I’m sure that Robbie Deans could not have wished for a better birthday present than the one delivered to him by his Wallabies team in Bloemfontein yesterday. The Wallabies won the match, 41 points to 39, scoring five tries to three by the Springboks, and became the first Wallaby team to win on the high veldt since 1963.
The match was highly entertaining, with the visitors dominant in the first half and the home team controlling most of the second. Then, although reduced to fourteen men, courtesy of Sai Faainga’s yellow card, the Wallabies produced a stunning comeback to score ten points in the last ten minutes, with the winning points coming from a stunning 56 metre penalty goal from Kurtley Beale on the stroke of full-time.
The Wallabies began the match in a very positive manner with the ball in hand, just as they had a week earlier in Pretoria, but, whereas earlier there had been some opportunism in their ability to capitalise on Springbok mistakes, on this occasion enterprise and skill were applied with stunning results. Stunning indeed, because after 25 minutes, the Wallabies had scored four stunning tries to lead by 31 points to six, with firstly Beale, then O’Connor, Moore and finally Elsom crossing. Before the match, I had sent a text to friends, “Guys, I reckon we are half a show (to win). Our selection is better. We have some good players, even if we aren’t playing well together. And they aren’t that good either.” I was not completely right, because in this period, the Wallabies did combine well. With their alignment much improved, the passes were delivered in front of the receiver and the attack was constantly threatening the Springbok defence.
Full marks to the referees, who in the last few weeks have insisted on the Laws of the Game – should we ever have to make such a comment? Wayne Barnes has been the very best of them and, with his significant contribution, yesterday’s game was spectacular. Good technique, applied under pressure, with good support play and quick recycle of the ball, is always at the heart of good attacking play. With good intent on the part of the ball-carrier and good application, by the referee, of the law at the tackle, the game of rugby can be a stunning spectacle. Let’s make sure Paddy, that we don’t fall back again – even next week, with the All Blacks back on the pitch.
The Springboks had enjoyed the majority of territory in the first half, with much of this statistic generating from the many successful long-range Wallaby attacking efforts. The Springboks were therefore able to strike back, when the Wallabies conceded successive penalties, and pressure the Wallaby line with long periods of possession. On the stroke of half-time, Victor Matfield broke the defence with a ‘pick-and-go’, brilliantly cleared the fullback with a ‘chip and regather’, and off-loaded to Fourie for a much needed seven points. This was a stunning effort from a world-class player.
The Springboks then began what was to become, surely, one of the greatest comebacks of the modern game. In the next 28 minutes, they scored 23 points to nil, with tries to Steenkamp and de Villiers, to establish a match-winning five point margin, with the Wallabies down to fourteen men. In the space of 30 minutes of game time, they had scored thirty unanswered points. The momentum and the game were surely theirs!
Not so! Deans may be “pig-headed”, even “bloody-minded”, as I suggested last week, but he is clearly not an idiot. This week, with a strategy totally opposed to the ridiculous spin which the ARU tried to put on last week’s fiasco, all seven replacements were used. Indeed, Slipper played the greater part of the match and should clearly have started, and the replacements played a significant role in the steadying of the Wallabies play. Burgess and Barnes were at the heart of most good things that happened in the final ten minutes to give the Wallabies their well-deserved win. The Wallabies also have an abundance of spirit, courage and determination, and they continued with intent and added execution. Perhaps, there is just a little light at the end of the tunnel.
The value of experience is that you have the opportunity to learn from your mistakes. Thank goodness then that Robbie did not fall for the spin.
Indeed, there are some important lessons available to all from yesterday’s wonderful match.
- The Springboks have gone backwards in the last twelve months. Their defence is woeful; they have leaked 22 tries in this Tri-Nations series, at a tad under four per match. That’s almost a bonus point to their opposition in every match. A little over a year ago, I was applauding the huge development of the team’s technique and its accurate application. This has all fallen apart. Sure, they have had some significant injuries – Brussow and du Preez are sorely missed – but the fundamentals of their game have evaporated. Spirit, courage and determination are there in bagsful, but they are not enough.
- The fantastic Springbok comeback was assisted by numerous Wallaby “mistakes”. A mate of mine said today, “If we can cut out the mistakes, we can win next week”, but our mistakes are, almost exclusively, the result of poor technique. Beale’s erratic clearing pass was the result of poor communication from his outside. The poor pass, which Ben Robinson knocked on, was the result of poor positional play in support by Robinson himself. He was way too wide of the player in the tackle. De Villiers try was made possible by, in my opinion, poor positional play in defence by David Pocock. Once again, he over-read and was way off his role of “filling on the inside”. Let me say it again, perhaps for the hundredth time this year. It is the responsibility of the coaching staff to educate and insist on quality technique, accurately applied, ALL OF THE TIME. This requires knowledge, courage and determination also – this time from the coaches!
- The Wallabies cannot become a world-class side without world-class set plays. They struggled yesterday at both line-out and scrum and, beware; New Zealand will not allow them the luxury of the frequent quick throws which they were allowed yesterday. “Kick it into the third row of the grandstand”, I would suggest to Michael Lynagh. I’m sure that Graham Henry has similar ideas.
- The Wallabies are a young side and young sides are, almost by definition, inconsistent. This team are certainly no exception! Development of this consistency has a strong mental component and there are essential “key principles” to this mental technique. I see a lack of development of this side of our game also. “When you start to feel tired”, I was taught, “this is the mental cue for you to focus on the fundamental components of your game.” These are simple tasks, easily achievable, and in the moment. As Brad Thorn said a few weeks back, in comment on the last few minutes of the game in which New Zealand scored twice to deny the Springboks, “We just concentrated on the little things that each of us had to do.” It’s simple really, like most parts of the game!
I have always looked for players who have the potential to “take you where you want to go”. It is then up to the coach to assist that player in the development of that potential – usually to add a bit of polish here and there. Kurtley Beale is such a player. Sure, he’s pretty ordinary under the high-ball –but, if anyone can assist here, it’s Robbie Deans, and, if not, Matt Burke is part of the Waratahs staff! No-one was better – technique and execution – and he dropped the first high-ball he received in test rugby. I remember; I was his coach!
Kurtley has time to make his plays, like all the great sportspeople. Quade Cooper is similar. There is an instantaneous connection between their eyes, or ears, and their hands or feet. They play with their minds clear of conscious thought and allow their instincts to dictate their actions. But take care, like diamonds, they require polish, not grinding!