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The Wrap: Rugby learnings 101 - All Blacks show how it’s done in Newcastle

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29th November, 2020
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With apologies to my old English teacher Mrs. Bradbury, Argentina on Saturday night, versed the All Blacks, got nilled and will take some learnings from the game.

Even the losing captain in New Zealand’s Mitre 10 premiership final, Auckland’s Angus Ta’avao, was on the learnings bandwagon – despite there being no ‘next week’ for his team.

To All Blacks coach Ian Foster’s eternal credit, he is a ‘lessons’ not a ‘learnings’ guy and, coming off two losses, there were plenty of those for him and his side to absorb, and no shortage of free advice thrown in over the last fortnight.

It’s easy for any coach or captain to say that they need to learn. But – with a couple of caveats – the All Blacks 38-0 win over Argentina was a prime example of a side actually taking lessons from a loss, and coming back smarter and stronger as a result. Rugby learnings 101.

101 also happens to be the points margin that the Wallabies need to beat the Pumas by next week, to take the Tri Nations trophy. Assuming of course that they win with a three-try margin, and don’t overreact to criticism and kick thirty-four penalty goals instead.

For the Netherlands, their required winning margin is 93. Given that they’ve scored only one try in three matches – off Nico Sanchez’ shin – that’s as likely as any Australian state premier saying to the Prime Minister, ‘why don’t you run the country for a bit while I take a low profile’.

Sorry, did I say the Netherlands?

‘Welcome to Country’ has become an important fixture at Australia’s major sporting events, and given how rugby is a world game, it affords a great opportunity to offer a glimpse of Australia’s culture and history to an international audience.

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But when the game is incorrectly identified as rugby league (in Brisbane), and Argentina identified as the Netherlands (here in Newcastle), there is potential for embarrassment and matters not to be taken as respectfully as they should.

It would seem that a bit of tidying up is in order.

It was important for the All Blacks to lead early, to take pressure off themselves and not fuel Pumas’ self-belief. And start well they did, playing with discipline, accuracy and control. Also notable was their intent to place pressure on Argentina in every play; Sanchez harried on his exit kicks, and the Puma’s ball runners afforded no time and space.

With only a 10-0 half-time lead to show for their dominance, the next challenge for the All Blacks was to keep their shape and not chase points. Things weren’t quite working for them in the red zone, but there was total set piece dominance, which translated into superior field position, and it was only a matter of time before the Pumas cracked.

In the end, 38-0 fairly represented the All Blacks’ 82 percent territory and 71 percent possession advantage, although it didn’t really tell the story of a superb tackling effort by the Pumas.

Without anyone getting carried away at the win, it was a credit to Foster and his players that where they were weak a fortnight ago, these aspects were worked on, and became strengths. The scrum was an obvious example, Nepo Laulala and Joe Moody fully deserving of the congratulations they heaped on each other when they were replaced in the second half.

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Pumas All Blacks

(Photo by Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Improved work-rate was another; Scott Barrett busy and effective all night, as was Akira Ioane, who is finally starting to suggest that his undoubted talent might be a fit for Test rugby after all.

Most of all, the All Blacks played the match on their terms. Far less predictable with the ball than they were in Sydney, through a combination of good discipline and keeping the Pumas pre-occupied with tackling, they stayed out of any distracting niggle.

Concerns? In an effort to mix things up, the crossfield kick/pass was overdone, and on three occasions, the kick proved too heavy for the recipient. Similarly, there was a lack of a clinical hard edge to finish matters off, to fully reflect their dominance.

Replacement prop Tyrell Lomax finished the match in the sin bin, courtesy of an ugly cleanout. Lomax has recent form for this, and can count himself very lucky that referee Nic Berry found mitigation with respect to the height at which contact occurred.

Height is a relevant factor when a player slips into contact, where a tackler who might reasonably have expected to be hitting across the chest suddenly finds himself making high and dangerous contact. But this was a cleanout situation, where the defensive player was prone, and Lomax had a clear sight and every opportunity to avoid contact with the head.

Aside from their tenacity on the tackle, and another strong match from Guido Petti, positives were hard to find for the Pumas. Handling errors conspicuous by their absence in Sydney, returned in droves; albeit largely bought on by their opponent taking time and space away from them.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the Pumas’ morale might be starting to flag, and their bodies are beginning to show the wear and tear from a tough schedule, but I’m not so certain.

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Whilst I expect Australia to improve on last week, I think there is a resolve and defensive organisation about this Puma’s side that will see them get up for one final match. Some fresh players coming back in will help. They will however, need to do more with the ball.

One thing that most certainly won’t decide next weeks’ match is ‘pride in the jersey’. Alan Jones exhumed that old chestnut in Friday’s The Australian, citing the reason for the Wallabies slumping from 15-6 to 15-15 last week as a result of the side containing too many non-Australian born players who, when they get a contract offer to play overseas, will be “off in a flash”.

And why wouldn’t the Argentine players have more pride in their jersey than their Wallabies’ counterparts, because we all know that none of them would ever rush off and take up overseas contracts. Well, except for the 13 squad members who arrived separately from Europe, to prepare for this competition. And the handful of their teammates who have since joined them in signing new overseas contracts!

Not so amusing was more infuriating incidences of down-time for injuries and scrums. Yes, it was hot in Newcastle, but not oppressively so, and not enough to justify yet another Test match weighted down by long periods of inaction.

There’s an old saying that the standard you walk past is the standard you set, and the rot set in early, with Berry whistling the first scrum at 1:49; the first ‘set’ happening at 2:45, the second ‘set’ at 3:33, with the ball finally cleared at 3:40. All for Berry to award a penalty to the All Blacks!

That’s two minutes of test ‘action’ flushed into the ether for no good reason. This column in no way supports any push to depower scrums or compromise on safety protocols, but the game has a pressing need for match officials and players to show more urgency and commitment to move the game along.

Guido Petti

Argentina’s lock Guido Petti Pagadizaval passes. (Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

One referee usually keen to keep the game moving is Nigel Owens, who on the weekend, became the first match official to referee 100 Test matches. What marks Owens’ career isn’t so much the statistical milestone, but his unique style and a feel for the game that has largely been unmatched by other referees.

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His CV includes the 2015 World Cup final, and arguably one of the greatest ever Test matches, the 38-27 win by New Zealand over South Africa, in Johannesburg, in 2013.

Quoted last week as saying; “we need to get back to the referee actually refereeing the game,” one of Owens’ trademarks is his ability to watch a replay, take into account the opinion of the TMO, then ignore or disagree with the TMO’s assertion if it doesn’t accord with, or isn’t compelling enough to override, his own view.

Today’s pods of match officials seem to be at pains to agree with each other at every opportunity. It might make for more harmony at the back of the plane, but more often than not it’s little more than positive reinforcement and confirmation bias, and it doesn’t guarantee improved outcomes.

Tomas Lavanini

Tomas Lavanini (C) of Argentina is shown a red card by referee Nigel Owens during the Rugby World Cup 2019 Group C game between England and Argentina at Tokyo Stadium on October 05, 2019 in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Finally this week, I never had the pleasure of meeting Wales and British Lions prop and Pontypool coach, Ray Prosser, but it’s fair to say that his playing and coaching style was better suited to pre-TMO days.

Prosser died last week, aged 93, his death marked by a stream of tributes to a man equally renowned and feared for his uncompromising, ‘no shirkers, no prisoners’ approach to training and playing the game.

This chapter of Welsh rugby; the success of the Pontypool club and its subsequent demise, as the game transitioned from amateur clubs to ill-conceived regional constructs under professionalism, is expertly captured in the book, ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly; The Rise and Fall of Pontypool RFC’ by The Roar’s Nick Bishop, and Alun Carter.

It’s a cracking read, notable also for Prosser never once uttering the word ‘learnings’. That’s Rugby Basics 101.

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