It’s been a feature of Dave Rennie’s time in charge of the Wallabies so far; a desire for players to express their physicality, to be nobody’s easy-beat, particularly in and around the breakdown.
Test rugby differs from ‘normal’ rugby in a few important ways. The pace the game is played at, the skill level and attention to detail required, and the need to project and maintain a physical presence. To show that, individually and as a team, you belong with the toughest men in the toughest arena.
To illustrate, this is why when fans might observe a player like Lachie Swinton and see a tough but flawed penalty magnet, Rennie sees a young man with the body and uncompromising attitude to compete at the highest level, operate right on the edge of the line, who will, with experience, become more accurate.
But the trouble with playing so close to the line, as a team philosophy, is that sometimes you’re bound to step over it. And sometimes, like at Murrayfield last night, it costs points. Enough points to turn a win into a frustrating loss.
Twice in the first half Australia crossed the try-line – Tom Wright streaking in down the left-hand touchline and Michael Hooper wriggling over under the posts – only to have the match officials rub out the scores and penalise the Wallabies for needless acts of ill-discipline.
First it was Hunter Paisami, cleaning out Finn Russell into next week, so far ahead of the ball he drove him. Then it was the experienced Alan Alaalatoa, carelessly dropping his arm into the wrong place in a clumsy cleanout, into a defender who was already on the ground and out of play.
That’s 12, potentially 14 points right there, and when you throw in an awful first penalty attempt from a handy position by James O’Connor, it doesn’t take much to figure out that in such a tight, low-scoring Test match, that was the winning and losing of the match.
That the Wallabies coped well with Alaalatoa in the bin (and Rob Valetini forced off by necessity), isn’t the point. Two tries reversed, simply because two players felt the need to assert themselves beyond what was lawful or necessary, is just dumb rugby.
Predictably, there were calls supporting captain Hooper that Alaalatoa was harshly dealt with. And certainly, having TMOs like Marius Jonker make definitive rulings on where contact is made, off flimsy and conflicting slow-motion replays, remains an uneasy raffle.
But in a week where the scourge of head injury in rugby was at the forefront of discussion, the Wallabies could have no complaint. Flopping in low, Alaalatoa lost control of his body, and thus control of the outcome. The onus was on him to avoid contact with the head.
The loss of Taniela Tupou told a similar tale. Tupou entered a tackle far too upright, looking for heavy contact, making no attempt to target the chest or below.
As it happened, Tupou came off the worst, but the outcome could just as easily have been forceful contact with his opponent’s head, and a stiff sanction. While that one didn’t cost points directly, it almost certainly contributed to the Wallabies struggling to maintain parity at the scrum, and will also likely see Tupou out of action for next week as well.
Other little things spoke to the Wallabies’ mindset not quite being in the right place. Wright foolishly tried to slap the ball away from Russell when he had no right to involve himself, and halfback Nic White, on numerous occasions, could be seen arguing the toss with the referee and his assistants.
It’s an aspect that White has always had in his game, despite him being experienced enough to know that in the history of Test rugby, no assistant referee has ever walked onto the field to stop play and order the referee to change a decision, on the say-so of a player.
It’s also a measuring stick for his performance. Not being fully focused on his own job, but that of the officials, manifests itself in slow clearances and inaccurate passing. It was perhaps to be expected that a new 9-10-12 combination would lack cohesion, but this part felt unnecessarily self-inflicted.
Often criticised for not kicking enough, the Wallabies were guilty a couple of times of not counting the numbers and forgoing clear opportunities to move the ball in space out wide. Wright, Andrew Kellaway, and replacement Izaia Perese looked to have plenty of run and confidence in them, but the clear thinking and execution to provide them with more opportunity, wasn’t quite there.
For their part, Scotland contributed mightily to a match that, while it might have been error-strewn and frustrating, was highly entertaining and willing throughout. They have built depth right across their squad; always dangerous on the counterattack, but now with an impressive steel about their set piece.
If the Wallabies forgoing points due to ill-discipline was one key factor in the result, the Scots consistently executing at scrum and lineout was another.
A slick lineout variation delivered a try to Hamish Watson, and how about the superb finish in the corner from replacement hooker Ewan Ashman in the 56th minute, which came after the Wallabies had come under repeated, intense scrum pressure?
While discipline is the obvious and necessary area of improvement for the Wallabies, it will have come as a shock to them, to see their scrum – with one notable second half exception – so wobbly. Another week into Rory Arnold and Will Skelton will help team cohesion, but for now, this did look more like a reversion to the Wallabies of recent times – Michael Hooper and the rest.
The rest of the weekend proved to be a matter of ‘where to look?’, with a series of internationals – men and women – crammed into the schedule.
It’s a fair bet that most who cast their eye towards Rome wished they hadn’t; the All Blacks’ 47-9 win a thoroughly unsatisfying way to use up two hours of perfectly good sleep time.
That the match was so unrewarding came down to three factors, one of which was the All Blacks’ insistence on ball-playing at the very point in the midfield, the home side was applying the most pressure. As a result, handling and skill errors abounded, and frustration levels went through the roof.
Second was intensity of the Italian defensive press and the accuracy of their first-up tackling. When you consider that four tries came from attacking lineouts and one from a botched defensive scrum, for Italy to concede only twice from general play, and give up only three line-breaks over the whole match, was some achievement.
Lastly, the contribution of referee Karl Dickson was heavy handed, to the point where each side conceded a whopping 16 penalties. Perversely however, it was the penalties that Dickson didn’t give that extinguished the opportunity for a free-flowing match; Italian players frequently allowed to flop in and slow the All Blacks’ ruck ball, and to crib the offside line at will.
Often accused of pig-headedly sticking to the game plan at their own peril, to the All Blacks’ credit, there was a change of emphasis in the second half; more punchy ‘pick and go’, to try and get in behind the defence.
And let’s not forget that while the All Blacks will be privately seething at Dickson condoning blue murder, Italy also suffered when Dickson – typically too keen to hear the sound of his own whistle – neglected to play an advantage that would have resulted in a try to the ever-dangerous, Melbourne-born, Monty Ioane.
At the same time, across in Dublin, a sharp-looking Ireland dealt to Japan, 60-5. It’s fair to say that both sides looked very different than on the famous night in Shizuoka, when Japan lit up their own World Cup with a famous 19-12 victory.
That was meant as a rugby reference, although nobody was missing Ireland’s bold purple playing strip. The official line was that this was to comply with a World Rugby edict to avoid red v green jersey clashes, which make things difficult for sufferers of colour-blindness.
That lame explanation seemed to ignore the obvious point that Japan’s strip is not just ‘red’ but red and white horizontal hoops. Anybody unable to differentiate between that and plain green is probably incapable of watching any rugby match, between any opponent.
Everybody already knows that all of the national rugby unions are scrambling for cash. Why not spare all the BS and simply admit that this jersey was a convenient way to bank a few extra Euros via fans looking for a collector’s item? No shame in that.
England pulled the same stunt at Twickenham, playing in red instead of white, forcing Tonga to play in white, instead of red. Perhaps the English players earning match payments 46 times that of their opponents wasn’t humiliation enough for the Tongans?
One player who didn’t earn his match fee was Owen Farrell, ruled out two days prior due to contracting Covid. That will also see Farrell ruled out of any match played in Western Australia on the 2025 Lions Tour; assuming and hoping that travel to Perth will be allowable by then.
Was it bad luck for the colour blind at Cardiff, or an ‘up yours’ to World Rugby, when Wales and South Africa measured up in their traditional red and green strips? Or perhaps it was the Welsh marketing team simply lacking the entrepreneurial savvy of their Irish and English counterparts?
The Welsh security team certainly lacks something; for the second week running, allowing a boofhead to casually straddle the fence and join the action. This time it hurt; Liam Williams impeded on a run to the corner, while the score stood at 15-15. There was cover coming across and he may not have scored, but it would have been a close-run thing.
Clearly, they don’t breed ‘em too smart in the valleys. If you must do something like that (and unless you’re a South African medic or waterboy, there really is no need), at least disadvantage the opponent, not your own team.
This was an enjoyable, hard-fought, competitive Test match, with South Africa assuming clear physical superiority, but Wales hanging in with impressive tenacity. It was another match that suited the nuggety Kwagga Smith who, in the space of a handful of Test matches since the first Lions Test, has gone from a figure of ridicule, to an integral cog in the Bok machine.
In other matches, Argentina improved on recent efforts, although still never seriously challenged France for the win; the home side winning 29-20 in Paris, while Fiji put Spain away 43-13.
In Northampton, the England women powered their way to another record win, 56-15 against the Black Ferns. There are massive gulfs in strength and organisation, which will have New Zealand and Australian officials wondering how they can be competitive at next year’s World Cup, and bookmakers ready to pay out early.
If that felt like a lot of rugby, next weekend things go up another level with Argentina v Italy, South Africa v Scotland, New Zealand v Ireland and, the old foe, Australia v England.
Jarvo 69 has yet to announce which match he will attend, but it might be time that a set of knuckledusters and steel capped boots were bought into play to convince him that the joke has well and truly worn thin.
Unlike the Wallabies, that might be one circumstance where a lapse in discipline could be excused.