1 Sep

Will the real Wallaby side please stand up?
by Tracey Nelson
1 Sep 2008

So did the Wallabies throw the game in Johannesburg as has being suggested in some quarters, or were they simply out-played by a Springbok team that had it’s back to the wall and needed to prove they were still worthy of the title of World Champions?

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. I don’t believe for an instant that Robbie Deans would have sent his team out to deliberately lose the game, that simply isn’t in the man’s repertoire. But it was obvious from the start of the game that the Wallabies’ minds were not on the job at hand, and in this year where the three southern hemisphere teams are fairly evenly matched it has been the team in the best head space that has ermerged victorious each time.

There is probably no question that the Wallabies were looking head to their clash in Brisbane against the All Blacks on September 13, the test match that will decide the winner of the TriNations competition. The game at Ellis Park had no bearing on who will eventually win this year’s competition, and with wins against South Africa in Perth and Durban the Australians had already won the Mandela trophy. The only thing to play for was the chance of consecutive wins on South African soil, and as the All Blacks know very well it’s hard to win two games on the trot in South Africa especially if the second one is at altitude.

This test loss for the Wallabies was in some ways reminscent of the Crusaders’ unlikely last round defeat at the hands of the Highlanders this year – while it was a game the Crusaders would have liked to have won, it had no bearing on the final standings going into the semi-finals and the players were simply not focussed on the job at hand. Several Crusaders players confessed after that loss that despite the words used and the training done in the lead up to that game, that it had been hard to concentrate on winning it with the knowledge they were safely into the play-offs the week after.

However, for anyone to imply t that the Wallabies deliberately threw the game because it had no bearing on the final outcome of the TriNations competition suggests to me that they don’t know Australians very well. Losing is not something they are comfortable with, and losing by a record margin will not be sitting that well with them either.

They did not field their strongest side due to injury and resting of key players – a key figure being that of George Smith on the bench. Phil Waugh is a very good flanker at Super 14 level, but at test level his smaller stature against the bigger Springbok loosies negates his scavenging skills at the breakdown. The Wallabies lost that particular battle this week, and if there’s one thing that’s stood out in 2008 it’s that the team that wins the breakdown wins the game. It was noticeable that when Smith eventually was subbed on late in the game, the Australians started to fare better in that area.

Compounding Australia’s woes in this game was their inability to win their own lineout with their second choice hooker throwing (although both sides contested strongly in this area and won opposition ball) and a rather wobbly scrum causing a few problems, along with their captain Stirling Mortlock having probably one of his worst ever games at international level. The bombing of what should have been a straightforward try in the corner early on in the game by a bumble-fingered Lote Tuqiri was indicative of what was to follow for the Wallabies. There was little organisation if any in their scramble defence, with the Springboks scoring out wide on numerous occasions. The kicking game was aimless, and there appeared to be little cohesiveness in the backline both on attack or defence.

Meanwhile, the Springboks had one of those games where with nothing to lose they moved the ball wide in the style of game Peter de Villiers has been trying to get them to play all year – and it finally came off. Unlike last week in Durban, where the South Africans appeared more intent on spoiling Australia’s game than playing their own, they concentrated on playing rugby instead of the man and it paid off. With quick ruck ball and Butch James distributing it instead of kicking aimlessly down-field, Jean de Villiers was able to display the skills that make him one of the best midfield backs in world rugby and he cut swathes through a brittle Wallaby defence. It was a day when everything the Springboks did turned to gold, while for Australia the more the score mounted the less they seemed able to do about it. And that is as much to do with with your own head space as it is with the form of the opposition.

On the back of this embarrassing loss former Wallaby-great Mark Ella is suggesting that Deans may be struggling with both attack and defence, and may need some help in these areas. I find this interesting that on the basis of one loss, granted a big one, that questions are being asked of Deans’ defensive coaching skills when he has coached one of the best defensive sides in Super rugby. Last week in Durban and again in Auckland last month, the Wallabies displayed some exceptional defence close to their own goal line. Likewise the Australians have also managed to score some very well worked tries from set pieces, especially against the All Blacks. Let’s also not forget that justlast week Deans guided the Wallabies to their first win in South Africa since the year 2000. The question is, do you judge a team solely on it’s wins or it’s losses, or do you need to look at both?

This year has seen the closest-fought TriNations competition, and not one of the three sides has gone through unbeaten. Both Australia and New Zealand will go into the deciding TriNations test in Brisbane with three wins and two losses to their names. At the moment the ledger between them stands at one game apiece, both having won at home and lost away. We’ve already seen the dramatic change in form by the All Blacks from Sydney to Auckland, so it’s going to come down to which team fronts up the best in Brisbane. I somehow suspect that Saturday night’s loss in South Africa will have little if any bearing on the outcome.

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