True to form, Wallabies whinge after defeat

In the end, what was expected eventuated. New Zealand won the second Test against Australia convincingly and retained the Bledisloe Cup for another year.

Australia? They played better than in the first Test, but could only convert three penalties. No tries, just two line-breaks, and a lot of whinging were what they brought to the table.

Quade Cooper wore the No 10 jersey but did not play the role that a five-eighth is supposed to. He stayed well back, shovelled the ball along and had his regular quota of mistakes, kicking the ball to a spot he never intended to once, and failing to collect a high ball in competition with Israel Dagg; the latter action led to an All Black try a few passes later. For the most part, he was a passenger.

Why was he played at all if his prowess as a playmaker was not going to be utilised? That question should be asked of the Australian coach Michael Cheika – but Cheika is too busy whinging and questioning everything about the game apart from the woeful standards of his team, so he may not have time to reply.

Cheika is up in arms about the refereeing. Now everyone and his dog who has been watching rugby knows that Frenchman Romain Poite is a pedantic referee. He wants everything done exactly as he says and and he explains everything he does twice over to make sure that the players have no room to complain.

It makes him the central figure in any match that he officiates, exactly the opposite of what a referee should be. The better referees stamp their authority on the game early on, make sure the players know who is boss, and then melt into the shadows and let the game flow, unless there is a crying need for them to intervene.

Not so Poite. He does not like it when players try to lecture him about this, that and the other and the Australian captain Stephen Moore should have been aware of that trait. Moore has played more than 100 Tests and there is no way he would be unaware of the quirks of every single referee in international rugby.

Yet, a day after the game, there was Cheika whinging that Poite had been rude to Moore, not listening to the captain’s request to have a word with him. Surprise, surprise. Poite has been doing this for years and years. If Cheika was unaware of it, then he should blame himself. New Zealand captain Kieran Read was wiser; whenever Poite told him something, he just nodded in agreement and got on with the game.

Australian scrum-half Will Genia made one line break in the second half but found himself with no support. He looked around wildly for a teammate and found none. The move then broke down. Full-back Israel Folau, who would have much better chances to show his amazing talents as a centre, made the other break after getting an inside pass from Cooper. He almost made it to the line, but the doughty New Zealand defence caught him in time.

New Zealand found the going a little more difficult this week. The Australians were in their faces a lot more – but no-one had told newcomer Adam Coleman where to draw the line or explained to him that he had to back up his aggression with decent play. As a result, the big man flailed around a while and then earned his first yellow card shortly before half-time when he hit full-back Ben Smith with a late tackle, no arms to boot.

The gap between the teams is frightening. New Zealand’s quick passing, offloading in the tackle, supporting teammates and reading the flow of the game is far superior to the lumbering Wallabies. Newcomer Anton Lienert-Brown showed the confidence present in New Zealand ranks with an impressive debut, running the ball fluently and being a great asset. He had come in to replace Ryan Crotty who was injured in the first Test.

As usual, the rugby media, mainstream or otherwise, won’t notice things like these. Why, Planet Rugby is still convinced that Scott Fardy, and not Coleman, received a yellow card! This is a site dedicated to the game, mind you.

No yellow card

Beauden Barrett played a sterling role in the New Zealand win as usual. This man will be the next Dan Carter. He only has to get his place-kicking sorted out a bit, and he will be talked about in more glowing terms in the years to come. The way he reads the game and reacts is simply amazing.

And finally, a word about Sam Cane. He has plugged one of the biggest holes left in the team after the last World Cup, taking over from Richie McCaw. He does a more than adequate job on most occasions, but played out of his skin in this game and was deservedly the man of the match.

Picking Quade Cooper for Bledisloe II not the wisest decision

Australia’s rugby coach Michael Cheika does not appear to be one who learns from history. Or maybe he is ignorant of what has happened in the past when Australia included Quade Cooper in its team to play New Zealand.

Else, he may not have picked Cooper to play against New Zealand in tonight’s second Bledisloe Cup match in Wellington, a crucial game as far as Australia is concerned. If they lose or draw, then the Cup stays in New Zealand for another year. The last time Australia won the Cup was in 2002.

Let’s take a look back in time. Cooper was chosen to play in the 2011 World Cup semi-final against Australia. The match was played in New Zealand.

A few months before that game, during the annual internationals, Cooper had made the mistake of trying to take on New Zealand captain Richie McCaw and get in his face. It did not go down well with New Zealanders.

Let me quote from what I wrote at the time, on 17 October 2011: “For some reason, Cooper decided to start a running battle with the New Zealand captain Richie McCaw some months ago. It developed into physical confrontation at times and Cooper, without realising what he was biting off, kept portraying himself as New Zealand public enemy No 1.

“It was a wrong decision. Cooper is an infant in international rugby while McCaw has been around for eight years and is quite easily the best in his position in the world. The New Zealand rugby captain is more important to the 4 million citizens of that country than even their own prime minister; Cooper has no such status or anything even remotely like it in Australia.

“Cooper built up a lot of pressure on himself and clearly could not handle it in front of the hostile New Zealand crowds. Every time he made a mistake on the field during the tournament, the crowds cheered. They booed whenever he got the ball.”

Back to tonight’s game. Has Cheika taken these factors into account when picking Cooper? I doubt he has. Will the pressure be any less on Cooper? No, because New Zealand dominates the world in just one sport and the crowds there are unlikely to forget Cooper’s actions in the past.

Cooper was picked for the 2015 World Cup but played second fiddle to Bernard Foley. He only played against Uruguay, a minor team as far as world rugby is concerned.

He should have been eased into Australia’s side by playing in internationals against other countries. Once he was functioning well — and he does have a tendency to screw up badly at times — then he should have been picked to play against New Zealand, first in Australia where he has the home crowd’s support, and then in New Zealand.

Rugby coaches need to look beyond a player’s ability when picking them. Cheika appears to have erred on this selection.

Old is gold, but not when it involves rugby backs

It’s funny that none of the rugby scribes around wrote a single word about the selection of 34-year-old Matt Giteau, 32-year-old Adam Ashley-Cooper and 28-year-old Will Genia in the Australian side to face New Zealand in the first of the annual internationals.

In the normal course of things, one would assume that the coach of any team that has a chance of winning the World Cup would like to start aiming for that target right at the start of the four-year cycle. Australia made it to the last World Cup final and have won the Cup twice, so they are one of the nations that can reasonably entertain hopes of winning again.

But you can’t do that with a 38-year-old centre which is what Giteau will be in 2019 when the next rugby World Cup rolls around. And you wouldn’t want a 32-year-old scrum-half either. Neither would you want a 36-year-old winger for the 2019 team – and that is what Ashley-Cooper will be in four years’ time.

Is one to believe that Nick Phipps, who performed the job at the base of the scrum adequately in the last World Cup, was not good enough for the Australian coach Michael Cheika? Indeed, Phipps showed his prowess by coming on and playing on the right wing after Australia lost three backs, including Giteau, to injury and also scoring the lone try that the home team got as it suffered a big defeat against New Zealand.

Is one to also believe that among the five teams that do duty in the Super Rugby tournament there is not one individual who can fit in as a centre and that Cheika’s only option was to call in a 34-year-old with injury issues to face up to what is arguably the fittest and strongest rugby team in the world? Or that Australia does not have a single decent wing three-quarter in its five Super Rugby teams?

From the moment that Cheika announced these selections, it was obvious that he was more interested in pleasing his masters at the Australian Rugby Union than building a team for the next World Cup. New Zealand has held the Bledisloe Cup since 2003 when Reuben Thorne’s side won it back from Australia, and winning that trophy would have pleased the local big-wigs.

Of course, Cheika is not the only one who is looking to the past when trying to fill the ranks. His South African counterpart Allister Coetzee displayed similar thinking by playing Bryan Habana on the wing against Argentina on the same weekend. Habana is 33 and I am yet to see a 37-year-old winger play in a team in the World Cup. South Africa is also a team that would be in contention in any World Cup, having won the Cup twice, once admittedly under rather dubious circumstances. So why Habana? South Africa has one of the largest pools of players to pick from and someone like Courtnall Skosan would have benefitted from the exposure.

On the other hand, Steve Hansen, the coach of New Zealand, has brought in new players instead of depending on any old hands. He lost much more experience compared to the others because Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, and Keven Mealamu all ended their international careers after the last World Cup.

Hansen has retained two older players in Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino; the latter will be 37 when the next World Cup comes around but is one of the fittest and strongest players in world rugby and is unlikely to be a liability in the team. Remember, he is a forward and does not have to be a strong runner – even though he does a fair bit of scoring in internationals.

Lions’ coach was asleep during final loss to Hurricanes

A good rugby coach knows when to bring a player on for maximum effect. He also knows when a player is not performing to expectations and brings on a substitute.

Given this, Johan Ackermann, the coach of South Africa’s Lions super rugby team should wear a goodly portion of the blame for the team’s loss to the Wellington Hurricanes in the final of the 2016 super rugby tournament.

The Lions’ entire game is built around running the ball wide, with the fulcrum being fly-half Elton Jantjies. In dry conditions, with quick ball coming his way, Jantjies is a formidable player, as he showed in the semi-final against the Otago Highlanders.

But on the day of the final against the Hurricanes, it was cold, wet and windy. In addition, Jantjies had to contend with a bunch of Hurricanes players who were quick off the mark when defending, harassing their Lions counterparts no end.

Under these conditions, Jantjies played poorly. It was his delayed pass to centre Lionel Mapoe that led to the latter making a hurried low kick to try and clear the ball to safety, a kick that landed in the left hand of Hurricanes’ winger Cory Jane who grabbed it gratefully and sauntered over for the Hurricanes’ first try.

In the second half, trailing 3-13, and with 11 minutes to play, Jantjies was again at fault, almost ambling as he tried to touch down a ball that had been kicked into the try-in goal area by Hurricanes’ substitute hooker Ricky Riccitelli.

Jantjies’ opposite number, Beauden Barrett, was much quicker and was travelling at a speed of knots; he got his hands to the ball well before Jantjies, to give the Hurricanes their second try.

Apart from three penalties, two to the Hurricanes and one to the Lions, that was all the scoring on the day.

Jantjies kicked poorly as well, missing another penalty which was well within his range. On other occasions, the team made poor decisions, no doubt influenced by Jantjies’ poor form, that led to them taking penalty kicks and looking for ground advantage rather than trying to get the three points on offer. Given that their lineout functioned poorly on the day, these decisions did not do them much good.

One only has to go back to a tape of the semi-final win that the Lions registered over the Highlanders to see how dominant Jantjies can be when conditions suit him. But if a player cannot be at his best during a final, for whatever reason, then the coach needs to realise this and bring on a substitute.

So what was Ackermann doing? Or did he not trust Jaco van der Walt, the substitute fly-half? If van der Walt was incapable of taking on the role of substitute fly-half, why was he on the bench? If he was not deemed suitable, why did Ackermann not bring him on as full-back and switch Andries Coetzee to fly-half?

When Plan A is not working in any game, a coach should push the team to try Plan B. Ackermann failed miserably — but nobody seemed to notice his failure to react.

It’s not surprising, given the quality of reportage these days.