The most telling image in the Wallabies’ disappointing 15-all draw with Argentina in Newcastle was not of something that occurred on the field, but in the Pumas’ coaching box.
During Argentina’s historic 25-15 win against the All Blacks in Parramatta the week before, former Wallabies coach and now Pumas coaching consultant Michael Cheika wore the light blue uniform of the South American side. But on Saturday night Cheika was wearing mufti, a dark collared T-shirt and jeans. Maybe it was a mark of respect from Cheika to the team he coached for just over five years.
Under new coach Dave Rennie, the Wallabies have moved away from Cheika’s signature ball-in-hand style of play, but in many ways they are still playing the way they did under their former coach. They slumped to seventh in the world under Cheika and Rennie so far has been unable to eradicate some of the flaws in their game. The most obvious is inconsistency – under Rennie the Wallabies have recorded a draw, a loss, a loss, a win and a draw.
After the Wallabies’ upset 24-22 win against the All Blacks in Brisbane two weeks ago Rennie demanded consistency against the Pumas, but they still cannot string two good performances together.
One of the other characteristics Rennie has been unable to get rid of is the Wallabies’ high error rate. The Wallabies learnt from the mistake the All Blacks made of trying to go through the middle of the Pumas. Instead, Australia played with width to try to go around the Argentinians, but every time they looked promising in attack, the play would break down because of a forced or unforced error.
The Wallabies’ tactical approach was fundamentally sound, but there is a question mark over whether they had the personnel in the backline to execute the strategy. Having 61% of possession and 62% of the territory and failing to score a try would suggest they did not.
Utility back Reece Hodge is doing a highly commendable job at five-eighth, but probably lacks the complete skill-set to be the Wallabies’ regular No 10. Compounding that problem is the fact that the Wallabies do not have another ball-player in the backline to support Hodge. Inside-centre Hunter Paisami is straight up and down, while outside-centre Jordan Petaia relies too heavily on his strong leg drive in contact and flick passing.
To get the ball to strike weapons Marika Koroibete and Tom Wright on the wings the Wallabies needed fullback Tom Banks to play a ball-distributor role in the wide channels. Banks had a great opportunity to put Koroibete over in the left corner just before half-time, but his pass floated forward under defensive pressure.
This is not a new problem. The inability to execute skills under pressure has adversely affected the Wallabies for several years. Cheika brought in former All Blacks skills coach Mick Byrne to try to rectify it, but he did not survive the coaching shake-up after last year’s World Cup.
For all their dominance of possession and territory, the Wallabies only led 9-6 at half-time. They bombed two tries and should have been in front by 15 points or more, which may have broken the Pumas’ spirit, but they also turned down around three shots at penalty goal in the first-half to go for five metre lineouts. In a tight Test match it is important to take all points on offer to create scoreboard pressure, which was what the Pumas did to the All Blacks. Instead, the Wallabies kept the Pumas in the game. Interestingly, the Wallabies took all their penalty goal opportunities in the second-half.
Another flaw in the Wallabies’ game that has survived the Cheika era is ill-discipline. The penalty count was 11-all, but the Wallabies gave away three crucial penalties in the second-half to enable the Pumas to claw their way back. The Wallabies led 15-6 with 24 minutes to go. In the 62nd minute they collapsed a scrum; in the 65th minute replacement winger Filipo Daugunu held onto the ball in a tackle; and in the 69th minute lock Matt Philip picked up a ball that was knocked forward by replacement halfback Jake Gordon.
Argentine sharp-shooter Nicolás Sánchez punished the Wallabies for these indiscretions and in the space of seven minutes the Pumas went from nine points down to level-pegging. For all the hangovers of the Cheika era, this is Rennie’s team now and he has to take responsibility. The new coach contributed to the Wallabies’ undoing with some questionable substitutions.
One of the features of Cheika’s coaching was the injection of “finishers” into the game, but all of the Wallabies’ substitutions on Saturday were counter-productive, especially Daugunu for Tom Wright.
Rennie was critical of the Wallabies for getting “bored” with their kicking strategy in the second-half, but they did continue to kick, perhaps too much and not accurately. With two minutes to go the Wallabies twice gave the ball back to the Pumas with high kicks when they should have held onto it. Then in the last minute Petaia grubber kicked into the Pumas’ 22 with two players in support and Australia lost possession.
At least the Wallabies did better against the Pumas than the All Blacks. Before Argentina’s historic win against the Kiwis Cheika told the players: “You’ve got everything you need. What are you waiting for?” Maybe the same question should be asked of the Wallabies.