As the dust settles on another Wallabies match, I can’t help but feel a sense of relief rather than the joy that is normally associated with victory. Simply put, the Wallabies were woeful, I am not sure how they won that game.
Some will say it is a testament to the team, finding a way to win when they aren’t playing well. Don’t be fooled, they got lucky. Much like the British & Irish Lions did last week in Brisbane when the Wallabies missed 14 points worth of conversions/penalties.
The Wallabies seem to be their own worst enemy, and I put this problem squarely on the shoulders of Robbie Deans. Yes, we dropped the ball numerous times, and our work at the breakdown was terrible, but a lot of the time it was from players not playing in their preferred position or by players that should not be in the team.
We are still none the wiser on why Kane Douglas is in the team. Wycliff Palu acts more like the Lions 16th player on the field rather than the Wallabies number 8. Palu is anonymous at the break down, ineffective when carrying the ball, and his lack of game time this season shows. His one incisive surge in the 2nd half of the Saturday nights Test, was followed up with a soft run and offload to no-one resulting in the Wallabies loosing 50m of field position to a Lions kick off the grounded ball. This was when the Wallabies were finally starting to build some pressure.
Credit must go to James Horwill for electing to go for the scrum with their 71st minute penalty. An inspirational show of captaincy and the reason the Wallabies won the game. Although the try did not come from the ensuing scrum – O’Conner opted for a woeful inside ball after running a terrible line – the Wallabies received a lineout from a Lions clearing kick.
There are some positives to be taken out of the Wallabies pack; their lineout seems to be operating well, and the scrum has dominated at times over the last two matches. However the backline – other than the often-sublime touches of Israel Falou and the consistent brilliance of Will Genia – is a complete shambles.
On the 14th of December 2007, Deans was given the reigns of the Australian Rugby Union team. For the best part of the last five years he has had the chance to work with; James O’Conner, Kurtly Beale, Berrick Barnes, Quade Cooper, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Matt Giteau, Pat McCabe, Will Genia, Digby Ioane, Drew Mitchell, Lachy Turner & Israel Falou. That list is some of the finest talent in international rugby, with the potential to be the most feared backline in the world. These players should be reaching the peak of their international careers, yet we are still none the wiser as to who is our 1st choice Fly-Half and Fullback. Two incredibly important positions, yet most of those players are still playing a 5-year game of musical chairs, except for Quade who lost out for not sitting down quick enough and shutting-up. The backline under Deans has shown zero improvement; in fact it has gone backwards during his tenure. The lack of direction and cohesion is obvious, having identical problems as an under-14 side down at West Rugby Club. Until then end of the second test I would have also mentioned the uncertainty around inside centre, but it looks as if Christian Leliifano can make that position his own. He was very impressive and showed wonderful composure under pressure.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it is blatantly clear who is the best number 10 in the country; Quade Cooper. Yet still after O’Conner’s poor showing in the first Test, Deans elected to stick with the young man for the second.
While I was venting my frustration during the second Test, a good friend rightfully pointed out that O’Conner is a fine player, but he is not a 10. The frustration had engulfed me to the point of questioning O’Conner’s ability. Of course, my friend is right, but Deans runs the risk of ruining O’Conner’s international career and reputation if he keeps up his bias and misjudged perseverance.
Deans let us all know that one of the factors for not selecting Cooper at fly-half was because of his inability to defend at 10 from set pieces. So, when I saw O’Conner defending at outside centre during scrums, I was left quite perplexed, re-affirming the thoughts that Quade Cooper omission is a personal vendetta.
It reeks of – “Cutting off your nose to spite your face”, with Quade Cooper playing the nose and the face being O’Conner and everything involved with Australian rugby. If Deans does not win this series, he will lose his job and will be forgotten to Australian rugby. While JOC will be known as; “the incompetent fly-half that lost us the Lions series”, and will be forced to spend the next 5 years trying to restore his reputation. A reputation that was tarnished by a pigheaded coach.
After promise of improvement from Deans and optimism from JOC during the week, the number 10 was actually much, much worse in the second Test. We stated on Commentary Box Sports when the squad was selected that JOC’s lack of ability to play within the channels of the backline would be his undoing. Saturday night was painful to watch. Constantly crabbing across the field, stifling the space of his outside backs, JOC truly had a night to forget. Of the three or four set piece backline moves that were run during the game, most of which involved a wrap around and a cut-out, O’Conner would find himself jammed with 3 other backline members close to the sideline. They would have gained no territory, no ascendancy with the Lions backs effectively doing nothing but sliding across field, piling numbers into the breakdown and winning the ball back.
Yes JOC, threw the pass to Ashley-Cooper to score the match winning try, but I would expect that type of pass from any inside back. Luckily for the fly-half it was AAC outside of him, a stalwart in the Australian backline and a brilliant hole-runner, and not Beale. JOC’s shocking inside ball to Falou from the preceding scrum was our best opportunity of the match, and he butchered it. Not to mention the catastrophic decision to kick out on the full from a ball that was passed back to him from outside the 22-metre line, all this while the Wallabies were holding onto a 1-point lead with minutes remaining. JOC owes Liam Gill beers for the rest of his life, a famous lineout steal from the reserve flanker.
O’Conner’s Burger King eating mate, Kurtly Beale, struggled after a strong start. Poor decisions, poor kicking for line, poor under the highball, and poor ball control were the only elements of his game. It is evident that Beale should not be in the team, not because of his ability, but because of his lack of game time in the last two months. Not to mention his brief stint in rehab. He is a wonderfully talented footballer, but he needs time to get himself right, rather than be thrust into the searing caldron of pressure that is Lions test-match rugby. No-one should blame him for his two missed penalties in game 1, and as the English media aptly put it; he mentality slipped, alerting to the fact that his was not mentally ready to be playing in the biggest test match of the last 12 years. No disrespect to Kurtley; but how did Deans believe someone that emotionally fragile would thrive under the pressure when they’re struggling to find stability in their day-to-day life? Again a deplorable decision by Robbie Deans.
Deans should be making key changes to this team for the third Test, but he wont. He is willing to take the risk of another poor backline performance (and series loss) for the chance to be able to say; “I told you so”. It’s so close, he can almost hear the words coming out of his mouth. Vindication for constant selection of players out of position, players not up to test match standards, an unusual amount of Waratah players in gold jerseys, omission of Cooper and playing personal favourites. I am curious, vindication to whom? As rugby fans we want to see the best team on the field playing the game they play in heaven, and the more the public voices their opinion, the further from the philosophy Deans seems to go. Does he realise the road to get were we are should not have been this bumpy? That we should have the best backline in world rugby. I don’t think he cares, he has lost sight of what is important due to terrible player management and his personal battles, battles he has created.
Good luck to the Wallabies next weekend, they will need it. I have a feeling the Lions will not give the Wallabies opportunity to win this time around.
Thank God for Adam Ashley-Cooper.