BETTER game management, smarter attacking raids and more commitment in defence.
In the wake of yet another frustrating season for the Wallabies where they finished with seven wins, five losses and two draws, World Cup-winning fullback Matthew Burke has made a cutting assessment of his former side.
Despite losing the Bledisloe Cup for a 15th successive season, the Wallabies won some much-needed admiration for their gallant victory in the third Test against the All Blacks in Brisbane in October.
The fact that the victory came in the Wallabies’ final home fixture of the year, and after Australian rugby endured one of its toughest seasons on record with the fiasco surrounding the culling of one of its five Super Rugby franchises, made the victory all the more important.
But the Wallabies weren’t able to capitalise on the momentum, slumping to two record defeats to end the year against England and Scotland.
National coach Michael Cheika also came under criticism and was urged by World Rugby to “moderate his conduct and language accordingly”, after being caught on camera during the 30-6 loss to England at Twickenham mouthing off at a number of decisions that went against his side.
“They’ve got to learn, and I’ve always said this, they’ve got to play a bit smarter,” Burke told Foxsports.com.au.
“They’ve got to incorporate a kicking game into their strategies because at the moment it’s just off, and when it’s off it gets magnified when it’s wrong.
“Going up to Scotland, I think Scotland was more crushing because eight tries. I can’t use the excuse of 14 men, they still had seven in the backs, you don’t lose a great deal of parody in the forwards, they lost a No 8 when they flicked it around, but when you get eight tries scored against you — it doesn’t matter who it’s against — it’s a bit debilitating.
“And I think what sits uncomfortably with the public and the former players is when they accept mediocrity.
“When Will Genia — lovely bloke, competitor — but when he says ‘we’ve got to roll with the punches and we’ve got to take the highs and lows’, you sort of sit there and scratch your head and think ‘wow’.”
Only two years ago the Wallabies seemingly had turned the corner after making the World Cup final, and Cheika quite rightfully was credited for his role in the process.
Despite losing the final to trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand, Cheika was awarded World Rugby’s coach of the year for turning the Wallabies’ flagging fortunes around, and with his rising stature outgoing Rugby Australia CEO Bill Pulver quickly renewed his contract until the end of 2019.
But inconsistency has killed Australia since and the two d’s — discipline and defence — have been at the heart of their struggles.
While the Wallabies have had little troubles crossing the chalk in 2017 scoring 57 times, as opposed to 35 in 2016, equally their defence was worse conceding 51 tries as opposed to 43 in 2016.
“There’s some fundamentals that just let them down this year and sadly defence is one of them,” Burke said.
“Old coach Bobby Dwyer used to say to us, defence is a state of mind: if you want to make the tackle you’ll make the tackle, if you don’t want to make the tackle you won’t make the tackle.
“At the moment I’m a bit confused on how these guys aren’t making the tackles.
“And yes, the blokes will probably go, ‘mate, p**s off type of thing,’ as in ‘Burke, you missed tackles in your time’ and yes, but where we are and what we’re trying to do, as in the Wallabies, it needs to be more consistent.
“When you’re playing against New Zealand in Brisbane and it’s rock solid defence you think that’s a standard, that’s where you have to get to each week and when it happened like that a few weeks ago (conceding eight tries against Scotland), that’s where you sit at home at one o’clock in the morning and you’re thinking ‘boys, come on, let’s go’.
“It’s a year of ‘if onlys’.
“If only we caught the kick-off in Dunedin, if only we went on with it in Perth, snuck a win on the Highveld, that kind of stuff, so it’s been an indifferent year.
‘If the boys read this and the coaches read this they’ll go ‘mate, go whatever’ but I think until we play a more rounded game we’ll sneak a win against New Zealand, but those other teams we’ll always just struggle with.
“We should have smashed Fiji, we should have smashed Italy, we should have smashed Scotland, they were without three of their best in Sydney.
“South Africa are not travelling well at the moment, we should have pumped them as well.
“Kiwis are obviously the benchmark.
“But I sit in the commentary box frustrated because I know that things work, you’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, but if they get on the wheel a little bit, it might work a little bit better for them.”
While the pressure is undoubtedly starting to build on the Wallabies’ defence and, in particular, defence coach Nathan Grey, Burke also was of the belief that the attack wasn’t as good as some were making it out to be despite their increased strike rate in 2017.
“I keep hearing about our attack and how it’s so good, and I have to question that because attack for me is off a lineout or a scrum and I think it’s poor,” Burke said.
“Attack in broken field play is great, their ability to recycle the ball and go again and find a gap after certain amount of phases is quite good, but I think they need a more rounded game plan.
“And as simple as not having Bernard Foley as the only kicking option, you need someone else on the left-hand side, you need a snipe as we saw England did — little kicks over the top from the halfback — and when you’re defending you don’t know what’s coming because there’s change ups.
“When it’s that easy and its stock standard and you know they’re going to run the ball you just sit up there and smash them, and that for me is the frustrating part of doing that.”
In referencing game management, Burke drew particular attention to one poignant example early on in the Wallabies’ international season against Italy.
Receiving the ball from the kick-off inside their own 22 metre line, Michael Hooper carried the ball outside the 22 and was tackled. From there the Wallabies shifted the ball three passes to the right deep inside their own half and looked to stretch the Italian defence immediately, but turned over possession and ultimately conceded points from the error.
Disregarding the fact that they conceded points from the get-go, Burke said that the approach to starting the game was wrong.
“I heard an expression the other day and it was from Ange Postecoglou about his coaching style; there’s a mantra that they want to get out, and for rugby it’s running the ball, but it’s understanding when to run the ball,” Burke said.
“I go back to (the) Italy kick-off, we went catch, long pass nine, long pass 10 and the long pass 12 hit a prop and we dropped the ball and that’s the first play of the game.
“And you’re thinking to yourself, nup, you’ve got to earn the right to play sometimes and against lesser teams, maybe, but the difference between lesser teams and top teams is shrinking rapidly.
“It’s a respect thing, it’s a management thing when you’re out there and not so much arrogance — you’ve to have arrogance when you play — but the arrogance is about bashing people at the same time and making sure you do the physical work to be able to play the game.”
Meanwhile, Burke, who scored 25 points from the kicking tee in Australia’s 35-12 win over France in the 1999 World Cup final, added that sooner rather later the Wallabies needed to settle on a regular goal kicker.
After years of success and clutch goal kicks, fly-half Bernard Foley started the season as the first-choice sharp shooter.
But by season’s end and after a number of telling misses, including four against the All Blacks in their heartbreaking 35-29 loss in Dunedin, Reece Hodge had assumed most of the responsibilities after landing a number of long-range efforts.
Burke said that it was important for the goal kicker to have the complete faith of the team.
“I’m not going to criticise Bernie (Foley) because he’s kicked some incredibly crucial goals, but I reckon that could be playing in the back of his mind as well,” Burke said.
“I’ve been on an occasion when I had a kick-off on a Friday with Elton Flatley to see who’s going to kick and I was like ‘mate, that doesn’t do any favours’, so if you miss a goal in the game, everyone goes he’s missed again.
“So you’ve got to be able to stand up there with absolute confidence and hit the ball.
“Bernie at the moment is lacking a bit of confidence and I’ve been there as well and you just think to yourself the posts look as narrow as anything, and some days you just slot it and the posts aren’t there.
“He needs to get back to that ability where he’s forgetting about the result and kicking the ball because once you start thinking about it, obviously your mind then starts playing games as well.
“There’s no doubt he’s a good kicker, he’s kicked some crucial goals, so take some time off, get back to it, it’s like the golfer, get that rhythm again.”