Another match, another boatload of intercepts and turnovers, and another familiar post-match feeling for players, coaches, and supporters alike as the Wallabies dropped a third straight game to New Zealand for the year.
Stats sheets can tell you as much or as little as you want them to, and there is one standout line of the sheet that caught my eye.
Turnovers: Australia 13, New Zealand 13.
No, I didn’t quite believe it either, because it certainly didn’t feel like the All Blacks conceded as many as the Wallabies did. It didn’t feel like the All Blacks conceded even half as many as the Wallabies did.
The big difference, obviously, is what the All Blacks did with those 13 turnovers they won. They scored tries from several.
The Wallabies, on the other hand, didn’t do much at all.
Partly, that was because at the point of winning a turnover, there wasn’t much option for the Wallabies other than to go to ground and recycle the ball and work it out from there what to do as the game continued.
Much of if was because the Wallabies, sadly, still don’t have the composure to react to situation in a way that might create an opportunity. Whether that’s experience or mindset or pressure or something else is hard to know. But it’s clear that when presented with turnover ball, the All Blacks have a very different approach and more often than not a very different outcome to anything the Wallabies manage.
And this isn’t a matter or playing depth or finances or number of teams or any of those much bigger issues that are easy to throw up as if they’ll somehow make a difference the following week.
Australia having five teams isn’t the reason Tom Banks pushed his touch finder too long. However you want to judge playing depth isn’t the reason Matt Philip threw a loopy pass in midfield that was begging to be intercepted.
Rugby Australia’s finances didn’t make Noah Lolesio push a penalty attempt to the right of the posts.
This is all about the Wallabies composure and reactions to pressure and the choices they’re making in that very moment they find themselves in.
“We’ve talked about errors, and we’ve talked about being able to apply pressure for long periods of time,” Wallabies coach Dave Rennie said post-match.
“But we’ve got to be able to turn pressure into points, and on the back of that exit well and apply pressure down the other end of the field again.”
On that note, the Wallabies enjoyed a 60 percent share of possession, and 62.4 percent of the game was played on the black side of halfway. The All Blacks were even forced to attempt 79 more tackles.
So they’re doing something right. In fact, they’re doing a lot right when you look again at the stats sheet and see that the Wallabies had set piece parity and even a slight upper hand in the scrum.
They made a similar number of clean breaks, beat more defenders, and got away more offloads.
What went wrong, then?
Well, it’s that immediate moment leading up to the 13 turnovers; much more so than anything New Zealand managed from their resulting counterattack. Rennie touched on this, too.
“It’s not so much counterattack, it’s actually turnover,” he said.
“And it’s an area we’ve worked really hard on as well. The opposition are exposed when they turn the ball over, because you generally have a group of men on one side of the field.
“We’ve got to deny them opportunities, and if we make errors, we’ve got to clean them up quickly so that they don’t get an advantage off it.”
James Slipper was quick to dismiss the idea it’s a lack of experience.
“I don’t know if experience is what we’re after, I think just nailing our skill under pressure,” he said.
“Everyone individually has skills they bring to the game, and as a team and as a collective you put it together, and that’s when you start playing really good footy, when everyone’s doing their job.
“I think it’s a team that’s growing at the moment, and we’re finding out the hard way that when you don’t get things right – especially against a good All Black team – they can punish you.”
Wallabies captain Michael Hooper made a similar reference to needing more patience with the ball in his on-field comments immediately after the game too, which was a big turn around from references to training really well during the week, as he did only a few years ago.
So the players know it, but how can you just address something like composure and decision-making in a week, with the world champion Springboks awaiting in Queensland and more than happy to tackle all night in their half?
That’s the $64 question at this point in time. I hope Rennie and his assistants can find a way, and I hope the players are good enough to take the lessons on board. Because they’ve obviously shown they can perform under pressure, that’s why they’ve been selected in the national team in the first place.
They need patience, they need to back their abilities, and they need to push themselves to be in the right position at the right time, so that they can help their team-mates make the right decision in that moment they find themselves in.
The Wallabies are clearly playing with enough ball to create chances, but they’re yet to create enough chances to lead at halftime in any game in 2021.
They urgently need to find the composure to convert those chances into points so they can front-run and dictate terms, not more turnovers and game-chasing.