Rugby

Test rugby is a game of fine margins — and the Wallabies continually come up short

Test rugby is a game of fine margins.

In the 32nd minute of Saturday night’s series-defining loss to England, the Wallabies looked to exit their own half after opening up a 10-3 lead following a Noah Lolesio penalty goal.

First Hunter Paisami caught the restart and took off back at the English defence, the centre tackled about a metre inside Australia’s 22. From that breakdown scrum-half Nic White moved the ball to Harry Wilson, who was tackled centimetres beyond the 22 unbeknown to fullback Reece Hodge.

When Hodge received a pass two wide of the ruck, he promptly booted the ball into touch on the full, only to learn that he was not permitted to do so because the Wilson ruck was beyond Australia’s 22; instead England would be coming back for a lineout about 12m out from the Wallabies’ line.

Hodge’s exasperation was clear and it didn’t take a genius to work out what words were uttered as he retreated back towards his own line knowing the pressure that was about to come.

Fine margins. It’s what Test rugby is all about.

While England butchered a set play from the lineout drive, turning the ball back over to Australia, the tourists No. 8 Billy Vunipola was then able to win a breakdown penalty after the Australian clean-out was a fraction too slow.

England’s ability to get on the ball, of which there were none better than inspirational skipper Courtney Lawes, and Australia’s lacklustre work at the tackle were constant themes of England’s dramatic 21-17 triumph.

The penalty won by Vunipola was soon converted into three points by Owen Farrell, leaving England just three adrift of the Wallabies in the closing stages of the half.

But that would soon become an 11-10 halftime lead when Nic White’s rare moment of self-inflicted amnesia – aka a brain-fade saw him attempt to run the ball out from beneath his own sticks following a ricochet of the right upright – gave England more field position from which to attack.

A few minutes later, with the halftime siren having sounded, England fullback Freddie Steward scored in the opposite corner.

And if anyone is in need of more evidence of that than they need look no further than England’s second try on Saturday night came, as fly-half Marcus Smith scooped up an overthrown lineout to run 50 metres and score in from of the M.A. Noble Stand.

But it was the inaccuracy of Australia’s failed exit late in the first half that is perhaps best reflective of a team that does some very good things – Tom Wright’s try was a thing of beauty – but one that combines such moments with the bumbling of what should be rudimentary skills or plays.

And it’s why, at this stage, they can be considered little more than also-rans for next year’s Rugby World Cup some 14 months out from its kick-off.

“Potentially, but we’re not going to sulk about that and dwell on it,” Rennie said when asked about whether his side had missed the opportunity to land a psychological blow. “Maybe in the next couple of days when I’ve got to go back and review that sort of stuff.

“We’ll look forward, yeah it’s an opportunity lost, we’ve got to be better and the plan is that we will be against Argentina.”

There’s no denying that Australia, having won the first Test in sensational fashion, could have won both the second and third Tests.

England, conversely, will wonder how on earth they managed to concede three tries to a 14-man Wallabies team to lose in Perth.

Sitting up in front of the media deep within the confines of the SCG, having dealt with some overly raucous and narky Wallabies fans, England coach Eddie Jones said he believed his side would earn another series whitewash.

“I’d thought we’d win 3-0,” Jones said.

While that didn’t eventuate, it is a sign of the regard – or lack thereof – in which the Wallabies are held at the elite levels of the game.

Sure, they beat the world champions in back-to-back Tests last year. But the caveat to that is those victories came on Australian soil amid a Rugby Championship being played within the boundaries of sporting restrictions brought about by COVID. They were not facing a Springboks teams at its peak.

The Wallabies then dropped the last three Tests of 2021 on their spring tour, two of which they should have won against Scotland and Wales, meaning Australia have now lost five of their last six.

Those results, combined with the defeats in Brisbane and Sydney, have rightfully raised questions as to whether the Wallabies lack a killer instinct.

“We’ve talked a lot about growth and our game awareness and our ability to put our foot on the throat – we’ve got to be better,” Rennie said in response on Saturday night.

But execution under pressure and a killer instinct would seemingly go hand in hand. If you are competent on the former, then the latter should really look after itself.

So what can the Wallabies take from another loss to England, a record that now extends to 10-1 since Jones first arrived at Twickenham?

Plenty, according to Michael Hooper.

“The first game, obviously the resilience, second game we showed again more resilience, and then we started talking about starting better, we did that tonight,” Hooper said.

“Dave’s talked about just being clinical in those situations, we want to beat a team that can grind out a win. They get down your end, they take points, pick up some scraps there, get more points and that pushes you out to a point where we need to start looking to the line here, trying to get a maul try or something like that, we can’t just go 3, 6, 9 on them.

“So their ability to stack points on us was a credit to them across the series, and just keep applying that pressure with their kick game, so England did really well there. They had injuries, too, [but] they grinded out a series win.

“In terms of our learnings, there’s a heap for us. We’ve blooded some new players, that’s a great thing first and foremost…and then we’re hurting last week, now we’re hurting even more. It’s going to be a long three weeks till we play again.”

That will be in Argentina against Michael Cheika’s Pumas, who secured a 2-1 series triumph over Scotland to mark the beginning of the Aussie’s tenure in style.

That challenge suddenly looks that little bit tougher given the weekend’s results.

And while the fine margins of Test rugby might not be so important to nail in South America as they are in the UK, South Africa or New Zealand, it is the perfect place for Australia to pursue the growth in their game they so desperately need.

As without those small remaining improvements, the Wallabies can’t be considered genuine World Cup threats. As when the pressure is on, their execution and decision-making simply doesn’t hold up.

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