After a couple of days shifting furniture for someone else I was very happy to sit down on Sunday afternoon to watch the RWC quarter-final between the Wallabies and the Springboks. Man, what a cracker of a contest it turned out to be.
After the match Robbie Deans, the Australian coach, termed it a match between the defending champion and most experience team in the competition against the youngest and least experienced team. As he put it, the boys came of age.
South Africa shopuld never have lost. As a died in the wool Aussie even I have to admit that. They dominated pretty well every significant stat in the game, and sometimes to a ridiculous lop-sided margin. Australia made 147 tackles for the game for example, against 53 – which goes to show who was doing all the attacking. Likewise territory was heavily in South Africa’s favour. On top of all that the Wallabies line-out was misfiring, Quade Cooper played the worse game of his career, and the Wallabies couldn’t string any phases together. They hardly had the ball, and too often lost it early or gave it away with poor options and skewed kicking. Offensively it was probably as bad as Australia has been for years – and yet our attacking flair is said to be our great strength.
Still, we won. Why?
Firstly, the few chances we had we pretty well capitalised on. We went forward and we scored, with only an aberrant conversion kick by O’Connor missing in the first half. By contrast the Springboks virtually camped in the Wallabies half, but could score only three penalties for the match – which pretty well leads onto the second reason the Wallabies won: outstanding defence.
Australian teams have always been built on a philosophy of positive attacking play. Every country has their own philosophical bias – in England for example it’s generally about their forwards, similarly the Springboks, who always have a bruising forward pack, but often united with punishing backs. France is all about flair, and often unpredictable, spontaneous flair, and so on. The biggest team in the world, the All Blacks, have generally combined the two main elements, big forwards with creative backs, which is why they’ve been the most winning-est team in history.
Tournament rugby is different though. It demands something different from the participants because if you lose there is no tomorrow. It’s all or nothing. History shows that Australia – unlike New Zealand – has a great record in tournament play. We tend to be like that in most sports – come the crunch we’ll come to play. That’s our history, which has become a heritage that others recognise and our teams strive to live up to. In terms of Rugby World Cups it has meant that in those critical stages of the tournament attacking flair has been meshed with fanatical defence. In 1991 and 1999, both years the Wallabies won, it was defence that got the team into the final. Same again in 2003, when outstanding defence stifled the All Blacks in the semi-final (when hot favourites), and nearly won the final against the English.
It was the same story on Sunday. The Springboks had the run of the game, but couldn’t penetrate. Again and again they threw themselves at the Australian defence, only to be denied again and again. The only progress they made was by inches, gradually overtaking Australia to lead with 10 minutes to 9-8 on the back of three penalties. I have to admit, watching it at that stage I wondered how Australia could possibly win. For the last 50 minutes of the fame we’d barely had a sniff at a scoring chance. The ball was at the wrong end, South Africa relentless, our attack flagging, and our players near spent on their feet from their incessant defence. It only takes a moment though.
A clever kick – for once – and then a silly penalty gave James O’Connor a shot at goal, 40 metres out on a 45 degree angle. A challenging kick, and doubly so given the circumstances. O’Connor is only 19, but he it paced it out, lined it up, and kicked it right through the middle. 11-9, and for the remaining 9 minutes the Wallabies managed to hold out the Springboks to record a famous victory and a spot in the semi-final against New Zealand.
That form will see us lose against the All Blacks, but I’m pretty confident we’ll improve quite a lot on that effort. Our offense could hardly have been worse. Quade Cooper, who was dire for most of the match, can only improve – on his day he is a matchwinner. I think we’ll likely go into the match against New Zealand with an improved line-up to, with Berrick Barnes alongside Cooper. My experience of watcjhing sport over the years also tells me that wins like that galvanise a team. The Wallabies know they were lucky, but know also that they made their luck on the back of steely defence. They won ugly, but they won, and nothing instils belief more than that. And, not to be discounted, there’s the history. Australia win the big matches. Just about always.
The All Blacks will be nervous. It’s every New Zealanders fear that once more they’ll come up short in the biggest event in the game. That fear, and the pressure that goes with it, is magnified by playing on home soil. The worst possible nightmare for every Kiwi is that they get knocked out by the team they fear and despise most – the Wallabies. That’s the situation that now faces them, and there will be thousands of Kiwi’s living in terror at the moment.
I doubt that will affect the players, but it will have some influence. The All Blacks have their own monkey’s to shed. Indisputably the best team in the history of the sport, they have failed at every world cup since the inaugural event in 1987, which they won. I doubt there has been a world cup when they haven’t gone in as outright favourites, but each time they find a way to lose, and have made but one final appearance since 1987. If Australia are over-achievers, then the All Blacks have been rank under-achievers. It’s a definite burden, and a definite issue. One day they’ll get by their reputation as chokers – hopefully not this time around.
It should be a cracking game. I think New Zealand deserve to go in as favourites, but only marginally. Injuries to important players have come at a bad time, but they play in front of an adoring crowd at the least favourite venue for the Wallabies. I think Australia will win though. There seems great belief around the squad – they’re here to do the business. Though the All Blacks have beaten the Wallabies much more than often, the record in RWC is 2-0 to Australia, and both occasions at semi final stage. Time will tell.
Easy to forget – the winner goes on to play the final against either France or Wales. It’s far from over, and while the ultimate champion will likely be the winner of Sunday’s clash, nothing is certain.
- Win for the ages (theage.com.au)
- Deans claims Wallabies have more fizz than ‘Dullabies’ tag (3news.co.nz)
- Wallabies break Springbok hearts (mirror.co.uk)
- Australia coach hails matchwinner James O’Connor (independent.co.uk)
- Rugby: Australia vs. New Zealand, a Tale of Two Countries, a Clash of Confidence (bleacherreport.com)