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Wallabies suffering from an inability to adapt and respond to unstructured play | Rajiv Maharaj | Sport

Michael Cheika made an insightful admission in his press conference following Australia’s inexcusable 24-19 loss to Scotland at Allianz Stadium on Saturday. Commenting on the failure to capitalise on breaks against the run of play, the coach said: “A lot of the breaks we made came off the back of work … but we didn’t perhaps create those holes the way we’d like to normally so therefore we didn’t have enough support in there behind them.”

And there we have it, a perfect diagnosis of one of several diseases afflicting the Wallabies’ game: a coaching-ingrained inability to adapt and respond to unstructured play. It was surprising to hear Cheika lay bare this malady so matter-of-factly. But that pales in comparison to the incredulity of him not going on to condemn the fatal short-coming and offer assurances of plans afoot to ensure the pathosis is finally put down.

What Cheika said, and more pertinently what he didn’t go on to say, suggests the Wallabies coaching philosophies are intellectually suspect for the modern game as defined by benchmark setters the All Blacks. The Wallabies, based on what Cheika said, operate in a thought bubble where defensive holes of the players’ own creation are the only opportunities they are prepared for.

Again, to stress what Cheika openly admitted: “We didn’t perhaps create those holes the way we’d like to normally so therefore we didn’t have enough support in there behind them.” What ever happened to expect the unexpected? Not for these Wallabies. They are, it seems, by design clueless when there’s a deviation from pre-conceived scenarios.

Of course, there can be no taking away from Scotland. They took the game to the Wallabies and thoroughly deserved to win. This is not the Scotland of old, of that there is no question. Finn Russell was without peer. The Scots’ line-speed was suffocating, and the full-blooded entries into the ruck left the Australians reeling from the start. Yet despite the many merits of Scotland’s game, the Wallabies still managed 59% possession, 70% territory, five line-breaks to three, and a 15-8 penalty advantage. Only the Wallabies could lose with stats like that.

Instead of picking out individual Australian players – there’s a groundhog day feel to that when it comes to Australian rugby media coverage – we should ask if Cheika is up to the job. Players – some good, some average – have come and gone since Cheika succeeded Ewen McKenzie in 2014. Yet the Wallabies, a lucky 2015 World Cup run aside, have excelled at being inconsistent. A reasonable win followed by garbage. In fact, if there has been any discernible pattern to the Wallabies play, then this has been it.

Does Cheika have the answers? Based on what he said on the weekend, he might not even know the questions. He offers plenty of motivational platitudes but there’s a hollowness to the Wallabies program right now, an absence of sound and innovative pedagogy of the kind we are seeing from Steve Hansen, Joe Schmidt, Eddie Jones and, at the level below Test rugby, Tony Brown at the Highlanders.

One of the rarely-mentioned losers from the McKenzie fiasco was the loss of Jim McKay, an unstructured attack guru who even did a Masters degree thesis on the subject at Sydney University. McKay guided the Queensland Reds attack during their glorious 2011 Super Rugby title-winning run. McKenzie snapped up McKay as an assistant as soon as he became Wallabies coach. Sadly, Cheika got rid of McKay soon after replacing McKenzie.

It was a great shame as McKay, now head coach at Kobe Steel in Japan’s Top League, could have made a massive contribution in teaching players how to react to the game-winning opportunities that come from unstructured play. It’s why the All Blacks are so far ahead of everyone else. Even Scotland took their chances from broken play on Saturday. It’s why they won, come what may, and why the Wallabies lost.

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