AUSTRALIA has one reason to be grateful after last night’s humiliation at the hands of the All Blacks in the world cup rugby union tournament – this was not the final.
According to the draw, Australia was expected to come through the pool stages on top of its pool, play Wales/Samoa/Fiji in the quarter-finals, England or France in the semi-finals, and meet New Zealand in the final.
That would have been a real blockbuster for the organisers given the fact that the tournament is being hosted in New Zealand.
But as we know, things did not run according to this script. Australia was beaten by Ireland and finished second in its pool; this meant a quarter-final against South Africa and a semi-final against New Zealand. It lost the semi-final 6-20 last night. Had this been the final, there would have been calls from Australian sportswriters for somebody’s head; as things stand, there is not much criticism because the same sportswriters had made it look as though Australia had a genuine chance against New Zealand.
There’s one aspect of the two teams which strikes me – Australia plays mostly as individuals while New Zealand plays as a team. This is graphically illustrated by looking at two players – Quade Cooper and Aaron Cruden. 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. Did anyone in the team advise Cooper against building up this image? Clearly not. The coach or senior players could well have done so. But they left Cooper to his own devices.
Look at the case of Cruden. He has been suddenly thrust onto the international stage; he would have been in Fiji on a holiday had not Daniel Carter been injured. Then Carter’s back-up, Colin Slade, got injured. And Cruden was suddenly the No 1 fly-half in the country.
It helped no end that there are four others from Cruden’s Super 15 team playing for the All Blacks and all in the backline too. Piri Weepu, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Cory Jane all play for the Wellington Hurricanes where Cruden does the job of fly-half. And they all helped him no end – Weepu took over the duties of kicking which a fly-half normally shoulders, Jane took over the job (along with fullback Israel Dagg) of collecting the aerial balls, and Nonu and Smith did a marvellous job in covering for any lapses in Cruden’s defence. Cruden was targeted by the Australians but it all came to naught. Freed up of all these tasks, Cruden played an excellent game and even kicked a drop-goal, something with New Zealand rarely does. He has grown into a man in one and a half games and credit goes to both him and his teammates.
That comparison shows why New Zealand won and why Australia lost. Cooper kicked the game off and sent the ball out on the full. From that moment, it was clear that he was going to stuff up things repeatedly and that he could not handle the pressure of around 50,000 of the 60,000 crowd being against him. His captain should have spoken to him and tried to soothe him and unruffle his feathers. But James Horwill did nothing of the kind.
Australian coach Robbie Deans was, unfortunately, too proud to call Cooper off and put Berrick Barnes on for the second half. That’s a pity because with a sensible fly-half on the ground, Australia would have benefitted. But it was not to be. There is some background to the promotion of Cooper as the fly-half but Deans apparently has not learned from that experience.
Australia also thought that David Pocock would function as he did in the quarter-final against the Springboks when he got away with a lot due to lax refereeing. But the man who officiated at the semi-final, Craig Joubert, is a top-notch referee and Pocock was pinged repeatedly.
The final is on October 23 and New Zealand faces France, the latter being a team that can play to please the purists one day and lose to a rank outsider the next. If the French team that turned up to play England arrives for the final, then New Zealand may well lose. But if the French team that played Wales in the quarter-final plays in the final, then it will be a cakewalk for the home team.