November 2018 Test Match Review

England 37 vs Australia 18

 Saturday, November 24

Venue: Twickenham, London
Kick-off: 15:00 GMT, 17:00 SA Time
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Alexandre Ruiz (France)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)

As I watched the England-Australia Test at Twickenham, I had a serious sense of déjà vu. I seemed to be watching Australia doing all the same things they have done over and over again throughout 2018, with no variations, no innovation, and very little chance of success.

There is a certain madness in repeating the same thing over and over again, expecting a different outcome every time you do it. If you bash your head against a rock wall with some force, the outcome is going to be concussion, and blood. The next time you do it, the same thing is going to happen – concussion, and blood. If you keep on doing it you are likely to end up with serious brain damage.

And that is where the Wallabies seem to be at this moment. Brain Damaged.

Then, today, as I listened to the two Michaels, Cheika and Hooper, at their post-match press conference, and there it was, another déjà vu moment.  Twelve minutes and 24 seconds of the same old same old.

First, predictably, Michael Cheika had his usual rant at the referee. That is standard practice for Michael Cheika.

He had his say about Owen Farrell’s no-arms tackle on Izack Rodda.

He had his complaint about the Dane Haylett Petty 26th minute try that was disallowed – somewhat belatedly – for a forward pass.

Looking at the forward pass moment first. My own thought as I watched the game was that the pass was clearly forward and I was more than a little surprised when Peyper, and his assistant Glen Jackson, initially decided to award the try. When TMO Marius Jonker intervened Matt Toomua was already setting up for the goal kick and, had he taken the kick, the try would have stood. However, Jonker’s intervention resulted in the try being ruled off.

Michael Cheika was not happy! He felt that the pass was legal. He said: “It’s a 25-metre pass and it goes backwards out of his hands,” which is, unfortunately, not the only criteria for a pass to be legal. It can still come out of the hands backwards, but be a forward pass because of the direction of the pass itself. This was such a pass, and any impartial observer would have had no quibble with it being called forward.

He also suggested that a pass to Michael Hooper later in the game was equally wrongly called forward, because “the rules say that it can go forward as long as it goes backwards out of the hand.”

This is not strictly correct.

The Law Book defines both the word Forward, and the term Throw Forward as follows:

Forward: Towards the opposition’s dead-ball line.

Throw forward: When a player throws or passes the ball forward i.e. if the arms of the player passing the ball move forward.

And then Law 11,6 says:

Throw Forward

  1. A throw forward may occur anywhere in the playing area. Sanction: Scrum.

If we read the above, it is clear that any pass where the ball is directed towards the opponent’s dead ball line, when the player making the pass has his arms moving towards that dead ball line, the pass must be forward, NO MATTER WHICH WAY HIS HANDS WERE FACING!

Mr Cheika needs to brush up on the laws a bit.

Cheika is absolutely correct when he says that Jaco Peyper got the Rodda/Farrell incident wholly and utterly wrong. It was a horrendous decision by a referee who should know better. At the very least he should have had another look at the incident.

Farrell is extremely fortunate to have escaped sanction twice in four weeks for what can only be described as foul play.

Michael Cheika is obviously carrying a bit of a grudge against the referees as he then harped back to Israel Folau’s yellow card and subsequent suspension for his kick-chase leaping against Ireland in the third of the mid-year Tests on the 23rd June. Cheika felt that it was unfair that Folau was a) yellow carded for the incident that saw Ireland captain Peter O’Mahony off the field for an HIA and not being able to return, and b) cited for an earlier aerial challenge on the same O’Mahony in the ninth minute of the match. Folau was suspended for after that citing. Somehow Michael Cheika feels that the referees and the rugby judicial system are against Australia!

It is also true that no team in world rugby complains about the referee more that the Aussies. The constant whinging is starting to seem like an excuse to mask their inadequacies.

After his predictable rant about the referee, Cheika goes on to suggest that Australia “could have managed the game” if they had scored a try or been awarded a penalty try when Rodda was illegally stopped by Farrell.

He did go on to say that Australia kicked the ball away too much.

The real issue that I have with the two Michaels is that they seem to be in some kind of denial about the poor performance of their team!

I quote: “I thought we defended well!” “We just could not get our game going..”We have learned a helluva lot, so we can look forward to next year…” There’s a lot of great people in our team and a lot of great things happening behind the scenes that right now aren’t turning themselves into wins, but we’ll turn them into wins next year.”

And that is precisely where the two Michaels sound like a stuck record.

We have heard all this before.

“We will be better next year!”

Cheika has been saying the same thing for three years. 2018 has been much worse than 2017. And 2017 was not a good year for the Wallabies.

Unless something remarkable drastic even happens, 2019 is shaping up to be even worse.

The Wallabies are a bit like the Titanic.

Deemed unsinkable, and thus heading straight for the icebergs in the belief that everything be okay.

If Titanic had heeded the warnings and simply turned away from the icefield, history may been very different.

Sadly, I am not sure that Australia have it in them to turn this ship around.

If we analyse their game plan against England, we see exactly the same game plan that the Wallabies have used throughout 2018.

The Australians use just two basic attacking plays.

Play one involves taking the ball up hard in the midfield, the archaic crashball for the setup and recycle for another repetition or two, while two loose forwards drift out onto the wider wing channels left and right, when the ball is eventually cycled away from the midfield bashers, the first receiver floats a long cut-out pass to a winger or one of those floating loose forwards out wide. The tactic is predictable and defendable. The long looping pass often drifts forward (as happened with Dane Haylett-Petty’s disallowed try) or is in danger of being intercepted. Once in a while the play works, but not enough for it to be the bog-standard Wallaby tactic.

They make no attempt to switch the play from one side to the other as they bash it up the middle, going in the same direction time and again, which makes it easily readable for defenders who simply keep folding out to cover the next channel.

The Wallabies’ alternative play is even more predictable and equally ineffective. The flyhalf to drops into the pocket, then launches a high ball for the Wallaby wingers and fullback to chase. The tactic might work if the kick-chasers were fully committed to the chase, and the kicks were accurate. Sadly none of this happens. Israel Folau has the reputation for being the best kick-chaser and aerial contester of the ball in the world. So why does he not chase the kicks? Where is he?

Australia’s kicking game was shambolic. Clearance kicks were charged down box kicks were poorly executed. The midfield kicking was aimless and cross-field kicks were overhit and out of reach.

Kicking the ball away is a sin in rugby, unless it is a well drilled tactic. Against England the high-kick-and-chase tactic was simply a way of handing the ball to England to see what they would do with it.

Quite simply, Australia have become one of the most predictable and boring rugby teams in the whole world.

And it showed in this Test against England.

For the first time in 109 years Australia has lost six successive Tests to England.

All the incidents that the two Michaels referred to in their media event cannot detract from a strong England showing.

They gave the Wallaby scrum a lesson in set-piece play.

The Wallaby scrum was so much better in 2018 than in previous years, but they often creaked when the pressure really mounted. In this game they simply fell apart. The English scrum was dominant throughout, particularly on its own ball – drawing penalties at will, with the first one leading to England’s first try. England won that first scrum with almost arrogant ease, with a blindside move sending Jonny May in to the corner.

The Wallaby lineout, so often a bugger’s muddle in 2018, functioned fairly well as they varied their throws and used a variety of plays off the back. They set up some good mauls and at times got across the gain line.

Without David Pocock, the Wallabies were babes in the wood at the breakdowns. They conceded a staggering 7 turnovers in the first 30 minutes! The contest over the ball simply belonged to England.

At the back the woes continued.

I have already mentioned the complete lack of innovation and creativity amongst the backs. It looks as if they have been drilled into playing automatons. There simply seemed to be no idea how to create opportunity and penetration.

Yet, they somehow still produced one of the best tries of the November season when Sekopu Kefu gave the ball to Israel Folau running a beautiful line to score under the posts. In the run Folau left Owen Farrell for dead, with the latter actually trying to use his arms in a futile attempt at a tackle. It perhaps sums up their entire game that it took a prop to set the fullback free to score!

But it was their defence, or rather the lack of defence, that stands out as being Australia’s biggest weakness, despite Michael Cheika suggesting: “I thought we defended well!”

Defensive errors lead directly to tries.

Dane Haylett Petty was sucked off his wing  in the blindside move which created the space for Jonny May’s try.

Bernard Foley was completely out of position when Elliot Daly ran into the gap and went on to score his try.

Dane Haylett-Petty went in with poor technique and simply bounced off Joe Cokanasiga in the 55th minute as he did a “Michael Catt Speed Bump” impersonation, reminding us of Catt’s attempt to stop Jonah Lomu back in ’95.

The entire Aussie backline was simply sucked out of shape in the 76th when Farrell scored his try, with Israel Folau misreading the entire play and leaving a gap you could drive a combine harvester through.

The England forwards, with Kyle Sinckler and Marc Woods at the forefront, simply bashed their way through or past the Wallaby midfield defence time and again, getting the ball across the gain line and then handing it on to the backs on the front-foot.

Australia made just 85 tackles in 113 attempts, missing 28 tackles. That is a 75% tackle success rate, which is as poor as it gets in Test rugby!

So, no Mr Cheika, you did not defend well.

The Wallabies were, in a word, poor.

England, on the other hand were a whole lot better, but then they were allowed to be better! Their set-piece was solid, their defence was solid, they carried the ball over the gain line with ease, their dominance of the breakdowns was almost absolute. It was a thoroughly workmanlike performance by England, and it will give them some confidence as the 2019 Six-Nations looms.

Where Wallaby rugby goes from here is a difficult question.

I do believe that they have some remarkably talented players in their squad, but the majority of the squad are simply journeymen going about their job. I am not sure that the correct players are being picked for the national squad.

I also believe that their current coaching squad is getting it all wrong.

Michael Cheika has done nothing other than shift the Wallabies into Waratahs mode, playing the same game that his Super Rugby squad did before he stepped up to take over the national team. There has been little or no innovation, no development, and no creativity. The introduction of Stephen Larkham as attack coach has not had any positive effect on the style or game plans. As for the efforts of defensive coach, Nathan Grey, the less said the better.

Perhaps Rugby Australia need to grasp the bull by the horns, forget about the 2019 Rugby World Cup in favour of building for the future, and dump the current coaching squad, replacing them with a team that is empowered to take the game back up to the heights Australia achieved in previous decades?

That way they might just salvage the future of the game in Australia. At the moment it is heading one way, and that is down.

The scorers:

For England:
Tries: May, Daly, Cokanasiga, Farrell
Cons: Farrell 4
Pens: Farrell 3

For Australia:
Tries: Folau 2
Con: Toomua
Pens: Toomua 2

The Teams:

England: 15 Elliot Daly, 14 Joe Cokanasiga, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ben Te’o, 11 Jonny May, 10 Owen Farrell (c), 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Mark Wilson, 7 Sam Underhill, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Ben Moon
Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley, 17 Alec Hepburn, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Charlie Ewels, 20 Nathan Hughes, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 George Ford, 23 Manu Tuilagi

Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley, 17 Alec Hepburn, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Charlie Ewels, 20 Nathan Hughes, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 George Ford, 23 Manu Tuilagi.

Australia: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Dane Haylett-Petty, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Bernard Foley, 11 Jack Maddocks, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Will Genia, 8 David Pocock, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Jack Dempsey, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Izack Rodda, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tolu Latu, 1 Scott Sio
Replacements: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 Jermaine Ainsley, 18 Allan Alaalatoa, 19 Rob Simmons, 20 Ned Hanigan, 21 Pete Samu, 22 Nick Phipps, 23 Sefa Naivalu