This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with Australia and the addition of another extra game…
What’s happened to the Wallabies?
A fortnight ago this column was somewhat forthright about the state of South African rugby, lamenting the lack of fight and creativity on the pitch as well as the frequent turmoil off it. But perhaps we were mis-placed in the criticisms. Perhaps we should have been looking at Australia.
The only reason an Aussie team will definitely be gracing the post-season playoffs is the guaranteed spot allotted to the best team in the Australian conference. Both Australia’s best teams, the Waratahs and Brumbies, lag nine points behind the nearest New Zealand counterpart, while New Zealand’s worst team – the Blues – is within a win of bettering them as well. Given that the Blues tore the Brumbies apart on Friday, you’d be hard-pressed to make a case for Australia’s best being better than New Zealand’s worst.
All five Australian franchises suffered defeats, in the second week of action following the national team’s whitewash at home to England. The Rebels’ collapse in Christchurch was abject – such a performance might have seen them lose to the Kings. The Reds, champions just four years ago, took a fearful hiding from the Chiefs on Saturday. The rather poor public sacking of Richard Graham has not made a scrap of difference to the performance levels. The Waratahs were at least competitive against the Hurricanes, but the gulf in class was evident.
Things are at their worst in Perth. The Force are currently running around looking for a new Head Coach after Michael Foley was sacked during the June Tests. A couple of their senior players are in hot water too, after breaching curfew protocols last week in Bloemfontein and backing that up with urinating in a hotel corridor and breaking the decorations. The ARU is helping the franchise rework its finances: to be blunt about it, the Force is almost broke.
So what’s happened? After all, Australia were better than just making up the numbers in the World Cup final last year. The Brumbies, under the guidance of Stephen Larkham, were billed as possible tournament favourites for this Super Rugby tournament (along with the Waratahs), while many a pundit looked at the exit of All Black stalwarts such as McCaw, Carter, Nonu and others and mused that Australia might even nick back the Bledisloe Cup. That looks deeply unlikely now.
Games change and evolve, but watching the weekend’s matches it was a little tough to escape the impression that Australia’s rugby is stuck in a low gear. The Brumbies in Auckland – indeed, not in dissimilar fashion to the Wallabies against England, particularly in the second Test – seemed happy to bash through phases, grind and abrade, wait for the opportunities to come. The Blues defence lapped it up, then ripped up the Brumby rucks, playing their spells of possession at breakneck pace but with an individual dynamism that always sought to find gaps, backed up by a team will to always look to be ready to keep the ball moving.
The same applied, in more extreme fashion, to both the Rebels and the Reds against the Crusaders and Chiefs respectively, while the Force simply wilted in the face of the Stormers’ physical onslaught.
Which is where all this gets interesting. While New Zealand teams’ rugby continues to evolve to be quicker, lighter of foot and with better slight of hand, while South African teams continue to ensure they tick the boxes marked ‘hardest’, ‘biggest’ and ‘least likely to go backwards in a tackle’, Australian teams seem stuck in the middle, neither running particularly hard, nor cutting anybody apart, nor stretching side to side, nor pressuring through accurate kicking nor…
Nor anything. Australian rugby seems stuck with a strategic crisis of identity on the pitch, one which desperately needs to be solved if players such as Michael Hooper and Israel Folau are to get the playing rewards they should be.
This column has not been restrained in the past – neither myself nor my counterpart – about the need for a good long look at the playing calendar and a good hard try at reducing it and making it a wee bit more consistent.
Imagine then the furrow that crossed the brow upon the news that the team finishing second-bottom of the Top 14 will now be required to play off against the team finishing second in the ProD2 for the rights to Top 14 rugby the following season.
Fortunately, the Ligue National de Rugby has saved itself from an all-out assault here, by introducing the very common sense rule that teams should have French academy players in their matchday squads, rather than those academy players imported in their late teens who might one day become French.
But really? Another playoff? Because the French season is not long enough?
Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens