blacks also went hard at the rucks, especially loose forwards Kieran Read, Ardie Savea and Sam Cane.

This exposed a persistent flaw in the Wallabies pack, especially with the loose forwards, namely a lack of turnover skill at the breakdown.

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There is a selection problem coming up for the Wallabies to somehow deal with this turnover problem.

The answer that has been foreshadowed by Michael Cheika is to start David Pocock, the turnover master for the Wallabies.

It is unlikely that the captain Michael Hooper will be dropped, given his status in the side and his dominating form, especially at Perth where he played a blinder.

This means either Lukhan Salakaia-Loto or Isi Naisarani will be left out.

The problem here is that these two players were dominant against the All Blacks at Perth and at Eden Park were part of a strong Wallabies lineout that forced several errors from the New Zealand throwers, especially in the crucial first 20 minutes or so of play.

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The other problem for the Wallabies that was exposed at Eden Park is a lack of real speed, at least on a slippery field, by the Wallabies outside backs.

Beauden Barrett, playing more as a fullback than a number 10 (a major change from Perth), Sevu Reece and George Bridge were far too quick for their Wallabies counterparts.

Four of the All Blacks tries were scored from out wide where the difference in real speed between the two teams was really exposed.

And here I must take exception to virtually all the rugby writing for their gloating after the Perth Test that the Wallabies did not need Israel Folau and his penchant for scoring tries.

This did not acknowledge that Folau’s greatest attribute for the Wallabies was his love of scoring five pointers.

The best measure of the effectiveness of an outside back, in my view, is his try-scoring numbers.

The Wallabies were camped for some minutes on the All Blacks tryline early on in the Test and just smashed away in tight to force a try.

Israel Folau tries to beat Irish players

(AAP Image/Craig Golding)

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You would have put money on Folau scoring in this situation.

This is why I am surprised that Jack Maddocks, an effective try scorer, has been seemingly booted out of the Wallabies camp.

When a team plays the power game which was the Wallabies winning plan at Perth, the effectiveness of the plan is based entirely on how much dominance can be imposed on the opposition.

At Perth, the Wallabies were able to reduce the All Blacks to less than 20 per cent territory and possession, in each category in the first half of the Test.

It was only a matter of time, even without the red card for Scott Barrett, for these statistics of total domination to impose their iron logic on the scoreboard as the second half progressed.

At Eden Park, the possession statistics were 55 per cent to the Wallabies and 45 per cent to the All Blacks: territory was 49 per cent to the Wallabies and 51 per cent to the All Blacks: the Wallabies had kicked for 300m and the All Blacks 582.

The All Blacks were playing to the conditions, which were cold and windy and slippery under-foot, all of which made handling and precision passing difficult.

I have never been an advocate of a kicking game as the main attacking weapon for a side.

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Aaron Smith

(Photo by Renee McKay/Getty Images)

But the conditions at Eden Park required some consideration about the difficulties involved in relying on running the ball on virtually every possession, which seemed to be the Wallabies game plan.

Most of the All Blacks kicking was either for touch or contestable, which is how kicking should be used.

It is ironic that the rare occasions the Wallabies did kick produced an almost successful field goal attempt from Beauden Barrett, a sign of the All Blacks determination to eke out points whenever the opportunity presented itself, and a sensational break out that led to Aaron Smith’s try.

Without real pace out wide the Wallabies Plan A, winning dominance through a power game, becomes limited to actually gaining that dominance without converting that dominance into points.

It needs to be remembered that at Perth, the try count was six to the Wallabies and four to the All Blacks, even though the New Zealanders played 41 minutes with 14 men and had virtually no ball.

The difference between the All Blacks Plan A and the Wallabies Plan A is the difference between Roger Federer’s all court tennis game and Rafa Nadal’s back court game.

So I think the lesson of the Eden Park blackwash is that the Michael Cheika, his staff and the selectors have to have less Nadal and more Federer in their Plan A for the Wallabies.

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Michael Cheika

(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

And the inspiration for this should come from how All Blacks coaches, analysts and selectors reacted to the disaster at Perth.

Ben Smith, one of the great fullbacks in the modern era, and Reiko Ioane, a prolific try scorer were dropped from the wing positions. Both these players have been lacklustre on attack and defence in the Tests this season.

Sevu Reece and George Bridge, the replacement wingers were terrific on attack and defence. Their pace gave the All Blacks a couple of tries that would not have been scored by slower runners.

This represented in tennis terms the equivalent of getting breakthrough points through serving a booming ace or putting away a volley at the net.

Nepo Laulala, the strongest scrummer in New Zealand, was brought in to the scrum and this had the effect of smashing the Wallabies, even to the extent of New Zealand winning two scrum penalties with a 7-man scrum.

Sonny Bill Williams gave the All Blacks a physical presence in the middle of the field, on attack and defence.

He smashed across for a try from close range, a position the Wallaby attackers could not convert when they had a concerted series of attacks on the All Blacks tryline.

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It was noticeable, too, that the All Blacks exploited Ardie Savea’s power and frenetic energy with their blindside attack centred around him, especially early on in the Test.

There was an equally noticeable absence of tip-passes under pressure, too. The big forwards like Patrick Tuipulotu smashed the ball up rather than risking handling and passing mistakes in the difficult conditions.

I thought Steve Hansen after his 100th Test as an All Blacks coach made a very telling statement when asked about his thoughts and the response by the All Blacks to the smashing they received at Perth: “Everyone did their job from the analysts to the players.”

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen smiles at a press conference

(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

This answer acknowledged that the All Blacks accepted the Perth Test for what it was, a thrashing. Then the anatomy of how the Wallabies achieved their historic victory was analysed. And a response to the analysis was prepared.

It is part of Bledisloe Cup history that the analysis was spot on and the right players and new tactics were implemented.

Now we look at Michael Cheika’s response to the Wallabies supporters after the Eden Park debacle: “We’re so disappointed that we weren’t able to give those people what they expected and make them proud of us … In order to succeed here we had to put some doubt into the opposition’s mind, we had to put some points on the board … Then we were inconsistent at the ruck, which was an area were strong on last week and we were inconsistent at the scrum.”

Of course, we can’t expect Cheika to reveal his hand for the Wallabies going into the Rugby World Cup tournament.

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But there was nothing specific in the Cheika summary that suggests he is going to make major changes to the game plan that Hansen did so effectively.

So the question needs to be asked: will Cheika learn from the Wallabies loss at Eden Park the way Hansen learnt from the All Blacks loss at Perth?

The Wallabies Rugby World Cup squad is to be announced on Friday.

I reckon the answer to the question about learning from the loss will be seen if some real pace is introduced into the squad, especially in the outside backs.

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