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The pain that comes from shooting yourself in the foot: A Wallabies penalty deep dive

8th December, 2023
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Roar Rookie
8th December, 2023
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The Wallabies have a penalty problem. The last five years the Wallabies results have been going backwards since Michael Cheika’s complicated but now nostalgic tenure.

What used to be the expectation is now the hope. We should win more than we lose, we should be feared by the northern hemisphere, and we should be compared to New Zealand, not Fiji. In Australia’s recent struggles, the most frustrating part has been their ill-discipline.

Australia conceded more penalties than any tier one team in 2023. This concerning trend to shoot themselves in the foot when not being pressured by the opposition was a continuation of penalty struggles under Dave Rennie.

Penalties are so problematic at international level because they can either be converted directly into points or used to improve field position for the opposition. In Tier One matches, Australia conceded 13.29 penalties per game this year, three more than the Tier One average. Penalty counts tend to align with whether you think a team is meeting or falling short of their expectations. The three most penalised teams in 2023: Italy, Wales and Australia are the teams that were most disappointing for their fans. The second and third fewest penalties conceded were the two teams that most overperformed expectations in England and Fiji, with this new-found discipline one of the fine margins they exploited to succeed in 2023.

Yet, for the Wallabies there is a more concerning development than simply raw penalty totals: penalty difference. Referees are unique in their officiation so raw penalty totals can be influenced by referees’ strictness and areas of focus making it hard to compare two different game totals. Conceding eight penalties in a game where your opponent concedes five is more problematic than conceding 12 when your opponent concedes 18. Comparatively, penalty differential can be used across games more effectively as it better reflects in-game impact with no standardisation needed.

Australia is the worst penalty differential in in Tier One by far with -4.43 penalties per game. Wales, the second worst team for differential, was only -2.64 by comparison. Conceding four more penalties than their opponents for Australia was the hole they spent 2023 trying to dig themselves out of. A lot of why Australia was so easy to beat was because they provided opponents many different ways to do it through ill-discipline, be that through penalty goals or field position.

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In comparison, Fiji’s unlikely success this year was largely a consequence of their discipline. Their penalty differential of +3.83 meant they could be a team that ground down opponents, taking opportunities for penalties, rather than continuing their flamboyant attacking history. Further, the top four teams (South Africa, New Zealand, Ireland and France) all had positive penalty differentials, an area that separates the best from the rest, as they do not give opponents unnecessary advantages.

The more penalties a team concedes, the less likely they are to win. Winning the penalty difference in a match also is likely to be reflected in the match’s points difference. However, in 2023, there are examples of teams losing penalty difference but winning the match, indicating that it is still possible to overcome ill-discipline.

For example, Fiji dominated the penalty difference in the World Cup against both Wales and Australia. Fiji won in a close match against Australia but lost in a close match against Wales. We can see from the Wales vs Fiji that teams do not need to be more disciplined to win but do have to dominate in other areas to offset these penalties. For Wales against Fiji, they had the most efficient red-zone attack performance in a Tier One match in 2023 having only five 22-metre entries to Fiji’s 12 but averaging 5.2 points per entry to sneak a six point win.

Therefore, what discipline provides teams in international rugby is margin for error. It is not impossible to win when conceding penalties but does rely on outperforming the opposition in every other facet. The Wallabies needed this margin for error under a new coach, experiencing teething problems in attack and defence that more established teams do not suffer from.

However, Australia’s only match in 2023 with a positive penalty differential, Bledisloe 1, also provided poor incentive for better discipline as they lost by 31 points. This game saw Australia’s improved discipline come at the expense of turnovers, meaning they made the second most tackles in a 2023 Tier One match (248) and not seeing any success from it. This was the worst result for any team in 2023 that had greater than +1 penalty differential in a match. The Wallabies seemed to make the decision after this that it is better to try and create turnovers and risk penalties than be passive and defend until fatigue defeats them.

 (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

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In comparison, the Wallabies upset loss to Fiji was the manifestation of their discipline struggles. Their -11 penalty differential was the joint worst difference in 2023 and they were left to reflect on how the result would be different if they had not given so many chances to Fiji to take penalty goals in a match where they scored one try off turnover.

These matches were not just anomalies in 2023 but in Wallabies games for the past five years. Under Eddie Jones the two worst penalty differentials in five years were against South Africa and then Fiji. Further, the worst result the Wallabies have had since 2018 with a positive penalty differential was Bledisloe 1.

The worst results were not isolated though, with the Wallabies total penalties conceded and more prominently their penalty differential worsening since Michael Cheika’s departure. Cheika’s last year in charge, 2019, saw the Wallabies concede less than eight penalties a game and was the last time they had a positive penalty differential.

Dave Rennie’s was the beginning of the Wallabies’ ill-discipline, with the penalties conceded increasing year-on-year. Though, 2022 saw an improvement in penalty difference, suggesting that the Wallabies were starting to put teams under more pressure, despite the ill-discipline. Eddie Jones’ tenure actually saw a slight decrease in total penalties conceded but the 2023 Wallabies will forever be defined by their inability to put other teams under pressure in attack or defence.

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Penalty difference blew out to double what it had been in 2022 and the Wallabies constantly felt on the bad side of referees. This ultimately contributed to the Wallabies’ failures and cost Eddie his job, just as it did for Dave Rennie. Fans hope for something better in 2024. But dreams of the attacking ingenuity of a Joe Schmidt or defensive brutality of Jacques Nienaber must be secondary to the first non-negotiable: better discipline. Better accuracy at the tackle and breakdown, less laziness in the offside line, and more emphasis on referee-management like the other top sides do.

The Wallabies’ discipline has been crippling in the past five years. Genuine improvements in the team’s performance under Dave Rennie were undermined by poor discipline. When pressure on attack stopped being created, the problem was exacerbated under Eddie Jones. The Wallabies have become not only an unsuccessful team but an ill-disciplined one. To bring back success the discipline must first improve. International rugby is the most cerebral from of the game, every team carefully plans and executes the best ideas they can with the best players. It is the toughest form of the sport. The Wallabies’ discipline makes it so much tougher.

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