What was Australia seeking to achieve in the final Tri-Nations Test of the season against Argentina?
It was unclear whether they were aiming for a blowout victory – during the week some rugby writers had actually toyed with the idea that a team such as this could win by a 101-point margin and take the Tri-Nations trophy – or just aiming for a win to avoid ending up at the bottom of the table? In the end, they had to scramble for a draw and ended up third out of three teams.
A very poor show.
For the record, the game ended at 16-all, with winger Bautista Delguy and Australian skipper Michael Hooper scoring the two tries of the game.
Without any clarity of purpose, the Wallabies played their worst game of the season. They had a seriously demoralised Argentina to contend with, a team that had lost its captain and two senior players during the week due to injudicious statements in the past. Plus, this was the fourth game on the trot for the Pumas, and any team that has to present on the park for four consecutive weeks would be nothing if not weary.
But Australia could not take advantage of the situation.
The conditions were okay for a small part of the first half, but Australia were their own worst enemies as they kept making mistake after mistake, showing poor discipline as they came up against a team that seemed determined not to give them an inch. Once the heavens opened, the Wallabies failed to hold onto the ball, seemingly ignorant of the way the game should be played in wet weather and displayed a lack of sensible decision-making.
The poor level of discipline can be gauged from the fact that winger Marika Koroibete, not exactly a freshman, tackled an Argentine player while the latter was in the air, something that is a no-no and should not have to be told to any player. This was one of many unnecessary penalties that the Wallabies conceded.
Lock Matt Philip conceded penalties on two occasions by placing himself on the wrong side of the lineout and trying to pilfer the ball. Again, this is a basic error and Philip should have known better.
Then Hooper lost his head on a tackle on Pumas’ halfback Nicolas Sanchez while trying to clean out the Argentine and making serious contact with his head. The Australian captain was lucky to get only a yellow card. But his silliness was emulated by substitute Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, who was shown a red card for a high shot on flanker Santiago Grondona in the second half.
Argentina also showed flashes of poor judgement, with second-rower Marcos Kremer sent to the sin bin for a shot on standoff James O’Connor. But the Pumas kept their defensive line-up all the time and gave Australia no hint of a gap. At times, they came off that line too soon and were blown up by referee Angus Gardner.
Which brings me to Gardner. Now, there is a need to police the game for shots to the head, given the stance taken by the international rugby authorities and studies showing how such shots can affect players in later life. But Gardner should learn that a good referee has a word or two to the captains before the game and then tries to make himself/herself as inconspicuous as possible.
The game is not about the referee, it is about the players. That is a hard lesson to learn and if Gardner has not learnt it after 27 Tests – Saturday was his 28th – then when will he learn?
After six Tests, new Australian coach Dave Rennie has little indication of whom he can slot into pivotal positions. O’Connor, clearly, is not the man to play standoff in the 2023 World Cup. Neither is Reece Hodge, who showed that he suffers from the jitters in tense situations, missing another penalty that could have won Australia the game. This is the third such penalty he has missed during the season.
The injury to Matt To’omua seems to have seriously affected Rennie’s plans, as he brings a level of maturity and thinking to the backline that nobody else seems to possess. But then a team cannot run on one man. The good thing is that Rennie has time on his hands. The bad thing is that the talent pool in Australia is shallow and combinations take time to jell.
Finally, it was good to see Australia acknowledging the Aboriginal people, the first residents of this country, by having the national anthem sung first in the Eora language and then in English. It was notable that all the Wallabies had learnt the words in Eora and were able to join in the singing.
Young singer Olivia Fox from the Newtown High School for the Performing Arts did a commendable job and one hopes that this can be the first of many such instances. The New Zealanders have done it for a long time – they sing their national anthem in Maori and then in English – and it does help to heal fractures in society.
Australia’s next international is against France in July.