Wallabies shirk collision and pay the price
Wesley Fofana of France scores a try amongst the Wallabies rabble during the France vs Australia international rugby union match at the Stade de France stadium. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)
Rugby is a simple game. It’s a collision sport, and so to win the game you have to win the contest at the collision point.
You can do this in two ways. You can win the collision itself through physical might and aggression. Or you can avoid the collision through sleight of hand and agility.
Winning the collision demands physical size, but also demands an appetite for the tough stuff. An aggressive little team will sometimes beat a passive big team. But an aggressive little team will never beat an equally aggressive big team. The laws of physics see to that.
To avoid the collision you need speed, confidence and highly developed skills. Because you are aiming to catch the opposition out, you need to have bodies in motion, combined with pinpoint passing, catching and running.
Like a symphony, several complex instruments need to combine perfectly for it to work. One wrong note will bring it crashing down.
A good rugby side can execute one of these strategies well. An excellent side, like the world champion All Blacks, can execute both of them well, at will, depending on the situation.
The Wallabies didn’t do either very well, which is why they lost to France on Sunday.
They persist in trying to win games of rugby without winning the collision itself, and also without creating any significant deception to help avoid it. As any rugby player will tell you, when this happens, you are simply hoping that the opposition will make a mistake and let you score.
If they don’t make many mistakes, as with the excellent and committed French side on Sunday, then the result is out of your hands. Rugby never rewards the placid or the imperfect.
Not all the Wallabies are placid or imperfect, but there is enough placidity and imperfection to bring about their downfall on a regular basis.
The scrum is a good example. The Wallaby scrum was fragmented and dishevelled by a committed French pack. They were shoved off their ball in the first several minutes and the destruction continued on and off for the entire match. Referee Nigel Owens has been criticised for his interpretation of several of the shambolic scrums, but to blame Owens is to miss the point.
Had the Wallaby pack been more aggressive and more technically adept, Owens would not have been part of the equation. The placid and imperfect Wallaby pack invited him to take part in the match – a part he would otherwise have not had to play, or been allowed to play, had they done their job more perfectly and with greater vigour.
Criticism has also been levelled at Pat McCabe and Kurtley Beale. McCabe is written off as being one-dimensional, and Beale as lacking the necessary acumen to marshall his backline and set them away. Both criticisms are incorrect.
Take McCabe. “All he does is crash-ball,” goes the chorus. In fact, this is exactly what he is supposed to do.
The point of the crash ball is to not to get a line-break. Sometimes that happens, but when it does it is a bonus. More often it is intended to create a line-bend, a point from which the team can attack on the front foot.
This demands that the nominated two or three forwards flood the contact point and create quick ball. If they don’t do their job, then the ball dies, and there is no platform to attack from.
It looks like the carrier is lacking imagination and dying with the ball. Actually he has played his part perfectly, but been let down by his teammates who haven’t helped him win the collision.
If we take the above scenario one step further, we see Kurtley Beale suffers the same fate. When McCabe is left posted, then Beale has to deal with the consequence.
First he has to check his forward momentum to give himself some space, because his forwards haven’t created space for him. He then has to work with less time, because the defence is on the front foot and is rushing up to cut down his time and space.
If his halfback is indecisive, or creates no diversion, then the pressure mounts on Beale even more.
To say that Beale isn’t able to set his backs away is at best simplistic, and at worst, completely misguided. If he was wasting plenty of front foot ball, then it would be a valid criticism, but Beale can only avoid his collisions if others win their collisions in the lead-up.
By looking at the simple concept of winning or avoiding collisions, we can begin to see where the current Wallabies are exposed by the brutal nature of Test football.
Up front, the scrum lacks the ruthless dedication to perfection and aggression in the collision that characterises the good sides. Physicality and technical excellence are inversely proportional – you better be either overwhelmingly physical or the most perfect technicians alive.
Both is better. A bit of each is just not enough.
No Test team today will allow you to work your way into the scrum during a match. The first one needs to be an explosion of overwhelming aggression or complete technical perfection.
None of the forwards were great, but Dave Dennis is a perfect example of why the Wallabies struggle. Dennis’ ball carrying was imperfect and his collision work was soft.
Particularly though, those who blame Kurtley Beale for the Fofana try set up by Michalak, should look again at Beale’s chase, and the man slagging up on his inside, Dennis. Beale, to his credit, chased hard and pressured Michalak. That was obvious from the steps Michalak took to avoid him.
And where did Michalak go? To the inside, because that’s where the hole was, courtesy of Dave Dennis being too slow fill it. Game over, and not Beale’s fault. Had Dennis worked harder on the kick chase, the try may not have happened.
Nick Phipps too failed to create any deception which may have helped his side avoid or win the collision.
A halfback helps his flyhalf by mixing his options and testing the defence to keep them honest. Will Genia would have had a field day slipping in behind the rushing French defence, whereas the best Phipps could do was keep shovelling it out to Beale as the French tacklers loomed fast and hard.
Instinctively we know that Dennis and Phipps had bad games, but when we look at the simple ingredients of winning the collision, or creating opportunities to avoid it, we can immediately see they did neither.
It may be unfair to isolate Dennis and Phipps, when their fellows were often as bad. Aside from Michael Hooper and Nick Cummins, the majority of Wallabies shirked the winning of the collisions they faced, particularly in defence close to the ruck.
The main question is, how much of this ability to win or avoid collisions should Robbie Deans be responsible for?
Well, he certainly should be responsible for the skills necessary to avoid the collisions, and on the rare occasions these skills are shown, they don’t appear to be fine-tuned enough.
He should also be responsible for selecting those with the desire and the physicality to win the collisions up front, and few would doubt this is a difficult job, with the depth at hand.
He can’t teach the desire to win collisions, and if there aren’t sufficient self-motivated collision-winners to choose from, then things get tough.
Rugby is a simple game. To win the match, you have to win, or avoid, the contest at the collision.
France won the collision comprehensively against the Wallabies and it will be no easier for the Australians against England.
As the Wallabies are about learn all over again, rugby never rewards the placid or the imperfect.