2018 Rugby Championships

Australia 19 vs Argentina 23

Saturday, September 15

Venue: Cbus Super Stadium, Gold Coast
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Paul Williams (New Zealand)
Television match official: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)

Phil Kearns has earned himself something of a reputation for jingoism as a rugby commentator. Whilst he was undoubtedly a very good rugby player, his contribution to the game as a television broadcast commentator is as one-eyed, boorish, biased and cliched as you could possibly find. Whether he is having a go at the referee or the opposition when his beloved Waratahs are playing, or he is continuing his attacks on referees and opponents when the Wallabies are playing, he is consistent only in one thing, his complete hostility towards the targets of his flag-waving efforts to describe what he thinks is a game of rugby.

Not so long ago, when Ireland visited Australia in the mid-year, he was at his best. On the 23rd June the Wallabies were losing to the Irish at Allianz Park in the third Test of the series. A couple of minutes into the second-half, with Ireland leading 17-9, Kearns focused his attention on a group of Irish players discussing some element of the match before a scrum.

Kearns reached for the nearest cliché he could find; “Fiddly dee, fiddly dee, fiddly dee, potato – out the back there having their own little chat.”

Many Irish fans found the comment offensive, especially with the history of the great famine in Ireland following the failure of the potato crop in the period 1845 to 1852.

It was not the first time Kearns had offended the Irish.

At the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, on the 17th September 2011, he said the Irish wouldn’t have “much to cheer about” minutes before kick-off between Australia and Ireland’s pool match. Ireland went on to record a emphatic 15 – 6 win over Australia.

Kearns’ verbal outrage at every single referee call that goes against Australia has become a regular talking point amongst rugby fans who watch the game on television and have no alternative commentary to listen to. In a comment on the “Roar” website an Aussie fan described Kearns’ activities as “pathetic cheerleading” and dubbed him less of a professional commentator and more of a “professional complainer” about the referee or the opposition.

And so it was again on Saturday when Australia hosted the visiting Argentineans in a Test match at the Cbus Super Stadium in Robina on the Gold Coast of Queensland.

During this game Phil Kearns fixated on the fact that the Argentineans were talking “a lot of Spanish out there” as he seemed offended by the fact that the visitors were conversing amongst themselves in their mother tongue. He mentioned their use of Spanish on no less than four occasions, after which I was distracted by a housefly that buzzed around my head, and I stopped counting. Before I stopped counting the number of times Kearns spoke about the use of Spanish, I had given up on counting the number of times he pointed out “errors” made by referee John Lacey whenever whistle went and the decision was in favour of the visitors.

I mention Phil Kearns and his misguided attempts at commentary simply because it was about the only interesting thing I could find to say about this Test match.

This was the second of two Rugby Championships Tests played on Saturday. There was just one similarity between the two Tests – in both Tests the home team lost the game. Both home teams had an opportunity to win the game in the dying minutes of each Test, and both home teams blew that chance.

That is where the similarity between the two Tests started, and ended.

After the drama, the tension, and the massively physical, titanic tussle between the All Blacks and the Springboks in Wellington, the game in Australia was never likely to reach the same level of enthralling intensity. It would have required superhuman efforts to match the earlier game for entertainment value.

Predictably, it simply did not happen.

Much of the game was simply a muddle of error-ridden lackadaisical rugby that emphasised the poor decision making and lack of skills available to some of the players out on that field.

The Pumas didn’t play particularly well, their coach Mario Ledesma said afterwards, “it looked like we didn’t want to win the game.” Despite the Pumas’ worst efforts, though, the Wallabies were even poorer.

The final score was close, but it could have been a much bigger win for the Pumas as they had two tries disallowed by the TMO, the first by Nicolas Sanchez in the 31st minute. The TMO ruled that Ramiro Moyano put a foot into touch in the build-up, after a tackle by Will Genia.

Two minutes into the second half, Argentina thought that Boffelli had scored but, once again, the visitors had a try disallowed when the TMO ruled that the final pass from Delguy was forward.

In both instances it was simply a matter of a couple of inches that stood between a legitimate try and a TMO reversal. Had the execution been spot on, the Argentineans would have been at least 10, possibly 14 points ahead early in the second half, and the Wallabies would likely have struggled to get back into the game from there.

The result is a significant one for the Pumas as it ends a nine-match winless run in away matches in the Rugby Championship and it’s the first time they have beaten the Wallabies in Australia since 1983.

This is a Pumas outfit that has found a new game plan and new, focussed, motivation under coach Ledesma. They have a back three with excellent striking power, and their oft wayward discipline of the previous years has been brought under control.

Even their Latin temperament and explosive flammability has been brought under a modicum of control. Witness the Wallaby attempts to get under the skin of Nicolas Sanchez and to distract and rile him up so that he would lose focus. The shoulder nudges, the hip bumps, the ever-so-slightly late pushes, the back of the head rubs, the hair mussing from behind, the shoves – all intended to ignite the fiery reactions for which he is well known. In previous years he would react to such attempts with immediate ferocity.

Not so much on Saturday. Yes, Sanchez did show some discontent, even a couple of frayed strands, but he did not snap! Neither did any of his team mates. And that is a huge difference between the Argentineans of 2017 and those of 2018.

The Pumas did make tactical mistakes. Almost incredibly, they kicked the ball onto Israel Folau no less than 7 times!  Giving the ball to the one Wallaby that could punish them with the ball in hand! Worse, they were giving away possession far too easily.

Perhaps they knew something about Folau’s counter attacking skills that others have missed?

I have long thought that the one weakness in Israel Folau’s attacking runs is the fact that he never, ever, passes the ball. He tucks the ball under his arm and takes off with those long, powerful strides. He is undoubtedly an incredibly difficult man to stop, and he often scores tries as a result of those powerful runs. In the 19th minute of this Test match he did just that, with a stepping, swerving line break that saw him cut five defenders to shreds before scoring the best try of the whole game.

The problem is that the one try does not compensate for the number of times he is caught and tackled with the ball. On Saturday he carried the ball 14 times for a total of 129 meters. He received the ball 19 times in backline play, a further 7 times from kick receipts, in all he had hands on the ball 26 times, yet made just 6 passes. He did not kick the ball once. During his 14 carries he made just one line break. He was tackled with the ball no less than 12 times.

The final play of the game illustrates the problem perfectly.

Despite all of their disinterested and confused play, the constant muddling that had gone before, in the dying moments of the game the Wallabies managed to construct a match-winning opportunity, out on the right flank.

The ball went out to Israel Folau. He drew the last three Argentinean defenders onto himself. All he had to do was to shovel a straightforward pass out to Bernard Foley waiting out wide on the right wing. Foley was unmarked, and would have strolled over for the five-pointer that would have won the game for Australia.

It was that simple, that easy.

Yet somehow, inexplicably, Israel Folau decided not to pass the ball to the unmarked Foley and to have a go on his own. It was the glory moment, and it seemed that Folau’s strength and power would allow him to fall over the tryline, score, win the game for his country, and cover himself with the glorious adoration of the tiny crowd of just 16 000 spectators.

But it was not to be.

Thomas Lavanini was having none of that. He clattered into Folau with dedicated force, and hit him hard enough to dislodge the ball, and the game was over.

That fleeting moment, that one poor decision by a rock-star status player, the most expensive player in Australian Rugby, illustrated exactly what was wrong with the Wallabies on Saturday, and throughout most of the last two years.

The whole game revolved around poor decisions and even poorer execution by the Wallabies. Dropped balls, players running into each other, failed line outs, missed tackles, tactics that simply do not make sense, bizarre substitutions, weird selections.

Michael Cheika must take some of the blame right on the point of his chin. Some of his decisions have been truly Allister Coetzeesque.

Surely he must have seen that Kurtley Beale was struggling at flyhalf against South Africa, why was he deployed in the same position a week later? And, when he was having an obviously bad game, why was he left on the field and the only Wallaby midfielder who was playing with any poise and polish, Matt Toomua, hauled off and substituted by Bernard Foley?

That weird substitution puzzled everyone, including, it must be said, Toomua himself. Toomua had been the one Wallaby who was calm and accurate in everything he did.

The Wallabies’ loose trio seems to have been chosen without any thought about their playing as a unit. There seems to be no focus on building a trio that complements each other’s playing style. On Saturday, the trio were exposed for pace and focus, with David Pocock often seeming to be man-alone in the game as his fellow loosies hung off the fringes of the contact areas and the tussle over the ball.

When you turn over possession 20 times in all-out attack, and then miss 23 tackles on defence, there is something wrong in the make-up of the team.

I must add that there were some good performances in the Wallaby effort – Dane Haylett-Petty is perhaps the best true fullback Australia can field. He might not have Israel Folau’s star-quality, but he has a much better understanding of the positional requirements of the fullback game, and his attacking moments were direct and focussed. He was safe under the high ball, and he made his tackles.

On attack, Israel Folau was impressive at times, but his inability to pass, or kick, makes him something of a liability in crisis moments. He also missed two tackles and made none.

David Pocock was his usual committed self, but seemed distracted at times as the burden of captaincy weighed on his shoulders.

Will Genia was good in the first 30 minutes and then seemed to slow down. Perhaps evidence of fatigue? He seemed to run out of legs completely just before he was substituted. (Although I believe Australia would have been better served by a tired Will Genia rather than the totally wayward Nick Phipps!)

Matt Toomua did not get much opportunity on attack, but he was steady as the second playmaker outside Kurtley Beale. He made few mistakes and seemed calm and focussed, so totally different to the rest of the Wallabies, which was probably the reason that Chieka hauled him off the field?

But the rest of the Wallabies were average at best. Some were simply poor.

Any Aussie rugby fan watching the game would have been frustrated to the point of exasperation as one could clearly see the opportunities, while the players on the field seemed blind to every chance. (A 5 on 2 overlap, and Foley goes the other way?) I saw at least 5 scoring opportunities that were butchered by clueless decision-making.

On the Argentinean side of the field the visitors were not playing great rugby either. They made their fair share of handling errors, they struggled to control and win their own rucks, they lost one scrum, and missed their share of tackles too.

But they did take their chances, with Nicolas Sanchez displaying some great form with a super all-round performance in this encounter. As the Pumas’ chief playmaker, he controlled the game, attacked the line at times, and was a superb support runner on the loop or whenever his outside backs launched an attack. He was rewarded with one try and had another disallowed as he scored 12 points with his try, two conversions and a penalty.

My Man-of-the-Match, and the big difference between these two mediocre teams.

The scorers:

For Australia:
Tries: Genia, Folau, Haylett-Petty
Cons: Toomua 2

For Argentina:
Tries: Sanchez, Delguy
Cons: Sanchez 2
Pens: Bofelli 2, Sanchez

Teams:

Australia: 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Israel Folau, 13 Reece Hodge, 12 Matt Toomua, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Kurtley Beale, 9 Will Genia, 8 David Pocock, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Lukhan Tui, 5 Izack Rodda, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Scott Sio
Replacements: 16 Folau Faingaa, 17 Sekope Kepu, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Adam Coleman, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Bernard Foley, 23 Jack Maddocks

Argentina – 15 Emiliano Boffelli, 14 Bautista Delguy, 13 Matías Moroni, 12 Jeronimo de la Fuente, 11 Ramiro Moyano, 10 Nicolás Sanchez, 9 Gonzalo Bertranou, 8 Javier Ortego Desio, 7 Marcos Kremer, 6  Pablo Matera, 5 Tomás Lavanini, 4 Guido Petti, 3 Santiago Medrano, 2 Augustin Creevy (c), 1 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro.
Replacements: 16 Julian Montoya, 17 Santiago Garcia Botta, 18 Juan Pablo Zeiss, 19 Matías Alemanno, 20 Juan Manuel Leguizamon, 21 Martin Landajo, 22 Bautista Ezcurra, 23 Juan Cruz Mallia.