Half way into this year’s Tri-Nations and I’m not sure I’ve sensed a more pessimistic mood among Wallaby supporters since, well since the darkest days of Eddie Jones (or maybe post that event in Marseille 2007?). A record losing streak against the All Blacks has taken the rugby public’s relationship with Kiwi Robbie into a “sticking together for the kids” phase.
And you can see why. As eminent rugby brains like Bob Dwyer and Lance Free have pointed out, the standard of play in these last two tests has at times veered between brainless and abysmal. Austin and myself (copied by Kafe) pointed out the opportunity in attack vs the ABs for fast ball two passes out from the ruck. The Wallabies execution? Slow ball one-pass out through lone runners from stationary, straight into the teeth of a set NZ pack. Brilliant.
But are these losses, and the play within them the measure of where the Wallabies are? As philosophers over the years have asked; “Where the fuck are we Mal?”
I too came away from the game on Saturday, dejected and angry. But here’s a thought that hit me.
Have a look at the two teams below. On the left is the squad that started last Saturday, on the right the squad I believe Robbie Deans would select if available, based purely on his past selections, and a little guesswork (I’m not saying it’s the best team, just what I think he would choose tomorrow if able).
|Wallabies in Christchurch||First choice Wallaby XV|
|1. Benn Robinson||1. Benn Robinson|
|2. Saia Faingaa||2. Tatafu Polota-Nau|
|3. Salesi Ma’afu||3. Ben Alexander|
|4. Dean Mumm||4. James Horwill|
|5. Nathan Sharpe||5. Nathan Sharpe|
|6. Rocky Elsom||6. Rocky Elsom|
|7. David Pocock||7. David Pocock|
|8. Richard Brown||8. Wycliff Palu|
|9. Will Genia||9. Will Genia|
|10. Matt Giteau||10. Quade Cooper|
|11. Drew Mitchell||11. Drew Mitchell|
|12. Anthony Faingaa||12. Matt Giteau|
|13. Adam Ashley-Cooper||13. Digby Ioane|
|14. James O’Connor||14. Peter Hynes|
|15. Kurtley Beale||15. Adam Ashley-Cooper|
There are “only” seven different names in the run on XV, but what a difference they make.
Consider the key problems in the pack last week; lack of go forward, lack of dominant tackling and a soft scrum. Cliffy Palu and TPN are among the world’s most devastating hitters and runners, James Horwill and Benny A are no slouch with ball in hand or hitting rucks either. The front row two of those formed with Benn Robinson more than held their own last year.
Many commented on the near-death knackeredness Rocky Elsom and David Pocock exhibited following the Springbok victory in Brisbane. They both naturally played their hearts out, but the onus being put on them to take up the slack of an unbalanced back row and lightweight tight five is simply untenable. Their workrate and impact were the only things that saved the Wallabies from oblivion in the tests since.
Out back the Wallabies were in the midst of a generational revolution that Quade Cooper’s suspension temporarily, and disastrously aborted. International commentators from Sean Fitzpatrick to Gary Gold have felt unable to overstate the impact that the Cooper-Genia combination can make for Australia, partly because of Coopers’ brilliance, but also because the “Giteau at 10” question has been well and truly answered.
The key failings of the backline last week centred around a lack of organisation from 10 that manifested itself in a glacial Genia clearance and lateral attack. For those that believe this was the sum gain of Deans’ tenure, look again at the teams above. Of the seven backline positions in the first choice XV, only two started last weekend; Genia and Mitchell. There were four positional changes from just the weekend before.
The importance of the experience and understanding between backline pairings is well recognised – what could we have realistically expected last week?
By now among many of you there will be howls of “Deans apologist!” ringing out. One of your key points will be that “all teams get injuries”, it’s not like it’s unique to the Wallabies. True. But what is unique to the Wallabies is to be sat in the top 3 of the world rankings with such a minuscule player base. A feature of the debate raging over the Wallabies’ performance is the inability to answer question, but who else would you have instead?
It may have been smarts that lifted us Bill in 91 and 99, but it was also some dollops of luck with regards to injuries. Reading RugbyReg’s reviews of those campaigns (the ’99 one to follow soon), a key feature was the the availability of almost all of what was the First Choice XV for key games.
We’ve never had two or three teams worth of depth, unlike the All Blacks, or as the South Africans are developing. And it may well be we never will. But if you can field your first choice squad, what does it matter? Of course, it only matters when you can’t, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen over the last weeks, to a progressively worsening extent.
So then Mal, in the big picture, where the fuck are we?
For me, the answer is “I don’t fucken know“. With half a first choice side we held the All Blacks in Christchurch to within a try for two thirds of a match (why didn’t we go for a drop goal in the third quarter?) and dispatched the world champions with ease in Brisbane. In the first test against England, I saw natural attacking flair I hadn’t seen from the Wallabies this millennium, and the gutsiest of defence.
But I am starting to seriously worry. Who’s to say our overall injury toll will be any better next year, or that even if it does improve, the team will have enough time to gel? Looking at our restarts and one-out running as examples, who’s to say that the coaching is heading in the right direction anyway?
One thing’s for sure, it sure doesn’t get any easier watching (or running, I’d wager) the Wallabies.