Has it been long enough for the depression to recede to a point where we can actually have a look at the world cup and what Australia can take from it, without wincing with pain and changing the subject?
The stage we went out of the cup, who it was against and how the Wallabies played in that game, were undeniably all deeply disappointing. To the point that all and sundry have labeled it a total failure (especially a certain J. O’Neill, who no doubt realises that the worse we regard this effort, the better all subsequent ones look).
So admittedly, the Quarter-Final was a disaster – no actually it was a heinous clusterfuck – but does that mean the Wallabies have gone nowhere under Knuckles’ regime? To me, the fact that Australia had got to the point where we were one of the RWC favourites going into that fateful game does say something, despite what came after.
What the world had seen in the domestic tests, Tri-Nations and group games, was a team that could play some precise yet strong-armed rugby against some of the worlds better sides (including the champs to be), and even come from behind to win games. We’d also seen a side that could get the spectators’ heart pumping, with flashes of brilliance from the likes of Mortlock, Giteau, Ashley-Cooper, Barnes, Smith, and Latham.
This wasted ability is what galls the most. From a (what used to be called) ‘minnows’ and upsets perspective, this world cup has been a hit. But if you look at the big impact games, the showpieces – NZ vs France, Aus vs England, Eng vs France, RSA vs Eng – it was bloody dour affair. Of the losing sides, who could say ‘at least it was a great game’? It literally makes me shudder to think of what was possible from the Wallabies, versus what we actually saw.
Now before you poms out there get all riled up, if I’d been you, I too wouldn’t have given a toss how you won the games. Hey, if Mortlock’s plug-ugly kick had wobbled its way over, would I have lived with the win? Hell yes. But let’s be honest, these were games that only their mother would love. What makes rugby union, and what differentiates it from the mungo code and others, is the combination of the armwrestle up front with the champagne out the back.
In folklore as classic games are the 77 Baa-Baas and 99 France vs New Zealand tests. In these matches you have legendary forward packs duking it out so that legendary back-lines can do their stuff. But what I take away from this world cup, is that with the pressure of the professional game, and the sole focus on world cup wins, rugby’s balance is far from some Super 14 pop-corn competition, and much more like a Rugby League style war of attrition, minus the ball in hand. Even Stephen Jones described the final as an ‘arid affair’.
So what the hell do we do? Rule-wise, I’m not one for league-ising rugby. We’ve got to keep the value in forward play so that it stays a game for all shapes and sizes. If the Stellenbosch laws can create space without doing this at all, then maybe. Perhaps the only clear change would be the drop goal coming down to 1. Still an advantage, maybe even win you a game, but less reason to see all and sundry taking wild pot shots in crunch matches, instead of building pressure from that field position (for a penalty) or, and I know this is radical, even engineering a try.
Another step would be to get some more emphasis on the games in between world cups. As fliers – could there be a World League that teams play each other in so that ‘friendlies’ don’t turn into a joke? Could there be more benefit attached to the IRB rankings – like money or hosting rights/votes so that every game matters?
But most pragmatic, and what we should be focusing on from an Australian point of view, is getting the balance back into our game. Not by blunting our back play, but bringing on the forwards. Hey, Argentina can do it. Johnson has started with the backs by bringing back the skill on the ball, and Foley has done a good job in the line-outs and re-starts, but the scrum and break down still have a long way to go. Only when we can match the toughest 10 man teams can our backs once again regain our point of difference and maybe even break this deadlock that world-cup rugby has fallen into.