Payten Column: Losing is a habit but it's never too late to quit

International
by Iain Payten

"Winning is a habit” is a famous Vince Lombardi line, now ubiquitous in change rooms, on motivational posters and in corporate jargon.

But when it comes to the Wallabies, the fuller quote of the famed NFL coach is more pertinent.

"Winning is not a sometime thing; it's an all the time thing,” Lombardi wrote.

"You don't win once in a while; you don't do things right once in a while; you do them right all of the time.

"Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.”

There are no prizes for guessing which habit the Wallabies need to kick at the moment.

Of 11 Test matches this year, they’ve lost eight. Since June 2017, they’ve played 25 Tests and only won 10.

And you can tell.

This is a team in the grip of a losing habit.

The odd thing - and the silver lining if you're a glass half-fuller - is that the Wallabies have talented players.

But no matter how hard they try in 2018, they've seemed unable to figure out how to get up and win. Even from winning positions.

The loss to Wales was a perfect example.

Over the last decade, those habitual roles were exactly reversed.

Wales were the ones who managed to find losses from wins, repeatedly.

They tallied up 13 straight losses against Wallabies sides - some good and some only decent. They were by an average margin of less than seven points and several times in the last few minutes.

So when the pressure came on, it was Wales who relented.

But in Cardiff overnight, the Wallabies relented.

The first half was indicative of two teams desperate for a win: solid footy from both but stymied by nerves, hard hands and breakdown pressure.

The Wallabies, to be fair, even played some good patches of rugby that stressed world no.3.

Hard lines, multiple phases, nice short passing at the line.

And led by Adam Coleman, Australia's maligned defence was strong, too.

So here, again, was an opening half where it was clear how the Wallabies want to play the game and break down rivals.

They’ve done it often this year but ugly final scorelines have a habit of masking first halves. Which is fair enough.

As Lombardi, a devout hater of second place, said: “You don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all the time.”

The Wallabies stopped doing things right in the second half in Cardiff, as they also did in Sydney, Yokohama, Auckland and Port Elizabeth.

Indeed, the only decent second-half the Wallabies have put on since June was in Salta but that was after they’d laid down their poor half in the first 40 minutes.

You didn’t even really need the benefit of hindsight to know Michael Hooper should have pointed to the sticks in the 50th minute, with scores at 3-3 and Winx-like odds on this game being decided by a handful of points.

Three points was a certainty, five was a gamble.

And not even a particularly astute one given the lineout has not been a strength all year, and therefore, nor has mauling. The ball was turned over.

But Hooper chose the same gamble twice in four minutes, even after Will Genia pointed to the sticks in the 54th minute.

This second lineout was called for the back and overthrown.

It would happen again later in the game and the call of Hooper - who admitted his mistake post-match - and the lineout call are variants on the same issue.

Wobbly decisions under pressure.

Neither were outright crazy decisions - theoretically both maximised the chance of scoring a try.

But they proved to not be the right decision for the moment, considering a less risky option with a solid outcome was also available.

And that’s where the Wallabies find themselves.

Struggling in that zone of calmly making the right decisions and percentage plays under pressure, over and over, until the other team stumbles.

Game smarts and game management down the stretch is an under-appreciated asset.

As valuable as an x-factor player is to a coach because he can win a game on his own, he’s arguably less valuable than a comparatively vanilla playmaker who’ll put the team in a spot where they’ll win it together.

George Ford is the perfect example. Can you recall a single running try highlight involving Ford? Nope.

And yet without him England’s potency as a pressure team would be halved. Eddie Jones says he’d take Ford over Beauden Barrett every day.

Here was his response to the contentious Lawes charge-down: "Sometimes the game loves you and sometimes the game doesn't love you. You've got to accept if you stay in the fight long enough, the game will love you. And we're prepared to stay in the game."

Matt Toomua is of that same brand as Ford and was injected in the last quarter in Cardiff.

But perhaps it was telling that Michael Cheika hauled Bernard Foley and not a fatiguing Kurtley Beale. As he’d done in Port Elizabeth, too.

It seemed to be faith in Beale’s game-breaking potential than Foley’s game-managing vanilla.

In the end, the game turned on game smarts, and two errors from bench men in their own quarter.

Four minutes left, in range of the posts, game tied and with the ref sensitive to the booing after not penalising Samu Kerevi for clattering Leigh Halfpenny, this was best behaviour time.

As Cheika said post-match, it was a time to back off and trust their defence.

And yet - just like the avoidable TPN penalty earlier to give Wales the 6-3 lead - Ned Hanigan conceded.

Wales finally won a nail biter, having previously been in the habit of losing them.

But remember how winning is a habit? Wales had won six on the trot prior to meeting the Wallabies and they, too, looked the part.

So how do the Wallabies shake this wretched losing habit?

Winning, obviously. By any boring means necessary.

Robbie Deans used to say winning is chicken soup for the soul, and players and fans need a gallon of the stuff right now.

A starting point for the Wallabies to get the Ws back is, as Lombardi says, by doing things right all the time.

That doesn’t necessarily mean working twice as hard, particularly nine months into a rugby season.

The Wallabies are in that frazzled place where coaches in the old days would bring a keg on Tuesday and cancel training. To re-set.

Kegs may be hard to come by in Padova but perhaps a carafe of red and a watch of their first Test against Ireland in June will do the same thing: reminding them of how calm minds and smart footy got the job done under pressure against a top team.

There are only two more Tests for the Wallabies this year, and if a win over Italy can help restore confidence, Australia can then use a showdown with England to head into a World Cup year with confidence.

The alternative is a long stretch of doubt, stress and uncertainty. At the least.

Losing is a habit but as they say about smoking, it’s never too late to quit.