Caveat, it was only the Waratahs, who have been hapless all year.
The Rebels will not have an easier game to win in 2021, and Rob Penney has some serious questions to answer about his coaching ability if the mish mash on display at AAMI Park on Friday night is anything to go by.
But one consistent feature on display in this game, as it has been all season, was the Rebels’ willingness to patiently build scoreboard pressure from the kicking tee.
Yes, they scored three well worked tries that hint at an increasingly coherent back line. But taking the three remained a feature with Matt To’omua and Reece Hodge bagging four penalty goals. Without them, we’re looking at a 21-14 scoreline, and a much more even game.
It’s no secret that the Rebels are behind the Reds and Brumbies in the Australian competition. But the steady accumulation of penalties against the Waratahs (to add to seven against the Reds and eight against the Brumbies) shows a viable way to even the odds, particularly when opponents are more skilled in open play.
The Rebels have shown the ability to turn a mismatch into a scrap. They know that if they can win enough penalties, they can beat even more fancied opponents. The Wallabies and the Australian teams have to adopt this approach to succeed against our counterparts across the ditch.
Before hardcore fans turn on me for gutting the spirit of the game, turn your minds to the Wallabies’ most recent win over the All Blacks in Brisbane last year.
Tom Wright set the tone with that early try to put the All Blacks on the back foot. And Taniela Tupou’s unyielding play up front gave him a vital late try that effectively sealed the deal.
But in between, Reece Hodge potted four crucial penalties and a conversion to keep the Wallabies in front. Nobody was complaining after the match about the spirit of the game.
Nor were they when James O’Connor took three points late into the game against the Brumbies last week. He knew the points were more valuable, setting his team up for one last shot at the try line they duly took.
Like it or not, neither the Australian Super Rugby teams nor the Wallabies can hope to go blow for blow with New Zealand, France or even England. The swashbuckling style of the Michael Cheika years, while capable of producing magic on occasion, is simply too naive and open.
Moreover, Australian rugby has struggled with the basics for the past few years. Unforced errors won’t go punished in the local competition but they will at international and Trans-Tasman level.
This means less ball to play with and it makes penalties even more important to keep in touch with better-coached and more adept teams from New Zealand and Europe.
Tactical kicking also plays a massive part. It will take years to get beyond Cheika’s run-from-everywhere mentality, but the process is worth it if the Wallabies learn to gain territory and win penalties further up the pitch.
If Australia is serious about a local team winning the Trans-Tasman competition and the Wallabies winning the Bledisloe Cup this year, fans, players and coaches alike must accept the gritty realism of the Rebels and to a lesser extent the Reds.
Penalties win games. No longer must we watch in agony as Michael Hooper directs yet another kickable penalty to touch only for the rolling maul to break down, a forward to knock the ball on or one of the centres fail to catch the ball.
Remedy these failings first and then we can talk about free-flowing rugby. For now, though, the case is clear for success against our international opponents in 2021: make it a fight at the breakdown, kick for territory, and above all, take the three.