I hate to say it, but nothing much has changed in the total picture following this weekend’s Super Rugby matches. New Zealand and South African teams are still playing at a level way above our Aussie teams. If anything, South African teams remain the big improvers, with the Bulls and the Stormers – despite their Chris Pollock-influenced loss to the Crusaders – likely to provide the bulk of a potentially very good Springbok team.
Of course, the Reds had the bye, and this takes a lot of quality Aussie players out of view, but there was a distinct lack of quality from our current top level players. The Rebels were just awful, the Force and the Waratahs average, at best, with the Brumbies way the best of a bad lot – although difficult to judge accurately against a woeful Rebels outfit.
Our “star” players – Beale and O’Connor for perfect example – were a long way off the pace. Even David Pocock was clearly outpointed on the night by his Waratah opponent, the relatively unknown, at the highest level, Chris Alcock. There is virtually not a lock in the country who could give us an edge, on current form, against our SANZAR opponents.
Sharpie has looked ok, but his honest workrate will not transfer into hard yards at the highest level. I saw great possibilities last season for Sitaleki Timani, but he can’t get a start with the Tahs. Rob Simmons has played better this season than I thought he could, but will still not be causing sleepless nights for his potential test-match opponents and I can’t see Horwill as the answer. He was a much better player a few years back when he first made the Wallabies. All of this – think about it – with three of the very best locks of recent seasons no longer on the scene. Matfield, Botha and Thorn are all gone and still we can’t hack it.
Maybe – I live in hope – we have some potential quality players emerging, but the quality of our play gives no scope for players to realise their potential. Last year, a coach (not Australian, I hasten to add) asked me if I would cast an eye over his team and tell him which of his players I rated. I replied that I would not be able to do that. “You don’t play any rugby,” I explained, “so it’s impossible for me to answer accurately. I can see some potential, with some skill, some athleticism, some height and weight, but I need to see them under pressure, in both attack and defence, before I can answer.”
The Brumbies are giving us some hope. Certainly, they are showing the other coaches, including the national coach, how to play the game and to maximise opportunities for players to realise their potential. I have said more than once that “you don’t need great players; you need players playing great”. This is what the Brumbies are doing; they’re playing some great rugby – technically accurate execution of some of the basics of the game.
In the first half of their match, against the hapless Rebels, their execution of “continuous play” was inspiring. I say in my Coaching Manual that we must have “action without hesitation” at the tackle contest. “We must not have a stop-start attack.” I have talked, in the last few weeks, about accurate positional play in support. The support player must be positioned, in relation to the ball-carrier, so that he is capable of “accepting an off-load, a loop pass, or chasing a line-break.”
This position is a conservative one and an easy one – really easy physically. It requires understanding and attention to the simple detail. “Arriving players”, I say, “must (a) arrive with good, low body-position, with heads up and hands out in front; (b) have the intention of attaching to the ball-carrier, lifting him to help him to stay on his feet and to continue the forward drive; (c) take an off-load, if given, or seal off the ball.” Attention to this easily achieved detail gave the Brumbies two tries – to Hooper and Fardy – and put Mowen in position for his try. And remember that most of these Brumby players have not been previously highly rated, but they are “playing great”.
On the other side of the pitch, with the Rebels, we saw some “great players” who played way, way “less than great”. Phipps was terrible – again – and Cipriani and O’Connor were so deep that their attack had absolutely no hope at all. Perhaps they didn’t relish the power in the Brumbies defence! With this in front of him, Beale had no chance, but he didn’t aid his cause with, for example, a stupid chip kick, running out of his defensive area early in the game. This led directly to McCabe’s try – which, incidentally, again showed up O’Connor’s defensive frailty in the inside centre spot.
The less fashionable players, Gerrard, Delve and Jed Robinson (every week), and Johannsen and Huxley, when they came on, had a real go and looked immeasurably better. “You don’t need great players; you need players playing great.” Over to you coaches!
Thankfully, there are some players coming through who may have the goods. Some whom we’ve seen before but I hadn’t rated highly at international level, who are now looking possible. I mentioned Simmons above and Brett Sheehan is another. Tapuai continues to give reason for hope, as does Beau Robinson. Hooper has plenty going for him and his backrow mate, Fotu Auelua, could be ok when he gets fit (I don’t care how old he is, only that he has a go).
Nick White looks very promising, another in a long line of outstanding scrum-halves from the Hunter Valley. I hope that this means that we have seen the last of Phipps in a Wallaby jersey. There are a few centres with a bit of size – at last – who deserve watching. Cummins, for sure, plus the Brumbies’ Tomane, Kuridrani and – I haven’t forgotten – Andrew Smith. Tom Kingston looks a real prospect with genuine speed and skill and still a few more kilos to gain.
Scott Fardy looks a genuine goer – not many cry babies play for the Dirty Rats – and Hugh Pyle, despite a very quiet game last weekend, is also a talent. If Sitaleki Timani can come up with last season’s form, he’s another – surely he’s worth a start for the Tahs.
There’s a lot of ‘maybes’ – I’m sure there’s even a few more – but we MUST have the basis of our current Wallabies team in form. Then we can bring others into the squad and drip-feed these new-comers gradually.
If only we can then play some rugby, we can then determine which of all of them, old and new, has the goods.