A little informed reflection goes a long way, and Australian head coach Michael Cheika could do with a substantial dose of it right now, after the nailbiting 29-25 defeat by Wales.
Maybe it is time for him to take a step back from the heat of the moment at post-match press conferences.
In response to a question by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Georgina Robinson after the match in Tokyo, Cheika addressed an incident for which Wallabies ball-carrier Samu Kerevi was penalised for dangerous contact with the tackler’s chest and neck.
Cheika habitually refuses to keep a lid on his frustration in these circumstances, but rails at the perceived injustices of it all:
“It was pretty funny… As a rugby player, as a former player, I’m embarrassed about it…
“I don’t know every [refereeing] directive, there’s a fair few of them that come out. He said he may have lifted his arm into [the opponent’s] chest, but I don’t know if that’s illegal or not. I don’t know anymore, I don’t know the rules anymore.”
Later on, he added, “Maybe the lights going out at the end was a symbol… The administrators are spooking the referee. Referees are becoming worried about making the wrong decision.”
The evident feeling of being hard done by the refereeing spread to Cheika’s opinion of Romain Poite’s policing of the scrum:
“Some bits and pieces of the game conspired against us early on… I’m not quite sure why we’d be collapsing the scrum when we’re pushing forward. And the referee penalises them and then changes his decision to [penalise] us.”
The coach seemed oblivious to the irony of a situation where the same referee had made an identical U-turn at a scrum in the critical group game against England four years ago – except in Australia’s favour. We didn’t hear much about that.
He made more sense with his assessment of replacement flyhalf Matt Toomua’s contribution off the pine:
“He’s done very well in all our games. We obviously wanted to strategise the back end of the game, we felt we could come home strong. He took the ball to the line when it was on to go through,” Cheika said.
“He’s playing some nice footy, he’s putting his hand up to get selected every time.”
This strategising of the “back end of the game” can only be seen in the context of the misfire of the first 45 minutes, during which the front strategy failed completely to give Australia a strong foothold in a contest where the opposition’s main strength was defence.
The Chinese military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu wrote: “Every battle is won before it is ever fought.”
This was especially true of the events at Tokyo Stadium. The Wallabies lost in the selection room before they ever got on to the field. In particular, they lost it with their backline picks.
The three selectors had already backed themselves into a corner with Reece Hodge’s suspension, Adam Ashley-Cooper the only realistic option on the right wing. Although the veteran gave a reasonable account of himself, a straight swap between Ashley-Cooper and Jordan Petaia (who are both in the World Cup squad) and Tom Banks and Henry Speight (who aren’t) would have given far more strength in a position of need.
But it was the selection of the halves which proved to be a tipping point. Nic White was dropped to the bench and Christian Lealiifano omitted from the matchday squad entirely, even though both had been associated with Australia’s most impressive performance of recent times, the 47-26 win over the All Blacks.
Will Genia and Bernard Foley replaced them, but they did not play as if they had 32 games under their belts as a Test partnership. Far from it.
The match against a tough defensive team like Wales was always going to boil down to the small outcomes – to a willingness to get stuck into the ugly little tasks of the game. That is an area in which White excels.
On the game in Perth, I highlighted White’s urgency in clearing up those messy situations at the base of the ruck, just how willing he was to get his hands dirty.
The beginning of the weekend’s match began with an ominous comparison:
With Wales intent on flooding the first Australian ruck with a third man (number 6 Aaron Wainwright), the halfback is the only man available to protect the ball, but Genia is too slow to react and Wales win possession. Dan Biggar slotted a drop goal off the turnover a few seconds later.
Genia and Foley’s kicking games gave Wales too many easy entrances into the Australian half of the field on the return:
The box kick by Genia is too long and allows Biggar, George North and scrumhalf Gareth Davies to work the return all the way back to the original spot of the kick; in the second instance, Foley gifts prime first-phase scrum ball straight to Wales’ most dangerous counter-attacker, fullback Liam Williams.
In both cases, the positional pressure was heaped back on the Wallabies immediately, and that picture did not improve with the pair’s distribution:
In the first example, Australia are primed to run out via one of their extended exits with a full backline plus David Pocock in support out wide, but Foley misses both of his centres with the pass and James O’Connor has to go back with dustpan and brush to clear up the mess.
In the second, an excellent attacking lineout position near halfway is ruined by an errant pass off 9, and again O’Connor can do little else but sweep up the crumbs of a broken play and kick the ball away.
The main issue was with Genia’s performance with ball in hand. With Australia running two-thirds of their plays off the scrumhalf, he had to be able to engage the defenders at ruck-side accurately.
On too many occasions, the halfback took steps out of the ball at the base without engaging the first three defenders’ attention at the breakdown:
Genia is taking two or three steps sideways without fixing the guards at ruck-side. The ball-rip narrowly fails the first time around, but the jackal on the following phase is successful.
Genia is effectively leading the close defenders straight onto the receiver, and the negatives of the situation were neatly illustrated by a choke turnover executed on Isi Naisarani in the 18th minute:
A screenshot shows the second and third Welsh defenders out (number 6 Wainwright and number 9 Gareth Davies) are passing off Genia and focusing all their attention on Naisarani:
This tendency became a concrete problem when the Welsh scrumhalf was the defender opposite the receiver outside either of the Wallaby halves. Regular observers of both Wales and his club the Scarlets will know how well Davies times his angled shoot out of the line in these scenarios.
Here he is, scoring an intercept try against Scotland in the 2018 Six Nations:
The shoot by the scrumhalf opposite first or second receiver is actively coached as a part of Shaun Edwards’ defensive scheme:
Davies (at the top of the picture in the yellow boots) is not offside, but perfectly aligned with the defenders inside him:
This was the first hint of a problem which became an unwanted echo of the Scotland game, just before halftime:
Once again, Davies is actually behind the feet of the two defenders closest to the breakdown as Genia lifts the ball:
It is Genia’s three lateral steps away from the ruck, and Davies’ great closing speed from a standing start, which turned pressure into an intercept score.
Remarkably, the tendency of the Aussie starting 9 to give the ball straight to his opposite number did not stop there:
Steps, blitz, tackle behind the gain-line – and no offside. No interception this time, but a turnover on the next phase of play under linespeed pressure.
The final example early in the second half would have put the result beyond any doubt, even with half an hour left to play:
Davies is peeping out of the line after Genia lifts the ball, but no more:
If the Welsh scrumhalf hangs on, it would have been a straightforward scamper to the goalline a la Scotland. The score would have been 33-15 and all of the back end strategising in the world would not have mattered one iota.
Although we are not privy to what Cheika tells his charges behind the scenes, the continued carping at refereeing injustices after the game is not doing him any favours.
It rubs the top officials up the wrong way. Moreover, it suggests an unwillingness to take ownership of errors in selection which could have been avoided.
Make no mistake, this critical group game was lost before the two teams ever set foot on Tokyo Stadium, in particular by the decision to remove Nic White and Christian Lealiifano from the starting line-up and replace them with Will Genia and Bernard Foley.
With Genia and Foley on the field, the score was 26-8 to Wales over the first 45 minutes. With first Foley, then Genia, departing early in the second half, Australia scored 17 out of the last 20 points to come within a whisker of a remarkable comeback win.
Victory would have been within their grasp if they had started with White and either Lealiifano or Toomua – who have both played extensively with White at the Brumbies in the past – and prioritised the start, rather than the finale of the game.
After all, the combination of White starting and Genia finishing had worked superbly in previous matches in 2019. Why break up a winning act?
There were concrete reasons to keep that arrangement intact but they were disregarded. Nothing illustrated those reasons better than the rival involvements of Genia and Gareth Davies on the day. Genia played Davies into a man-of-the match performance as a hugely influential defender.
As a result, the Wallabies need to gear up to play their two toughest opponents of the Michael Cheika era in successive matches – Eddie Jones’ England in the quarter-finals, with a potential semi against New Zealand to follow.
Two nemeses to conquer in as many weeks – those are not easy ghosts to exorcise.
The Wallabies have volunteered themselves for the more difficult half of the World Cup draw. We can only guess at the frown on Sun Tzu’s face: “What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease.”