Mark Ella is fed up of Australian rugby, and he doesn’t bother to watch the Wallabies any more. At Loftus Versveld last Saturday, we found out exactly why, after Eddie Jones’ much-heralded return to the green-and-gold fell as flat as a first-time soufflé.
“Mark [Ella] was saying he doesn’t want to come and watch us play until we play well. We need Mark to be at the ground.
“If you just look back at when the Ellas came through. In 1977-78, they played Australian Schoolboys. They went and won everything in the UK and it set off a movement in Australian rugby.
“They changed it back to an aggressive, running style of rugby and they changed the fortunes of Australian rugby that culminated in the Grand Slam in 1984…
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“Australia ended up winning the World Cup in 1991 and then 1999. We want to start that period again. We’re not short of talented players here but talent doesn’t win World Cups.
“What wins World Cups and wins the hearts of people is teams playing with that same spirit the Ellas had – being aggressive, playing with a certain panache.
“That doesn’t mean you run with the ball all the time because kicking can be as artistic as running the ball.”
Eddie embroidered on the last paragraph by claiming that “Possession rugby is dead.” When he went further, adding that “75 per cent of tries are being scored within three phases – 75 per cent”, the message was clear; Eddie’s Australia would play the same kind of three-and-out rugby as England, in the last gasps of his time at Twickenham.
Eddie Jones was true to his word in South Africa. Australia only played over four phases on two occasions, and their kicking game invited the Springboks to greedily grab the lion’s share of possession and territory – 63 per cent of the former and 60 per cent of the latter.
South Africa built 100 rucks to only 39 by the Wallabies and forced the men in green and gold to make 168 tackle attempts in the game. They enjoyed 19 entries to the opposition 22 compared to a mere three by Australia. By the end, it looked as though the change to a deeper orange-gold jersey was not so much a fashion statement, as the result of bodies thoroughly saturated by sweat from repeated tackle sets.
Eddie’s Wallabies kicked, and then they kicked some more. No fewer than 12 of a total of 32 kicks were launched from positions well outside the exit zone – from the Australian 40-metre line upwards. Five of the kicks occurred inside the Springbok half of the field, and only two of the dozen enjoyed a positive outcome for the kicking side.
It was a sad summary of just how far Australia has fallen behind the trendsetters in the global game. When RG Snyman came off the bench in the 53rd minute to join his Munster club-mate Jean Kleyn in the South African second row, it was a symbolic moment, because South African progress since their World Cup triumph in 2019 has been triggered largely by the movement of their ex-Super Rugby franchises to the United Rugby Championship.
When playing URC footy, you avoid kicking the ball away to the likes of Leinster or Munster. If you do kick it, they will keep it – and it may be a long time before you see the pill again. The rugby renaissance in the Republic has taken a huge step forward with the new-found comfort of South African teams on the ball.
The Wallabies game-plan dragged the character of play away from the strengths of Australia’s key players like a vicious rip-tide: Rob Valetini carried five times in the game; Tom Wright, Marika Koroibete and Suli Vunivalu carried 15 times between the three of them. That is not nearly enough for a back three.
Quade Cooper only enjoyed six total touches at first receiver, and three of those were exit kicks from deep in his own end. His last act was to kick the ball out on the full from a goal-line drop-out in the 68th minute, and that as much as anything was a suitable epitaph on the Aussie head-stone.
The Wallabies kept the ball for more than three phases on attack for only the second time in the game shortly afterwards, promptly knocking the ball on in their evident excitement at breaking Eddie’s three-phase rule. Possession rugby is an unfamiliar friend indeed to Aussie teams in the modern era.
The early evidence that Quade had the necessary sharpness to create when given the opportunity only rubbed salt in the wounds:
This was the second occasion in the first eight minutes that Cooper had unlocked the Springbok defence, taking out the key defender (Springboks No 13 Lukhanyo Am) with an accurate cut-out pass beyond him. That enabled Len Ikitau to turn the corner and Marika Koroibete to finish out on the left.
Far more often, the Wallabies automatically kicked the ball away when they could have kept it with profit:
Cooper makes a bust straight up the middle after a lineout turnover, but Ikitau doesn’t appear to consider using the three men outside him to make further progress with ball in hand. He kicks the ball straight away and he kicks it straight out, bringing play back to another Springboks lineout just outside the Wallabies 22.
An initial runback on a first-half kick return by Valetini prompted another automatic three-and-out sequence:
After another drive by Michael Hooper, there is space for Tom Wright to release Suliasi Vunivalu on the right, with the last defender (Kurt-Lee Arendse) already static well inside the left 15-metre line. Why not give Vunicalu a chance to show whether he can really be ‘the best wing in the world’, as his coach claims? Wright kicks instead, the ball is blocked and South Africa turn the ball over.
The contrast with the Springboks’ attitude to the idea of moving ball by hand, from positions well within their own half could not have been more stark. South Africa did not feel the same reservations at all:
Twice on two consecutive phases, the men in myrtle green are quite happy to attack the last defender in the line and probe for weaknesses without resorting to the boot. The last pass released right wing Canan Moodie on a long run into the Australia 22, and set up South Africa’s first try of the game on the opposite side of the field:
Right from the kick-off following the conversion, the Boks were at it again:
Manie Libbok spots the Wallabies defence short of numbers on the right after a midfield kick-off receipt has turned into a maul, and his run takes the play all the way back to the Wallabies 22. Over the entire sequence, South Africa kept the ball from the 14th to the 18th minute, almost four minutes in total. Isn’t that what Australia used to be so good at? Keeping the ball patiently, and probing for weaknesses with ball in hand?
The Boks were happy to move the ball across the entire width of the field – even on exits, even from positions in the shadow of their own posts – in order to find the right kicking opportunities:
No short relieving touches here. The South African backs shift the ball confidently from left to right and are prepared to explore the running options first, before No 12 André Esterhuizen stabs the ball through to find the whitewash on the halfway line. That is the kind of play that keeps the defence off-balance and keeps them guessing, and it is a staple of the best teams in the United Rugby Championship.
It was also plain that the South African players off the bench were just as well-equipped to identify the same opportunities late on in the game:
There is no real space for Moodie, but South Africa are quite prepared to give him a crack at Tate McDermott from a scrum on their own 40-metre line, one-on-one near the right touch. If Vunivalu is going to be picked, why not at least give him a chance to make a similar impact?
The Wallabies showed what might have been on the last sequence of the game, with nothing left to play for:
It is the third phase and another kick-to-order, but at least it is an accurate grubber with some intent behind it by Australian debutant Carter Gordon. That moment was like an oasis in the desert. As ex-Wallabies skipper James Horwill put it afterwards:
“The failure to not really fire a shot – [except for] that last little bit – was the most disappointing part. You look at the possession stats, and time in [the] opposition 22, [it] was 47 seconds in the whole game. That just tells the story. We were just absorbing. They were coming in waves after wave and it showed in the end.”
On paper, Eddie Jones had picked a strong Australian side for the first match of his homecoming versus the Springboks. South Africa left out eight or nine first choices, and the situation looked primed for an upset by the green-and-gold. The prospect of a first win in eight attempts at the northern stronghold of Loftus Versveld in Pretoria loomed large.
In the event, the outcome could have been just as bad as the record 61-22 loss suffered by Greg Smith’s side at the same venue in 1997. Australia scored first and last, but South Africa racked up 43 unanswered points in the meaty middle of the match.
The most worrying aspect for supporters of Australia was not even the players themselves; it was the game plan. The tactical structure only took the Wallabies past four phases of attack twice, and it marginalised the big runners who love nothing more than the feel of the ball in their hands.
Rob Valetini, Marika Koroibete, Tom Wright and Suliasi Vunivalu had a total of 20 carries between them. Quade Cooper had six touches at first receiver, and his final act was to kick the ball straight into touch from a goal-line drop-out, seemingly as much in frustration as anything else. Three-and-out football, religiously applied, does not allow such talents to thrive.
It was the prodigal son’s first game back on his return home, so there remains every hope that Eddie Jones will rectify matters in due course. But on first viewing, Australia resembles England circa 2021-2022 far too closely for comfort, and that ended in an unhappy shotgun divorce. Until Jones’ vision of the game changes, he will only see Mark Ella’s back, not his beaming smile. Until then, the great man will keep on walking.