In the “2016 Qantas Wallabies Media Guide” – a glossy and functional bit of kit full of statistics, records, player profiles and such – coach Michael Cheika writes that “every match is another opportunity to show our fans and the world what the Wallabies stand for. That’s the attitude we take in every time we have the honour of representing our country on the global stage.”
ARU CEO Bill Pulver enthuses on the historic implications for the three-Test Australia-England rugby series and ensures media that the Wallabies are “hungry for success, and are aware of the tremendous opportunity that 2016 brings for them”.
And while that all may be true – and certainly there’s been a “Lions-esque” feel to this tour – after Saturday night’s belittling at the hands of surging, brutal, belligerent England, Australian fans have learned this: the Wallabies aren’t good in 2016 because they were in 2015. And even though they hammered England 33-13 – in a Test Pulver rates as perhaps the men in gold’s “most famous” win over England (he may not have seen the ’91 World Cup final) – if the Wallabies don’t trot out their best XXIII, they’re back in the panting pack. And that’s just it.
We’ve also learned that England are lots better than we thought. England are hard – hard bodies, hard yards, hard lines. These players don’t “join” breakdowns, they don’t flop on and attach themselves to a little rolling maul. They tear in with pick-handles and malignant intent. They destroy the joint. In the words of former Wallabies coach Dave Brockhoff, they “cause havoc at the breakdown like sharks in a school of mullet”.
The English work is just hard, hard rugby. They care not for aesthetics. Russell Crowe asked people in the film, Gladiator, were they not entertained? England don’t give a stuff. Not in terms of frippery like a silken backline move. What’s the point if it’s a road to nowhere? England do what they must to win. They leave it all out there. They kick long and well. They hit and hit again. They compete, they test the referee.
And they tackle. How they tackle. It’s like the advantage line is a dam wall and the England players are Selleys No More Gaps. And there were no gaps. Not a one.
Yet it didn’t stop Australia trying to bash through. For just about the entire second-half at AAMI Park on Saturday night, the Wallabies piled in. They bashed in across multiple phases. It was brutal rugby, largely without finesse or creativity. Eddie Jones knew Australia would “run everything the Australian way”. And he told his men what was coming and to break heads at the breakdown. England barely even had to think – it was just tackle this, tackle that, tackle whatever great golden beast was running at them. And repeat. And keep on doing it until the Wallabies coughed up the pill or the referee found a penalty in the maelstrom.
The Wallabies’ game was like the worst rugby league – one-out, crash-ball, recycle, repeat. Was there no other way? After the hard rushing defence of the week before, was there no thought to chip kicks, cross-kicks, grubbers, bombs?
When Australia tried to use Israel Folau, ripping off one of their myriad “moves” loosely titled “get the ball to Israel”, there was nowhere for the big man to go. You can’t just give Folau the ball and say “here Israel, you’re good, do something good”. Folau breaks the line because of work inside him. He hits holes and tears it up from there. But he has to be put through. He’s a grand support player; he runs at holes.
And England offered up none. Their defensive-line was a dyke. And in the clutch moments, the Wallabies froze. They didn’t back their skills. They were hammered.
Thinking about it, Australia were always over the odds. Firstly because England are good: six Test wins on the trot; fitter than a thousand trout; a coach who well knows the way of Randwick rugby. Secondly, because Australia are missing Matt Giteau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Will Genia, Drew Mitchell, Matt Toomua, Kurtley Beale, David Pocock and Kane Douglas, and I could be leaving out a couple high-skilled and fit, professional, experienced players who always seem at the peak of their powers.
When Courtney Lawes tore off down field before England scored the killer try at the death, a supporter from a posse of men in golden suits took his golden top hat and slammed it hard onto the ground in disgust.
Cheika could empathise. It was a shocker of a loss. And while fans can be proud of the Wallabies’ effort, if there are another 80 minutes of the same dopey automaton action that was so bereft of ideas how to go around or over or through the wall of man-meat that is England, fans will be proud of them from afar. And watching something else.