Wallabies must learn to adapt tactics more quickly
August 18, 2014
We didn't take our chances, Ewen McKenzie says
The Bledisloe Cup campaign for 2014 kicked off on Saturday night, when Mother Nature decided the Harbour City needed a drink and after Sydney had soaked up late-winter sunshine for weeks. And ANZ Stadium copped it properly, killing off all hopes for an expansive opener to the trans-Tasman series. Or did it?
Here are the talking points from Saturday night's First Bledisloe Test. Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.
Weather deprives healthy crowd of the desired contest, and a result
Australian Rugby Union reps told us in the press box that they had been expecting a crowd in the low-70,000s for the first match of The Rugby Championship, but were resigned to losing a couple here and there to the weather. Yet Saturday night was one of those occasions where you looked at the crowd in the stadium on hearing the official figure - 68,627 people in attendance - and wondered where the extra 13,000 seats were; the crowd genuinely looked bigger than the number posted.
Regardless, the teams were unable to entertain the big crowd with the game they wanted to play, even if the Wallabies did their damneddest to play their preferred open game while ducks replaced seagulls on the turf.
Richie McCaw reflects on the "loss"%]
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw said he felt his team had the better of the first 30 minutes but "we didn't really play a lot of rugby after that". And McCaw's Wallabies counterpart, Michael Hooper, conceded his team's almost habitual manner of coughing up possession on first and second phase made it as hard a game to play as he imagined it must've been to watch.
Both teams said the 12-all result was tough to take after such physical exertion, and that it essentially felt like a loss. The crowd did their best to lift the players - and it was good to hear the Australian supporters find their voice throughout the second half - yet, like the players, they also walked away with nothing.
As Jaco Peyper blew time on the match, the feeling of deflation was very real among the punters as they rose to their feet. "Right, so now what," you could almost hear them saying, collectively. In the end, the only real winners were the poncho sellers.
The Wallabies tried to go wide too quickly © Getty Images
Wallabies didn't adapt tactics to conditions quickly enough
It was good to see the Wallabies trying to throw the ball around, but so often it felt like they had forgotten about the wet stuff hitting the top of their heads all night. By playing as laterally and as deeply as they did throughout the game, the Wallabies also played into the hands of the All Blacks' slide defence.
The lift in Australian intensity after half-time, as the Wallabies looked to take advantage of Wyatt Crockett's remaining nine minutes in the sin-bin, did force the All Blacks to make considerably more tackles - and infringements, if we're honest - yet the hosts still came away with nothing.
Ewen McKenzie said post-match that it took the Wallabies a while - 35 minutes of the first half, realistically - to work out that there was more benefit to be had by carrying the ball back at the All Blacks, rather than playing field position. Yet even when the Wallabies mounted phases when deep in attack, the New Zealand defence never looked like breaching. Pat McCabe thought he saw an unmarked corner post, only to be stopped dead in his tracks by a Julian Savea-shaped truck.
The Wallabies had all the momentum in the second half, making ground even if they weren't necessarily dominating the breakdown. And the more ground the Wallabies made, the more the All Blacks were forced to infringe. Beauden Barrett went to the bin in 69th minute, yet it could easily have been any number of his team-mates in the minutes before.
The Wallabies attack had plenty of ideas, no question, yet it was hard to see that they ever really asked the right questions of the New Zealand defence. Despite finishing the game with upwards of 70% advantage in the territory and possession measures, the scoreboard will show they couldn't break the All Blacks.
And there's probably good reason for that, because ...
The Wallabies were also their own worst enemy
Australia 12-12 New Zealand (Australia only)%]
So many times during the first Test, the Wallabies were guilty of those very cliched schoolboy errors that leave you slumping your face into the hands and just shaking your head.
First there was the mere detail of hooker Nathan Charles - who was obviously keen to crack on in his run-on debut - being only a few metres in front of Matt Toomua at a re-start. Why haven't the Wallabies adopted the Waratahs' successful tactic of the 14 other players starting on the 40m line behind Bernard Foley when he kicks off; it's beyond me. It should be a no-brainer, and the results speak for themselves; the Waratahs had one of, if not the best restart in Super Rugby, and the effect of the chasers being at full pace as Foley kicked off meant they won the ball back from the contest far too many times for it to be fobbed off as a coincidence. More's the point, though, there's plenty of senior Waratahs in the Wallabies side. If it hasn't come up, they should be suggesting it themselves. I'll say it again: it should be a no-brainer.
Then there was the scrum not fed straight, and trying to steal another two or three metres crawling along the ground with the small matter of two All Blacks defenders still holding on. There were kicks out of the full, and kicks received in the air over the touch line meaning an All Blacks lineout as soon as a foot hit the ground. There was the rushed shot at goal, which maybe hits the inside of the left upright instead of the outside if the extra second is taken. And there was the panic whether to take the shots at penalty goal just before half-time with New Zealand having a prop on the naughty chair for 10 minutes.
Whatever it was - and there were many more I've not mentioned - they all combined to take the edge off the Wallabies, and led the team and supporters to rue their execution on the night. Things like handling errors, losing your footing or slipping over can easily be put down to the conditions; they are easily forgiven, and quickly moved on from. But the weather can't be blamed for being offside, or feeding a scrum crooked. Schoolboy stuff.
Australia's Scott Fardy wins the ball above New Zealand's Aaron Smith © Getty Images
What, then, can the Wallabies turn around in a week?
Ball retention, certainly. The Wallabies shouldn't be coughing up possession so freely on first and second phase so regularly. Even if it's damp at Eden Park on Saturday evening.
They can work on their communication, so there's no confusion on who should run where, or who should field a kick and who should support.
The can work on not playing so deep in attack. When your midfield is taking the ball a full 10 metres behind the gain line, that's a fair indication your fly-half needs to stand and play flatter. They could all straighten themselves, too. Perceptions of Kurtley Beale's game will be that he ran sideways a lot, which is perhaps half true, but the reality is the entire Wallabies backline ran and played too laterally.
The forwards - and fact, everyone - can work on going into contact lower; this will nullify the All Blacks' attempt to hold the tackled player up, and will also help the players get past the point of tackle, which in turn aids making metres. Some more inside and option runners looking for offloads might be handy, too.
They can give some serious thought to starting Nick Phipps. And maybe Bernard Foley. It is reasonable to ask how much of their later impact on the game was attributable to some very tired All Blacks question, but there's no question the Wallabies' attack had better shape when they were on the field.
And what of the All Blacks?
The only real standout stats on the New Zealand side of the ledger from Sydney were the 21 missed tackles, and the 14 penalties, three free kicks, and two yellow cards conceded.
Steve Hanson was asked post-match whether he felt he had a discipline problem, given the All Blacks had earned seven yellows in their past 10 Tests. That Hanson's first reaction was to suggest he's not sure how many of those seven were warranted - and he conceded Crockett's in the first half was - gives a pretty clear indication that they're not overly worried about it.
They'll undoubtedly keep working on their attacking shape, because we really didn't get to see a lot of it in Sydney. It wasn't the sort of night for it, and they'd argue they did pretty well without it. And maybe they did. But I bet they've already been through the various "what if" moments in the game.
They may well have to try a few new combinations this week, too, with Conrad Smith likely to return but with some serious question marks hanging over Ma'a Nonu. Jerome Kaino took a knock as well, and might need some time. Richie McCaw copped a stinger down the shoulder.
Will they make any unforced tweaks? I'd be surprised. The All Blacks are a long way from broke, and hardly need a-fixin'.
Aaron Smith was among the best All Blacks on the pitch © Getty Images
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Proposals to remove promotion and relegation from the Aviva Premiership would be for the good of the game overall, argues John Taylor
Ireland have the world sitting up and taking notice - and rugby's structure in Europe will aid their Rugby World Cup bid, writes John Mitchell
Where does Italy's win over Scotland rank among their successes in the Six Nations? Scrum Sevens investigates
The tone was set early on in Dublin as a more clinical Ireland made England pay. All is not lost, however, argues Phil Vickery