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The Wrap: Wallabies fans, stop me if you’ve heard this one before

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Expert
6th December, 2020
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With the Xmas party season starting to swing into gear, imagine a Wallabies fan on Saturday night, instead of being in front of the television, being stuck at a function with work colleagues.

By 10.00pm the new receptionist has fallen off her heels twice, and Ted from accounts is out the back somewhere, in search of a photocopier, eager to grace the crowd with images of his pudding-like arse.

Meanwhile, you’re on the phone to a rugby mate, to get the oil on the Wallabies putting Argentina to the sword.

“Sorry mate, what was that again? Sixteen all… Hodgey missed a penalty shot at the end… Pumas tackled like demons… we turned down a heap of shots for goal in the first quarter… red and yellow cards…”

“No mate, I’m asking about tonight’s game, not the other week!”

And then the penny drops. Last week, this week, it’s the same story.

James O’Connor took to the microphone after the match and lamented his side’s inability to mount scoreboard pressure.

“It was almost like the last game we played against them,” he said.

Almost? If he meant that the path to 16-all was from behind this time, as opposed to being run down last time, then yes, there were differences. But there was no ‘almost’ about the Wallabies failings – these were exactly the same.

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By recent standards, the Wallabies losing only one of four tournament matches would be welcomed. But of course, that’s just being sneaky.

Yes, it was wet and slippery, and the Pumas ability to reset, fill space, and hit with purpose on defence is world-class. And in those conditions, against a very good defensive side, bridging a ten-point deficit, mostly off the back of an improved kicking game, was an authentic positive.

But this result, another draw, can only be described as wholly disappointing for the Wallabies.

Journalists post-match seemed reluctant to ask captain Michael Hooper and Dave Rennie straight up; ‘Having acknowledged the Pumas defensive strengths, and the need to build scoreboard pressure, why then does the side continue to ignore points from penalty goals in the early stages of Test matches?’

Dave Rennie

Dave Rennie (Andrew Phan/supplied by Rugby Australia)

Having spurned multiple opportunities in the first 15 minutes, it was ironic that the moment Hooper finally did point to the posts, was when Marcos Kremer was sent to the sin bin. Hot on attack, their opponent one down in the engine room, this was one time Hooper was entitled to go for the jugular.

Instead, halftime arrived with the Wallabies, having played a lot of rugby but little of it smart, down by 6-13. It was as if the side in blue understood that they were playing Test rugby, while the side in green were intent on playing Super rugby.

Nowhere was this better illustrated than when, from within their own 22, the Pumas easily manoeuvred a maul thirty metres upfield, and impressive halfback Felipe Ezcurra took advantage of the fractured defence to expertly position Bautista Delguy to finish off.

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Wallabies midfielder Hunter Paisami might feel embarrassed about the way he was fended off, but Delguy is world-class, and showed exactly why he was, by some distance, the most dangerous back on the pitch.

With little space afforded them in the midfield, it was a difficult night for Paisami and his centre partner Jordan Petaia. Talent is one thing, but experience can’t be bought, and the Wallabies’ midfield backs have been increasingly exposed for naivety permeating their decision making, as the tournament has gone on.

Things changed after halftime, as they needed to. Halfback Nic White kicked only once from the base in the first half, but it took just two minutes after the break for him to put up his next two kicks.

And for a side that has, in recent years, had kicking programmed out of their DNA, the Wallabies won the kicking duel from the back. Their comeback was hard fought, but in the end, the draw was well earned; the real damage having been done in the first forty.

It could have been so much more. Reece Hodge has now had three ‘boys own’ opportunities to win a Test match at the death; none of them easy, but being a Test quality goalkicker is about converting those opportunities into points.

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The Wallabies also played the final quarter with 14 men, after Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, inexplicably, was far too upright in laying a forceful tackle on Santiago Grondona.

Forget any arguments about trigger happy referees or the game going soft; Salakaia-Loto had every opportunity to aim lower and chose not to, hitting Grondona in the head with both his own head and his driving shoulder. He now joins Lachie Swinton in the room of mirrors, both with an opportunity over summer to think about more accurately targeting their aggression.

Rennie too, will be thinking hard about how to accelerate the process of converting the gains his squad and coaching group has made off the field, into tangible outcomes.

He now knows more about individual players, and has had a reality check in terms of confirming long-standing skills deficiencies in Australian rugby. He will be busy in the new year, working closely and candidly with all five Super Rugby coaches, to ensure alignment around conditioning standards, and skills and development objectives for individual players.

He will also know that this time next year, without a better winning percentage, he will not be afforded the same clear air.

The Pumas meanwhile can reflect on a tour that exceeded all expectations, particularly given its fractured build-up under COVID restrictions, and final week chaos that saw both their captain and their best player stood down.

Coach Mario Ledesma didn’t use the events of the week as an excuse, but it was evident how tough and emotionally draining the exposing of Pablo Matera’s past misdeeds were for the squad.

All of which served to highlight the irony around the number 10 embroidered into each playing jersey in honour of Diego Maradona, and the knowledge that if this had been done a week earlier, Matera and Guido Petti would likely have been playing this match.

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Pumas All Blacks

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

Now without the anchor of Super Rugby to help expose and develop Test quality players within their own program, Argentina’s challenges remain formidable. But this will forever remain a chapter in their rugby history that will be viewed with immense pride and satisfaction.

Fans of rugby gaining currency as a true world game can only hope that this marks a new benchmark for Argentina, not a peak.

After a year relatively free of major refereeing controversy, it must be said that the last few weeks haven’t been kind to the match officials. Saturday night’s crew resembled a bunch of Australian state premiers; far more involved in proceedings than what is healthy or desirable for folk wanting to go about their business.

How did we get to referee Angus Gardner still lecturing forwards on their scrummaging technique in the closing minutes of a Test match? How did we get back to assistant referees and TMO’s looking for reasons to get into the referee’s ear and stop the match?

I suspect the answer partly lies in World Rugby encouraging the match officials to work closely as a team – or ‘pod’ in the modern vernacular. This is understandable so as to aid cohesion, but it seems to have morphed into a return to the assistants playing a bigger role in the game than what is desirable.

TMO Damon Murphy dug a very deep hole for himself, keen to put words into Gardner’s mouth, and seemingly re-writing rugby’s definition of a clean-out on the run, in his haste to dismiss Kremer and Hooper to the sin bin in the first half.

One wonders what David Pocock might have made of events, thinking of the many hundreds of similar clean-outs he suffered over his career, with most of his opponents not subjected to a talking to, nary a yellow card.

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Just as infuriating were the two assistant referees, Jordan Way and Nic Berry, late in the game, advising Gardner to penalise front rowers for technical offences, just at the point where the ball was being cleared from the scrum.

In Berry’s case, this was for an elbow momentarily grazing the ground following the ‘set’, after which the player corrected his position and continued scrummaging without attempting to seek an unfair advantage.

As soon as Salakaia-Loto and Swinton are done, how about populating that room of mirrors with match officials; along with a brief to find a better understanding and balance between accurate adjudication of rugby’s laws, and common-sense application which contributes to, rather than hinders, an appealing spectacle for fans.

Dare I say it, but to those who applauded the ‘teamwork’ at play when Berry asked his TMO Paul Williams to help him out with a knock-on ruling, which led in turn to Scott Barrett being sin-binned in Brisbane, this is exactly what happens when all four match officials are let off the leash and encouraged to play a greater role in the game.

Reece Hodge is tackled by Matias Alemanno

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

It’s an old-fashioned notion, but assistant referees carry a flag for a reason – to stick it up when the ball goes out. Throw in responsibility for keeping defensive lines onside, and to watch for ‘off the ball’ foul play, and that should be more than enough to keep them busy and for the game to prosper.

Given the fractious relationship between Fox Sports and Rugby Australia in recent times, it was probably fitting that the final act was a messy 16-16 draw. Rugby fans will now migrate to Stan en-masse, many of them eagerly seeking fresh points of view from the commentary box.

But recent events aside, it is fair to say that this has been a twenty five-year relationship with many highlights, none more so than Fox underpinning the growth of professional rugby in Australia.

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Missed will be match caller, Greg Clark; a true professional on the job, and a gentleman and all-round good bloke, off it.

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And while this match saw Fox sports ushered out of rugby, ushered in was a new version of Australia’s national anthem, the first verse sung in the indigenous Eora language by Olivia Fox and the Wallabies.

After a few pre-match mis-steps in recent weeks, this was a triumphal and moving moment. Because there exists many different Aboriginal languages, and matches are hosted in different locations, it is not a simple matter of copying what New Zealand has done with their national anthem and applying this to all matches.

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Nevertheless, now that the door has been opened, we can expect similar initiatives in the future. Along with the Wallabies learning to count in multiples of three.