Payten column: London's lessons should drive Wallabies end-of-year review

International
by Iain Payten in Japan

The Wallabies got dudded on the Izack Rodda try. Of that there is little doubt and for the thousandth time this year, questions about match officials - and television directors even - need answering. Think this sort of debacle can’t happen in a World Cup final?

But indulging in sliding doors-ism is a tricky business. On this day, England would have probably finished stronger anyway.

If you want an insight into why the Wallabies have struggled this year, though, it pays to watch on for the 20 seconds after Farrell’s "tackle".

Australia are hot on attack and standing flat on the left are both Matt Toomua and Bernard Foley. Defending against them are a prop and a backrower. It's a good money bet.

Toomua’s shouts to Will Genia aren’t heard, though, and the halfback goes right to Sekope Kepu, who feeds to a flat-footed Tolu Latu. The hooker gets pushed back by an offside defence and as he goes backwards Latu throws a wild offload and the attack breaks down.


It’s hard to know if he knew there was the safety net of advantage or not, but in truth, it doesn’t matter.

Regardless of what happened with Rodda, the Wallabies were in prime attacking territory. The red zone.

And instead of patiently building pressure for multiple phases, a rush of blood saw a prop and a hooker trying to spin it wide fast, and Latu turn it over in a blink. 

Come back for the advantage and a TMO intervention for a penalty try, with Farrell off to the bin? On most days, yes. But on this day, no. 

They used to say play the whistle. From now it should be play the Peyper, too.

Twickenham has shown that relying on World Rugby intervention for illegal play to score is folly. You have to score the try twice over and make sure of it.

As seen at Twickenham - where local TV directors show five replays of a dubious Aussie try on the big screen but none of England’s - you can’t rely on match officials to do you right. Unless your name is Owen.

Nope, the lesson should be that when within metres of a try line, regardless of what happened in phases before, your only thought should be how rarely you get into a red zone and how composed pressure is required.

(It is actually surprising how often teams will kick for a try straight away. It's a free hit sure, but aren't 10 free shots at the line better than one?)

The Wallabies made similar panicky errors in a majority of their rare trips to England’s quarter at Twickenham. 

Twice they went for long cut-out passes to find an unmarked winger.

One was called forward and another saw Sefa Naivalu toss the ball in-field to no-one, and almost give away a try at the other end.

Panic and costly turnovers in the attacking red zone has been a common problem for the Wallabies this year; through a variety of errors.

When the nuts and bolts of a review gets undertaken at the end of the year, one of the main issues that needs addressing is how to re-establish that patience and composure. Sports psychology worked wonders for the All Blacks and after 2018, it's clear Australian rugby will need some too.

People will despair about how the Wallabies can possibly get back to world-class by the time of the World Cup, but a good starting point is to just minimise mistakes.

Most rugby teams in the world now prosecute a gameplan - none more than England - that involves waiting for mistakes and then taking points. That was how Eddie's England beat the Wallabies in 2016 and it was how they beat them in 2018, too.

The Wallabies have the worst turnover stats in world rugby this year, and they’ve made themselves easy prey in Test after Test.

KICKING

Just like the 20 seconds following, the 90 seconds leading up to Rodda’s run are instructive as well for the Wallabies about potential and problem areas.

The Wallabies’ kicking game, as identified by Cheika, was ordinary. The coach thought they kicked too much but it was probably more a case of kicking too poorly.

In the second-half, ineffective kicking give England an abundance of time and pressure in the Aussie half.

That will, as Cheika acknowledged, inevitably lead to points against a “team as big and strong as England”.

So the simple goal must to be keep the ball out of your half for as long as possible, which means long kicking to grass or effective contestable kicks. The Wallabies did neither well.

Improving kicking strategies and skills is another area that must be zeroed in on in the end-of-year review.

It’s hard not to feel that is an area has atrophied for Australia in the last five years, given Cheika once took pride in kicking the least at Super Rugby level.

But exiting your half and building pressure in your opponent's is bread-and-butter in Test footy.

Running out is possible but risky - see aforementioned turnover stats - and often plays into your rivals’ hands.

England’s second half saw them kick out of their half and they even kicked while inside Australia’s half, too. Several times they put the ball in-goal, happy with a re-start and more time and pressure.

The Wallabies’ best period came before halftime when they got two results from two good territory kicks, with two mistakes from Elliot Daly giving good field position.

As Rod Kafer said when Australia beat the Boks with an opportunistic Toomua try in Brisbane: "It was lucky but you have to put yourself in the right position to get lucky."

Witness Daly’s shank that led up to Rodda’s break. That came after a nice long clearance from Genia that found grass and pushed pressure back on England. 

SKILLS

Cheika is right to feel hard-done by on the Rodda try, and perhaps the odd manner of Dane Haylett-Petty’s overrule, too.

But it was a fair call. DHP’s hands didn't go backwards.

What was highlighted in that incident though was the unnecessary risk of a cut-out pass.

Whether it’s a symptom of their confidence being shot after a tough year, the Wallabies threw heaps of them in London. And in 2018 in general.

The tactics were clear enough. With most teams using up and in defences, all year the Wallabies have been trying to get the ball to the unmarked winger.


And all year it hasn’t really worked. If anything its created a default attacking mindset to go lateral, instead of direct.

The DHP no-try looked a good example of even when searching for the wide space, hands is often the most effective way of exploiting it. Michael Hooper was between DHP and Kerevi.

Take a look at the crisp passing of Japan and New Zealand against England in the previous two weeks. Hands did the trick, almost every time, by occupying defenders.

Go back to those 90 seconds before Rodda again, and after Daly’s shank. What did Australia do that created the gap?

Flat, first-phase attack and hands through to Kerevi, who offloaded in a tackle to Jack Maddocks. The roll-on then had the England defence back-peddling.

DEFENCE

The Wallabies’ defence on tour improved but Australia still seem alone among major nations in a tendency to ship 15-20 points inside ten minutes, and drift out of a contest.

There are many factors in a strong defence, and there is a virtuous circle when done right: good linespeed, strong contact, slowing the ruck down, getting re-set.

And, like many things this year, the Wallabies have been very decent in patches; particularly in the tight channels with the likes of Adam Coleman.

But far too often they’ve dropped off simple tackles, or become disconnected and cracked deep into the phases. 

Complete trust in the systems and each other is required and though less frequent than when they played in the Bledisloe Cup games, poor reads led to two of England’s tries at Twickenham.

Is that a consequence of constantly changing the team, and re-arranging combinations?

Cheika has used the past three years to trial a huge amount of combinations, which is in direct contrast to the best defensive sides like Ireland and England, who have been settled for almost that entire time. They know each other's strengths and weaknesses under fire.

The Wallabies say versatility is an asset, but what price old-school consistency and cohesiveness? The Wallabies won their last World Cup in 1999 via defence - conceding only one try all tournament - the year before they just 28 players across all their Test matches. 

HONESTY 

Michael Cheika is deeply passionate and his coaching style embraces emotion.

In answering a question about how felt about the hard times of 2018 at Twickenham, Cheika said he loved the challenge. 

“You can’t just have the good bits,” he said. “Everyone just wants the good bits.”

He was talking about his own hurt, but you trust Cheika has a grasp of the suffering of Aussie rugby fans right now too.

They’re a hardy mob, historically willing to give plenty of leeway to coaches.

The past few Wallabies bosses have been supported as they "re-build" and "take learnings” over many scratchy years, without wild pitchfork marches being organised. 

They don’t always demand the good bits. They mostly just want to believe that there are good bits coming.

This has been a trying year for Wallabies fans, after a few tough years for rugby fans in general.

Repaying the faith of those loyal supporters needs to be front of mind when the Wallabies end-of-year review is conducted, and with honesty and openness, those involved do all that is necessary to fix the problems.