Payten column: Golf club therapy required for anxious Wallabies

The Rugby Championship
by Iain Payten in Japan

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika and captain Michael Hooper sat the post-match press conference in Port Elizabeth, holding on tight to the positives.

There'd been improvements in this game, they believed. Their character had been tested again after going down 14-0 and unlike the Gold Coast, they hung in and fought.

The game was another example of plenty of opportunities created, but not enough taken, they argued.

"I think we have made progress definitely," Cheika said, with Hooper adding "I am sure there is a way forward for this team."

Being asked to analyse a game so soon after it happened can be tricky, and often changes upon a second and third view. But in this immediate environment, coaches/captains/players will salt the top table with default optimism.

And in the modern world where World Cup cycles are observed by most, for a few years you can safely prosecute the "building and learning" narrative. Robbie Deans mentioned "belief in the bank" after almost every Test.

But there comes a point where the building and progress is expected to produce results, and one year out for the 2019 World Cup, that time has come abruptly for Cheika's Wallabies.

As in, this week.

Cheika probably never expected an away fixture in 2018 against Argentina to be so pivotal but if the Wallabies don't turn progress in points in Salta - and take the 2018 record to 3 and 6 - there's little doubt Rugby Australia heavyweights will open up a discussion whether Cheika is the man to see out the ride to Japan.

Deans escaped when his Wallabies won the last Test of a poor 2012 season, beating Wales in Cardiff, and you sense that Cheika has that week ahead of him.

A good win over Argentina and the Spring Tour - and 2019 - will roll on, bloodless. 

So how do the Wallabies turn that "progress" into victory over a much-improved Pumas?

The starting point is addressing two questions: 1) What has gone wrong with the lineout? and 2) Is the Wallabies' problem not finishing in attack, or not creating enough in the first place?

There can be little doubt the Wallabies lineout has gone off in a big way.

It's 76% success rate is Australia's lowest ever in Rugby Championship history, and the fact it is not a reliable source to either escape pressure or apply it, is fatal.

In Test rugby, an 85% win rate or above has to be in your game or you won't win many. That's how tight top-flight rugby is.

Lineouts are the unheralded platform of choice to attack, for most rugby sides.

Consider this for context, of the 28 tries scored by Australia in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, 19 came from lineout launches.

The Wallabies did okay against Ireland in June but fell apart in Sydney, losing eight of 15 throws. Since then they've lost between three and five throws a game, and the anxiety is tangible.

The Wallabies went to no.2 often in Port Elizabeth to secure ball (which reduces ability to attack wide) and then finally abandoned lineouts in the second half in Port Elizabeth because scrums were more reliable.

That was understandable, smart even.

But it took off the table the option of rolling in a maul for the try they needed. The Boks knew Australia had lost faith in their lineout.

When the Wallabies won a yellow card and could have exploited the absent man, strangely they went back to the lineout and promptly lost it. And with it, the pressure, territory and chances of victory.

So the lineout needs drastic attention, or at least the members in it need a massive boost of confidence. There are top lineout technicians in that side - Coleman, Simmons et al - and they have track records of success. Strategy must suit their strengths.

Long-term, it would pay for the Wallabies to bring in lineout gurus like Nathan Sharpe and Justin Harrison to consult. They're among the best to have done the job in gold.

The second issue is the Wallabies' attack.

Kurtley Beale. Photo: Getty ImagesSo far in this TRC, the Wallabies have only scored 10 tries in five games. It's not as bad as that 2012 season mentioned - where they scored a paltry 7 tries in six games - but defence was better that year. 

Australia are currently holding their worst ever points differential (-63) after five games, and South Africa and Argentina are contrastingly having their best seasons since 2014.

Is the Wallabies' attack creating and not finishing, as argued, or just misfiring to start with?

A basic look at the stats shows it's the former, as argued. The Wallabies this year have created more clean breaks already than any TRC season before, and so too defenders beaten.

The only time their attack has been more efficient in creating opportunities was in 2015, when they won a truncated three-game competition.

The lack of conversion into tries would probably require another 40,000-word document from James Horwill but confidence seems an undeniable factor.

With possession limited due to lineout issues, and an excess of turnovers, the desperation stakes appear to grow. Passes are pushed when not on, and passes are held when a try is definitely on.

Balls are fumbled, when patience and composure is needed.

But the more it goes wrong, the more it goes wrong.

The Wallabies are a team of good players performing well below their best. You get the sense they could even post a big score on a rival if they remove the anxiety and play with simplicity and confidence. Their roadblocks seem mental, not physical.

In 2014 Cheika gave a golf club to each of the Waratahs and told them to "swing away" with freedom before the Super Rugby final. To remove the fear factor.

He may want to inquire about the opening hours of the Salta golf warehouse. It's that kind of week.