Well, we now know what previously we just strongly suspected. The Wallabies are so far behind New Zealand they can only hear the thump of their own reputations hitting the tarmac. The largest loss to the All Blacks ever at 50-21 says most of it.
John Connolly in the SMH somehow manages to put a positive spin on it. The headline on his assessment reads “Wallabies taught a lesson but still a cup chance“. I wouldn’t be that optimistic, although I agree with many of Connolly’s specific observations.
Actually, Christopher Sheil prompted my assessment of the game when he gave a series of somewhat facetious answers to why the Wallabies lost in an after-match comment box contribution to his previous pre-match post:
There’s been a paradigm shift since the last world cup, and at the end of the day we have failed to think out of the box, leaving us out of the loop on the 24/7 win-win approach going forward.
I responded to Chris’s comment in a blinding flash of insomniac inspiration (or delusion, depending on your perspective):
I give what you characterise as the bullshitter’s answer, but it isn’t. What we saw last night was rugby taken to its next level, and it’s an awesome and exciting level.
Australia finally got its 1999-style game working (after a fashion) last night. We won all but one of our own lineouts (from memory), and took 3 or 4 off the All Blacks. And I recall one of the commentators saying late in the game that we were winning the rucks and mauls 58 to 10! But it simply made no difference. Why? Because NZ is now playing a completely different game.
Australia won the last World Cup by taking the game to a new level with rugby league-style tackling, a league-style compressed slide defence and highly disciplined multiple phase, forward-based rugby built on ultra-scientific rucking and mauling to control possession for long enough periods to suck in enough opposition defenders to then launch occasional attacks out wide, as well as excellent lineout technique.
Pretty much all of that was present last night (although the tackling of the outside backs needs work), but the Wallabies were beaten by a new style of rugby. New Zealand now plays rugby like (say) Newcastle or Brisbane Broncos (but not the Bulldogs or Roosters) play rugby league: strung out from one side of the field to the other, playing with incredible width, with a 5/8 (Andrew Johns, Alfie Langer or Ben Ikin in rugby league) able instantly to switch the point of attack with pinpoint 30 and 40 metre passes out to huge fast men like Umaga and Rokocoko or small fast men like Doug Howlett. After a while, the old-style Wallaby structure simply gets too stretched and tired, and the All Blacks run around them and score almost at will.
The new rugby is facilitated by a flat, umbrella defence rather than a compressed slide pattern, with the team disciplined only ever to commit 3 or 4 players at most to controlling a situation at the breakdown, so that the other 11 or 12 are always available out wide to launch an instant attack. It also needs, as I say, a Johns or Ikin at 5/8 able to toss very wide, pinpoint torpedo passes to launch those attacks.
We’ve seen this style of play employed at provincial level by Auckland Blues for the last 2 or 3 seasons with great success, but this (and last week against South Africa) is the first time the national team has successfully applied it. Its awesome, exciting to watch and very very effective.
The ironic thing is that Australia actually has most of the personnel we would need to play this style of rugby just as well as the Kiwis (althouh it’s far too late to develop and refine it enough to win this World Cup). Tuqiri, Sailor, Rogers and maybe Joe Roff and Latham (but not Matthew Burke, whose day is over) could thrive on this brand of rugby. In fact, it’s precisely the style that Sailor and Tuqiri were accustomed to playing under Wayne Bennett. What we don’t have but need desperately to implement this style is to buy a 5/8 like Ben Ikin or Braith Anasta (Andrew Johns would be better right now, but he’s too old to have a future) and teach them to play rugby without sacrificing their league skills and instincts. In the meantime, maybe Larkham can learn to play this style to an extent.
We should use this World Cup as an opportunity to begin developing and testing the new style of rugby. But I bet we won’t. Eddie Jones is a very limited, unimaginative coach, unable to see what is happening or do anything to combat it. Whether it’s the brain damage from years of scrums is another question.
PS – A further thought on positional selections while I’m at it. As Chris observed in an earlier comment, I’d bring Owen Finnigan into the second row in plave of Dan Vickerman. I thought the Smith/Waugh experiment at breakaway actually worked pretty well, and speedy breakaways would be a major advantage in playing the new NZ-style rugby. Noriega was fairly unimpressive at prop, and his second half replacement Ben Darwin wasn’t much better although, as I say, the rucks and mauls actually worked pretty well in the second half. In any event, I’m not sure there are too many other choices. Cannon went well at hooker, I thought.
Turning to the backs, Mat Rogers is anything but a centre (or 5/8 for that matter). One of the TV commentators remarked, after Rogers had been smashed in a tackle, that the Kiwis had worked out he doesn’t pass the ball very often! It’s no good having a centre who seldom passes if you aspire to the new NZ-style rugby (and in any event where you have huge, talented speedsters like Tuqiri and Sailor on the wings). I’d move Rogers to fullback, Tuqiri into the centres and slot Joe Roff in on the wing. I don’t see a place for Matthew Burke, and I’ve got severe doubts about Flatley’s value in the centres, although his defensive abilities make him useful against an awesome backline like the All Blacks. If Flatley was told that his job in attack was simply to shovel the ball out to Tuqiri or throw a cutout to one of the wingers on most occasions, he might make a good inside centre.
A team with that sort of shape, coached to play the new NZ style at least on dry days (but with grinding multiple phase forward play thrown in occasionally for a bit of variety) would have a fighting chance against the All Blacks, I suspect. The problem is that the Kiwis themselves have shown, by the amount of time it’s taken them to successfully adapt the Auckland Blues methods at a national level, that this style of play requires a very high level of understanding between the backs, and equally high levels of understanding and co-ordination to ensure that only the minimum number of forwards become committed to rucks and mauls at the breakdown. These are things you don’t develop overnight. That’s why the Wallabies have no chance of winning this World Cup, unless it pisses down raining the whole time, which would bring the All Blacks back to the pack but would probably mean that you’d favour England to win rather than the Wallabies.