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Thread: Knocking on heaven's game door

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    Champion Contributor Jehna's Avatar
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    Question Knocking on heaven's game door

    Obviously there is a lot of theories going around right now as to why Australia lost but I thought this one was a particularly interesting take on the whole thing....

    __________________________________
    Knocking on heaven's game door

    By Wayne Smith
    October 09, 2007

    HERE's a thought: what if England deliberately knocked on early in Saturday's World Cup quarter-final against Australia to exhaust the Wallabies in a scrummaging battle?

    I have no idea whether it did or didn't and it would be pointless to ask because, either way, the answer would be an earnest, hand-over-heart denial. But if they didn't resort to such devious tactics, the question is: why not?

    The beauty of rugby is that there is no one way to win. There are endless ways in which the game can be played and tactics that might work against one team might fail against another. Or the same tactics against the same team might produce entirely different results depending on the flow of the game.

    The chemistry varies from team to team. That's why the Wallabies are New Zealand's bogey team, why the Springboks have trouble with France and why France has more than its share of anxious moments against Wales. And it's why Australia has lost to England the last three times they have met at the World Cup.

    England chose a team to smash the Wallabies. The Wallabies chose their strongest possible pack to absorb those hammer blows and then open the game up hopefully to run the massive English forwards off their feet. Ultimately it all came down to which team was able to impose its game plan on the other.

    Except there was a catch. England's game plan didn't involve taking any risks, Australia's did. There are always dangers in playing expansively that are not present when playing tight. And another thing - it was far easier for England to draw Australia into its game plan than vice versa.

    Before the match Wallabies defence coach John Muggleton assured the players England would not score a try if everyone did their job. And he was right, although there were some anxious moments. Then Muggleton told them they had to stay at least four points clear of England, particularly at the business end of the match. That sounds like Rugby 101 but, in fact, it's a little more complicated.

    A four-point lead doesn't just take the match out of Jonny Wilkinson's hands, or rather his left foot. If Australia were four points ahead for an extended period then England would have to think beyond penalty goals and drop goals. It would, gasp, be forced to play attacking rugby. And that would play into the Wallabies' hands.

    Trouble was, Australia could never quite achieve its goal. Lote Tuqiri's try did send the Wallabies into the break leading 10-6 but a Wilkinson penalty goal just after the break put the brakes on the Wallabies' hopes of getting expansive.

    It's interesting that a team that went on to the field under the strictest of instructions not to give away penalties should concede 10 penalties in succession. That suggests one of two things: either the Wallabies are the dumbest footballers going around or that referee Alain Rolland might have been watching one side closer than the other.

    Meanwhile, the game was slipping into a pattern that South Africa coach Jake White described as "very strange".

    "There were actually more scrums in the first 20 minutes than in any other game in this competition," White observed. "It turned into a 12-10 result and it turned into a real scrummaging frenzy in the first 20-25 minutes. And that brought England more and more into the game."

    Deliberately or not, England was luring Australia further and further into its minefield. Perhaps it was curious that the early scrums were a disaster. The two packs set no fewer than eight times before George Gregan finally managed to put the ball in - and the collapsing penalties went not against the Wallabies but, of all people, England strongman Andy Sheridan.

    It makes no sense because the one thing the Wallabies props are in awe of is Sheridan's ability to muscle his way out of any trouble he might get into at scrum time. But every time the scrums set, the Wallabies forwards were being drained of more and more energy.

    Which leads to the other area where England totally dominated, the breakdown. The Wallabies had gone into the game rock solid in their confidence in George Smith and, later, Phil Waugh to beat England to the tackle. As it eventuated, it didn't matter if they did because the huge heavy lifters in white would simply rumble in and win the ball back again by steamrolling over the top of the Australian flankers.

    "One translates to the other," former Australia coach Eddie Jones noted on Monday. "What happens at the scrum affects what happens at the breakdown."

    With the endless number of scrums fatiguing the Wallabies forwards, the Australian backs were forced to do more of the hard yakka and that meant they weren't in the line when there was usable ball to run with.

    It was far easier and less risky for England to draw the Wallabies into a pitched battle than for the Australians to entice them to open up. Only the pressure of the scoreboard could do that.

    The heavy flow of penalties, coming in part from the relentless pressure and sheer abrasive power being brought to bear on them at every collision, meant the scoreboard always had an English look about it. Why the Wallabies failed to react to the fact that England was flooding the breakdowns and physically overwhelming them there will be a question that reverberates around ARU headquarters for some time to come.

    "We were expecting that," fullback Chris Latham said of England coach Brian Ashton's tactics. "You can plan for it but if they're red hot you can't do much about it.

    "You've got to keep trying and believe in your systems. It's funny, in the bus on the way to the station to catch our train up to Paris we drove past Stade Velodrome and you could see from the look on every player's face that we were all thinking the same thing. Can we have the past 24 hours back, please."

    Unfortunately it doesn't work like that.

    The Wallabies should have adjusted. If they were being smashed at the breakdowns, they had to commit more players. That might not have suited their expansive game but, as Jones observed, it was pretty clear after 20 minutes this was never a game that was going to open up.

    "They should have played a shorter phase game, two or three phases and then banged the ball into the corners," Jones said. "They've got one of the best lineouts in the world in Dan Vickerman and Nathan Sharpe."
    The Wallabies' lineout conceded virtually no usable ball to England.

    Everything the men in white won in the sideline set piece was contested hard and often disrupted. But no one noticed because the Wallabies never exploited their advantage there while England kept hammering away at both the scrum and the breakdown.

    Of course, the missing piece in the Australian jigsaw was veteran five-eighth Steve Larkham who, in many respects is the most critical of all because, without exaggeration, he's the one who can make the Wallabies game happen because he's the player it has been largely built around, a game that maximises his strengths and minimises those areas in which he is weak.

    But with him on the sideline and a three-Test rookie Berrick Barnes doing as good a job as could have been expected of him under the circumstances, the Wallabies largely meandered on, losing the collisions, losing the scrums and the breakdowns.

    The only thing they didn't lose was their determination. They stuck to the task right to the death and what is largely forgotten is that, as badly as they were being outmuscled, they still had a kick to win the match. Had Stirling Mortlock nailed it, or kicked anything better than two out of five, Australia would have won and this match would have entered into happy Australian folklore like the 1991 Great Escape against Ireland and the 1999 Miracle Larkham Field Goal win over South Africa.

    It didn't. And while England heads to Paris, the Wallabies head home. No second chances.

    The Australian

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    Immortal GIGS20's Avatar
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    You speak a lot of sense Wayne Smith.

    I'm not sure that NZ forwards would have been smashed around like that, and they play an expansive game, so there is def a solution.

    Good article but!

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    C'mon the

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    Champion Contributor jazza93's Avatar
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    its a good thought and he is right but australia knew that was going to happen and they couldnt stop it.

    its now why australia lost its why england won. they had great defence the whole game and they were patient. with englands forwards dominating it is impossible to not give away many penalties. they got about 5/6 penalties inside wallabies half and they took the points. australia knew they needed about 20 points to win but they couldnt do it.

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    Senior Player Contributor hopep's Avatar
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    Excellent analysis of a very hard fought game.
    I love the line about Alain Rolland ..."watching one side closer than the other". Its debatable, but doubtful.
    A few less infringements, a few less whistle blows, and who knows - C'est la vie.
    time to plan for NZ'11

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