Throughout 2016 and 2017, the All Blacks set out on a demolition path, piling up record winning margins over Australia under Michael Cheika and South Africa under Allister Coetzee in The Rugby Championship.
Were the All Blacks that good, or were the Wallabies and Springboks just that bad? Hansen’s side was no doubt an elite side, but just how big a factor in the lopsided results was the ineptness of the opposition?
That answer was slowly revealed over the second half of the World Cup cycle.
Once Coetzee was removed, the Springboks’ recovery was swift under Erasmus, calling in overseas-based players and building the best defence in the world on the way to a World Cup victory in Japan.
In the first year under Erasmus, the Springboks were competitive in both games against the All Blacks and ended a 10-year winless drought in New Zealand. The next year they secured another commendable result on New Zealand soil, a 16-all draw.
As much as wider off-field issues plague Rugby Australia, based on the on-field performances of the Wallabies, there is no doubt much of the pain experienced over the last few years was self-inflicted by the way they played.
Under new coach Dave Rennie, the Wallabies can quickly become competitive again in the Southern Hemisphere realm where the two superpowers of the game lie.
Rennie doesn’t need complexity to do this – a simplified game plan will immediately make the Wallabies more competitive. Starting with learning ‘how not to lose’ will put the Wallabies in a much better place.
Employing no-frills exit strategies will eliminate many of the costly and critical errors the Wallabies coughed up under Cheika.
The Wallabies simply didn’t understand or adhere to sound situational rugby principles required at the test match level.
The first thing a test side needs to do is figure out how they are going to get out of the highest-pressure zone – their own 22, as swiftly as possible. Then, this strategy needs to be repeated with a 99.9% success rate.
Cheika’s exit plans were fraught with risk and poorly designed. They used multiple phases inside their own 22, increasing the risk of handling errors through poor carries.
They often worked to the middle of the field, reducing the distance that can be made downfield with a wide angle to touch, and left kickers completely unprotected and at risk of being charged.
All the ‘worst case’ scenarios you try to avoid ended up occurring at least once.
From Kurtley Beale getting intercepted on his own goal line in Cape Town in 2018 within the opening minute, to Dane Haylett-Petty getting charged at Twickenham in 2018 handing England a try from the ensuing five metre scrum, there were countless failures to exit that conceded points throughout Cheika’s reign.
Often these times were early in the match, putting the side behind or deeper in a hole from which they would have to play catch-up from.
The All Blacks cashed in on turnover after turnover against the Wallabies to power much of the try-scoring through transition scoring.
Although this has always been a strength of All Blacks rugby, recognising that and respecting that is crucial to avoid feeding the machine.
NZ were averaging a record 5.18 tries a game over the last World Cup cycle against Australia (2016-19), up from the 2.92 achieved during the previous cycle (2012-15).
That’s anywhere between 10 and 14 points per game as extra sauce for New Zealand.
Rassie Erasmus knew he had to turn this tap off. He tightened up the Springboks game plan quick smart to avoid creating tricky transition situations for his side to try and defend.
The All Blacks did score tries in this fashion throughout 2019 against his side, but it wasn’t due to basic, unforced errors from the Springboks.
The Wallabies continuously tried to roll out elaborate attacking plays, which they did not have the cattle to pull off, resulting in dropped balls and easy points.
Trailing by 12-6 with half an hour left in the first 2018 Bledisloe test in Sydney, the Wallabies ran a wide play from their own 40-metre line, dropped the ball, and saw Beauden Barrett hack the ball ahead and score to stretch the lead to 19-6.
In 2016, the Sydney test, already on tenterhooks, is lost in the space of 10 minutes when Jerome Kaino charges down an attempted crossfield kick by Foley from a set-piece and scores. Waisake Naholo scores shortly after from a fast break when a Pocock turnover isn’t secured.
In 2017 you’ll find a sloppy pass from a lineout play from Michael Hooper bounce into the arms of Ryan Crotty who frees Rieko Ioane via an offload, blowing out the score from 12-6 to 19-6.
All in all, the Wallabies’ first-phase attack scored more points for the opposition than for themselves under attack coach Stephen Larkham from 2016-18.
The overall attacking shape and play improved in the condensed season under Shaun Berne last year, whilst bringing in Scott Wisemantel from the England camp holds promise with Rennie himself well adept with the latest innovations.
Rennie’s Chiefs and Glasgow Warriors sides were known for running it out of their 22. When the Wallabies get Rennie’s style of play clicking it will be fascinating to watch. But they must walk before they run and build the necessary chemistry and skill to execute.
If they can’t, they will quickly find out why the All Blacks’ decimated the Wallabies under Cheika.
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