Something strange has happened in the psyche of Wallaby rugby supporters. One of the defining characteristics of Australian-ness is surely the “she’ll be right mate” attitude. A mindset that looks to build on the positive in a situation, and to never capitulate into a self defeating heap of pessimism. But in reading around following last weekend’s match, I’m left wondering both just where that digger spirit has gone and whether I watched the same game.
There is of course another Australian trait, which is an expectation of success. Perhaps it’s the affront to this belief from just too many losses on the bounce and in tight situations that is responsible. Nevertheless there are a number of perceived-wisdom mantras going around with regards to the Sydney Bledisloe that not only collapse into pessimism, they’re plainly not true.
The first is that the Wallabies “threw yet another game away“. That as a team they choked, going to sleep in the second half to let the All Blacks back in. Well, if that were true, what would we expect to see in the stats?
Top of the list would have to be a defensive collapse. But the opposite happened; the Wallabies maintained exactly the same tackle completion rate in the second half as they did the first (85% vs the ABs 83% overall) but actually managed to increase their dominant tackle rate more than three-fold from 8% to 26%. And it’s not as if that was because they were overrun in the second half; Australia were actually forced to make fewer tackles in the second half versus the first (86 vs 92).
What about possession – did they squander it more? Not particularly; 7 turn overs in the first half against 9 in the second. It is true that the All Blacks recycled the ball more than the Wallabies in the game overall, taking the ball into 102 breakdowns vs 78 for Australia. However, the split in All Black breakdowns between the halves was almost equal; 49 in the first half vs 53 in the second.
So there was no mass capitulation.
Next in self flagellating myths, and related to the first one, is that the Wallabies just didn’t play for 80 minutes, whereas the All Blacks did. How on earth does that make sense? By the 60 minute mark, the Wallabies were 22-9 up. So what happened in those sixty minutes for the All Blacks? Were they so on top they gave 22 points away including two tries? By this logic you’d have to say that New Zealand only played 20 minutes, whereas the Wallabies played 60.
In any event, what would anyone in their right mind expect when playing this All Black team? That you’re going to dominate them for the full 80 minutes of a test match, like you would a Canada or Japan? The truth is that if you can best them for 40 minutes you’re doing well; if you can best them for 60 minutes and hold your kicks (because you know they’ll give 3 rather than 7 every time) you should by rights win the game.
Which brings me to the final hair-shirted myth; the missed kicks didn’t lose the Wallabies the game, their general poor performance did. Again, what sort of sense is this? In a hard fought armwrestle with the #1 side in the world, what do you think is going to happen? You’ll out score them in tries by so much, let’s say 5-2 or 4-0, that your goal kicking will make no odds? Patently rediculous. As a team, the Wallabies played so well, that they’d scored 22 points within the first 60 minutes, and through their own merit created the pressure for another 10 more to be taken through kicks.
The Wallaby game plan had been the right one. Go hard out of the blocks and rack up enough point scoring opportunities to weather the inevitable comeback from the Tri-Nations champs. What else are you going to do, let them take the momentum? What more could the rest of the team have done to help those kicks; no better performance in the scrum, tackling or line-out could make them go between the poles.
Here’s the truth of it – in this game, the Wallabies bested the All Blacks. They created more point-scoring opportunities over a greater period of the match. Yeah, yeah, I hear it – look at the scoreboard. Of course that’s the ultimate measure. But it doesn’t change the truth that this young Australia side showed that it can more than compete with New Zealand. This may be a truth lost on some who prefer a more familiar story, but it won’t be lost on messrs Henry or Deans.