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Did the Wallabies play champagne or cask-wine rugby?

For those that didn’t notice, the Wallabies dominance of England on Saturday between the 60th and 78th minute of the first Test match was impressive. It could be otherwise known as ‘champagne-rugby’.

This eighteen-minute period of domination was enough to see them put three converted tries on the score-board and secure a win.

Sadly, the rest of the game was not as impressive from the Wallabies. My apologies for bursting the proverbial bubble or being a perceived downer. What you may call pessimism, I call being discerning.

Apart from the aforementioned period, for the other 62 minutes the Wallabies were clearly second best, most of the time. This is otherwise known as ‘wine-cask-rugby’. It will do but ideally the good stuff is much, much more preferable.

The truth is, had Owen Farrell not missed a couple of kicks, that eighteen minutes of rugby bliss would not have been enough.

The question is, which is the norm. The ‘champagne-rugby’ or the ‘wine-cask-rugby’? I am not sure.

All I know is we should not rest on our laurels with this two point victory and we should think hard as to what we should take out of that match.

Here are my biggest take-aways.

1. Our tackle techniques were poles apart

Compared to the English we simply didn’t tackle like rugby players should, in the first half.

To be clear I am not talking about the tackle assist. I am talking about our first up tackler. The initial hit, if you will.

Re-watch the game and you will notice that we were essentially hanging on, both literally and figuratively, particularly for the first forty-minutes. Part of the reason for this was the considerable difference in our first-up tackle technique when compared to the English.

For many years I have been lamenting the way in which Australian first-up tacklers do-so at club, Super and Test level, when compared to other nations. It seems we are too inclined to tackle like they do in the 13-a-side game by initially wrapping up the ball as opposed to tackling around the thigh area.

In my experience it is evident through grass-roots that we generally allow the replication of the first-up ball-and-all tackle to take place without question. At many levels it is not such a big deal. Frankly at grass roots level in this country if anyone makes a tackle that is a good thing from what I’ve seen.

My experiences coaching at one point for ten consecutive winters in England is that this is not the case there. The reason is simple. They, unlike us, don’t have to contend with a ‘league’ way of thinking.

The issue is our players develop bad habits. Theirs don’t.

The initial hit is important. The difference is, in the XV-a-side game, any momentum gained post contact is much more crucially important to the breakdown contest.

If you tackle high you may wrap the ball up but you often, not always to be fair, concede momentum. Obviously, when you tackle around the mi-rift area, the ball carrier is often free to drive their legs and continue forward before usually being wrestled to the ground.

In league that is okay because it is far more dangerous if they get a ball away. This is akin to giving them an extra tackle in possession.

Plus you do not need to consider how you might compete for the ball at a breakdown. There are no proverbial ‘gates’ to come back through. You know that you can concede territory because after their inevitable 5-hit-ups they will kick the ball to you or even better still they just hand it to you.

I’m yet to see Michael Hooper get tackled after the sixth phase of possession, stand up, and simply hand the ball to Ardie Savea, stating, “your turn”.

In rugby union, of course, every inch counts because there are no certainties that you will ever get the ball back, at all. So to compete you need to deny the opposition momentum so that you can be advantaged at the breakdown and so that their arriving players are disadvantaged.

There is another reason and it is to do with denying them the ability to clean-out tackle-assists which I will broach in my second takeaway.

In the first forty minutes of this game we lost the breakdown usually before it had even taken place. That was because we were losing the initial tackle contact.

Why couldn’t the Wallaby coaching staff not see that our tackling technique was seeing us slowly but surely losing this game? Maybe not on the score-board exactly but in the fact that we could not build any momentum.

It seems they could.

In the second half there was a clear different approach to our tackle technique. My guess is part of the coaching at half-time was to agree to stop tackling so high.

It was noticeable that after half-time our first-up tackling was adjusted. Immediately, our first-up-tackles were generally around the thighs of the English ball-carriers. No longer were the big English ball-carriers dominating almost every contact and thus their attacking breakdown.

We were able to eventually wrestle back the momentum of the match because ironically we were no longer actually wrestling them.

Why we didn’t start the game with this tackling technique is a concern. It is either a directive from coaching or not. Either way that is a systemic concern.

Henry Arundell of England runs to score a scores a try during game one of the international test match series between the Australian Wallabies and England at Optus Stadium on July 02, 2022 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Will Russell - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

(Photo by Will Russell – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

2. Our precision at attacking clean-outs

Another of the major concerns I have had with the Australian style of play, I have many, is the almost arrogant lack of concern with precision clean-outs, at all levels.

The 18 minute period of bliss mentioned was a perfect example of how far we have indeed come under Dave Rennie, with our precision clean-outs.

When I say precision I also mean ‘timely’. We have finally taken onboard something all the other nations have been doing for some time.

We are more often cleaning out tacklers and tackle-assists before they have completed the tackle. Sometimes before they’ve even started.

It is simple. If they even look like they could be a tackler or tackle-assist you take them out. The key is to make it look like this is all part of the contest.

To do that you can not allow much isolation between the ball carrier and the support players. This is not always possible of course. Work ethic is key. I saw that for brief periods in this game. That is good.

Is this style of clean-out ideology perfectly legal?

The answer is: it is often border-line, but to be blunt, it is mostly totally illegal. It is just that everyone is doing it.

It is important to understand that if done correctly this all technically falls outside Law 14: Tackle. This law only speaks of the tackle taking place between ball-carrier and tacklers, without these attacking support players involved.

As the clean-outs are now taking place before the ball carrier is brought to ground it also falls outside Law 15: Ruck, because a ruck can not occur until the ball is on the ground.

And it does not fall under Law 16: Maul, because a maul is not formed if indeed a support player does not bind onto their own ball-carrier in the process, which the players are coached not to do.

It is a loop-hole. If you choose to ignore Law 9: Obstruction; item 3, that is.

Which is essentially what referees are doing. In saying all this there doesn’t seem to be the will by World Rugby to stop it.

So clean-out the tackler and tackle-assist before the tackle has been completed, at times before the tackle has really even begun, until otherwise told. Message finally received loud and clear by the Wallabies.

I can say this tactic has been around for quite awhile. I may or may not have coached this to players despite its legal ambiguity myself. I can say I was shocked when I heard a high profile coach in Australia talk about this at a coaches convention just a few years ago, like it was cutting edge. Better late than never.

The point is we are improving our fundamentals and playing much more like instinctive rugby-union players that eat, breathe and sleep rugby, should. Not ones that arrive half a second too slow to a facet of play.

In a rugby game, too late is too late. No matter what the fraction of the second is.

Let’s keep that as our mantra.

3. Injuries were blessings in disguise

In no way do I wish for anyone to get injured but it was coincidentally hugely beneficial for Australian rugby that Quade Cooper was ruled out. He is simply past his used-by-date and even if he isn’t, he is not far off it anyway.

It is far better for our Wallabies that we move on. The last thing we want to discover is that he is indeed a liability during an important World-Cup fixture.

Noah Lolesio, Tane Edmed and perhaps Carter Gordon or Will Harrison all have attributes that we can now look to carry the team forward, if need be.

Of course the experienced James O’Connor still has a case to be the fly-half as well.

The awful arm-break of Tom Banks was difficult to watch. It was not difficult to watch Andrew Kellaway play that role instead though. It was a pleasure in fact. He was my man of the match.

I wasn’t surprised to see Tom Banks selected at fullback but I believe his is a selection on borrowed time. I was positive that by the series-end he would be dropped. If not he would no doubt have proved his detractors wrong. Either way that would be a good thing. I truly wish that was indeed how it panned out because that was nasty break and no-one wants to see that.

Noah Lolesio

Noah Lolesio of the Wallabies shapes to pass. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

It was also a pleasure watching Jordan Petaia finally show Dave Rennie his prowess in a Wallaby jersey. Had it not been for the injury we may not have seen much of him at all.

Hopefully he is never left out of a Wallaby starting XV, if he is fully fit, again. He shouldn’t be.

Sadly both Kellaway and Petaia let themselves down by tackling too high when they let the young English development player, Henry Arundell, make fools of them in the 80th minute. Let us just hope that Rennie was momentarily distracted or is willing to forgive them for that and select them again for next week.

The other injury concern was to the man with all the A’s. Allan Alaalatoa.

He had started the game by giving a very disappointing penalty away by lying on a tackled player, for no conceivable reason. Something I would not tolerate from an average club player, let alone our starting Wallaby tight-head.

Sadly he finished his night doing the same. To be fair that indiscretion was conceivable because he was suffering from a head-knock.

Then again he only had himself to blame. Had he not tackled the player around the hip area in the first place, and had hit around the thigh area as he should, he would not have been in that situation. Our tackle technique really is an issue.

He had scrummaged pleasingly well up to that point though so I gasped when he was replaced with the novice tight-head in James Slipper. Go back to the game against England last November when Slipper played at tight-head and he really looked inept on the right side of the scrum.

Considering how well Tom Robertson went at scrum time against the very accomplished Samoan front-row, I was not satisfied with Slipper’s selection as the back-up tight-head at all.

Before anyone writes a comment that the Samoan props were amateurs, they have all played copious amounts of super rugby before. Frankly Tom Robertson must have played his way back into Wallaby squad consideration off the back of his scrummaging and breakdown prowess.

In saying all that, Slipper played the house down on Saturday, as did Scott Sio. It could be argued that this was partly because there were very few scrums during the game. Mainly they were just both very impressive in everything they did.

Scott Sio in particular dominated the extremely powerful English tight-head Will Stuart in the last scrum of the match. I was so impressed by this that I now believe he should replace the talented Angus Bell as starting loose-head, at least for the time-being.

Angus Bell got absolutely towelled up in November against the English but on Saturday he did well and held his own. He is on the cusp of being world-class and not just in general play. As a fan I am absolutely delighted with him.

I just think Scottt Sio is finally looking like the test loose-head I’d always hoped he would be. I was pleasantly surprised by that.

And I think Bell, and Taniela Tupou when fit, would best suit the team for impact late in the game. My mind has not changed on that.

I am happy to have been proven wrong that our scrum would not stand up to the English.

I was still reeling from the fact on last year’s end of year tour we were schooled at scrum time by the English, until Tom Robertson came on that is. Sigh, no-one but a few bothered to notice.

I am hopeful that we have made some great steps forward in the scrum which is something to be very excited about. Fingers crossed it not yet another false dawn

4. The red card was good

First and foremost we should all acknowledge that Darcy Swain let the fans, his team-mates, himself, and his loved-ones down. He should be suspended for a number of weeks on top of his red-card.

We should also acknowledge that we should all forgive him. Not as an excuse for his actions but because, c’mon, we’ve all messed up at least once in our lives.

The red-card was good because it is a learning-curve for us all. The different reactions to that fracas is a good representation of the difference between the two rugby nations. That red-card was also a great reminder to where we stand as a rugby nation on the world front.

Darcy Swain of the Wallabies receives a red card during game one of the international test match series between the Australian Wallabies and England at Optus Stadium on July 02, 2022 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Darcy Swain of the Wallabies receives a red card. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Our fairy-floss super rugby competition doesn’t reflect Word Rugby priorities. Our stance that a 20-min red card should replace the current system is a good indicator of how much we just don’t understand where we stand in the game.

The home-nations know that we do not play with much discipline at all. They know that our understanding of discipline is far, far from what theirs is.

They know it is only for our own benefit to go to a 20min red card system. Therefore they will only ever vote against it. The argument that this is hurting the game will fall on their deaf ears. As long as they are packing their stadiums with oodles of their fans, as they are doing, they don’t need to concede anything to us. We just need to wake up to that fact.

Many Aussie rugby fans have actually posted on social media that Darcy Swain was harshly dealt with.

He head-butted another man when he knew it was a red card offense. When he was given the red card he looked bemused and dumbfounded. That was what I found so disappointing.

The first thing he should have done was be apologetic. I hope for his sake that is what he did when he cooled down.

Our reaction to niggle as a country in general, to condone carrying on like a pork chop, before eventually going too far because that is what is expected by Aussie bravado, is disappointing. Frankly we all watch too much rugby-league. Too much State-of-Origin.

Indeed, Darcy Swain reacted like he was in a State-of-Origin match where that kind of behaviour belongs.

World Rugby doesn’t care about our State-of-Origin culture nor our take on perceived manliness. We need to get that through our neanderthal-like skulls, if indeed we think Darcy Swain should not have been given his marching orders and a lengthy suspension.

Of course we all know Jonny Hill started it all but it was a completely different reaction once Swain gave him that Glaswegian-kiss. It was to look to the assistant referee, smile and acknowledge a job well done.

A job well done in fact because Jonny Hill got what he wanted. He got his rival to be sent from the field.

Should his hair pulling, face pushing nonsense go unchecked? Of course not. But let the officials deal with that. If they don’t accept it and move on. It is not like he kneed Rob Leota in the head on the stroke of half-time as Billy Vunipola is guilty of. More on that later.

Swain let his own hubris cloud his judgement and put his own need to react to an annoyance above the needs of his team-mates and fans, who needed him to play a full 80-minutes?

Hopefully for Darcy Swain it is a lesson learned.

I fear he has put a target on his unnecessarily lengthy hair and will now be the target of every niggling opposition player.

His coaches may always suspect that he will put his own ego above the best interest of his team. That is a problem for young Swain because he is not an automatic pick for the coach to render his actions ‘a small price to pay’ for his prowess.

It is a shame for him but he may be lucky to ever play test rugby again. Matt Philip and Ned Hanigan could see to that. More so if the quality Ryan Smith continues on his trajectory. Doubly more so if one or both of the Arnold brothers returns to the fold.

The contentious selections were good.

From the point Marika Koroibete cannoned after a Noah Lolesio kick off in the 60th minute, to the point that Pete Samu used his considerable talent to complete an amazing period of play for the Wallabies, including some good distribution by Samu Kerevi, our Wallaby team played ‘champagne-rugby’.

I have pointed out that for a lot of the rest of the match we were not so impressive. That doesn’t take-away from the fact that there were many other moments that also mattered and there were many other players that stood up for the Wallabies.

Most notably our overseas players, debutantes, as well as a few other selections all proved to generally be correct.

Koroibete was back to his best which was great to see. His performance was a reminder of his prowess that others do not have. For a winger his pick-and-go is the best in the business, as is his defense. His tenacity in chasing and ball-carrying is also second to none.

He is not faultless, he lacks a genuine kicking game and he can be suspect to the high-ball at times. I still believe bringing him back from overseas is superfluous to requirements because we are not short of wingers. But if he is there he has to be selected.

Marika Koroibete of the Wallabies runs with the ball

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Samu Kerevi was his usual self but with an added string to his bow in his impressive tactical kicking. I’m not sure if anyone noticed but he bombed a definite try in the first half by not distributing to an obvious over-lap, and on another occasion his decision to not pass also probably cost a try-scoring opportunity.

He made up for this in the second-half when he chose wisely when to run and when to pass.

His selection is contentious only because he is not contracted to a super-rugby franchise and this still bothers me. I’d rather he helped grow the game in this country as the marquee player that he is.

The two debutantes also did enough to stave off their detractors, including me.

Dave Porecki was immense. He did tackle systematically too high in the first half, as all of our forwards did, but apart from that he was faultless and showed he does indeed belong at that level. I saw what a lot of people have been talking about in what he offers a side and frankly I was happy to be proven wrong about him.

Cadeyrn Neville not surprisingly justified his selection. I was less worried about him than most of the other selections because, unlike Porecki for example, I have personally seen enough of him over the years to have known he would be a good test rugby player. I’m sure that was the case with most of us.

I know I am also not alone in thinking there are other options that would do just as good a job that have a longer future in the game.

Neville also tackles too high as a first-up tackler evident by the try he let in. This didn’t cost us because they were probably going to score that close to the line anyway. Other than that he was very good.

The other contentious selections were probably only contentious because of competition for places.

As mentioned prior, all the front-row selections in the 23 were justified, particularly for the question marks at scrum-time. I wouldn’t celebrate too much just yet because there were not enough scrums to be sure.

The rest of the forwards, apart from Swain, proved to be very good. We know they are all good individual players but whether this was the right balance was questionable and so well done to the selectors.

Rob Leota deserves a special mention for not reacting to an awful knee to his head while on the ground by Billy Vunipola, who should be cited and suspended immediately for 8 weeks. There I said it and I feel better.

The halves were all good. The highlight being Quade Cooper breaking a toe-nail before the game. Or was it in fact a calf strain?

The cameo of Jake Gordon in the last five minutes in the lead up to the Pete Samu try was brilliantly under-stated scrum-half play. This would be the only justification for a consideration in a possible change for next week, which I don’t expect because Nic White did nothing wrong.

As for the rest of the backline all selections were more than justified except for possibly two.

James O’Connor didn’t see enough of the play to be a yay or a nay and besides he wasn’t really selected to play. It was great to see him smiling like a giddy schoolboy when he got the word that Quade Cooper had faked, I mean sustained, an injury.

The only player that should have their selection reviewed, if any, is Len Ikitau, who failed to make an impact in the game. When Izzy Perese and Hunter Paisami are also available for selection that is the last thing you would want to do.

Frankly depending on injuries or punishments for ill-discipline we should expect the same team to more or less take the field and that is a good sign for the selectors.

I hope you have enjoyed my thoughts and take-aways for the first test. I trust if you disagree with something you will use logical arguments to illustrate your position. I apologise for some of the Quade Cooper cheap shots. Or do I?

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