Test match Rugby is won and lost on decision making, you get the calls right you win, you get them wrong you lose. It’s really that simple. Every single time anything happens it’s a series of decisions, made by the player, that impacts on the wider test match. Cause and Effect.
That is why you hear modern players and coaches constantly talking about "what they can control". That can be a decision, a tackle, a pass, or the captain's choice to take the points, or pass them up (but more on that later).
In the 6 Nations England were the most penalised side of the tournament (more here) and against Wales in the pre-tour test the penalty count was relatively similar to Englands 6 Nations average dropping slightly from their average of 13.2 to 12. Australia must have come into the test series confident in England continuing that trend and being able to exploit that but in the first test against Australia the penalty stats came in at:
Australia: 15 (7 from the breakdown, 3 at the scrum)
England: 8 + one free kick (4 at the breakdown, 2 at the scrum (plus a free kick))
That’s a 5.2 drop off from the Six Nations average, though it’s in a similar range to the World Cup pool game against Australia which was 9 – 6.
Location wise England's penalties broke down like this*:
Australian 22: 1
Australian Half: 3
England Half: 3
England 22: 2
Total = 9 (includes free kick)
In contrast Australia conceded 15, which break down like this:
Australian 22: 3
Australian Half: 4
England Half: 4
England 22: 4
Total = 15
*NB: Australian/England half is referencing 22-halfway
But what’s slightly more interesting is that if we define an obviously kickable penalty as occurring in the defending team’s half and in the middle channel (so between the 15m to 15m line) that means England gave away:
2 Penalties in the opposition half
4 penalties in that magic no brainer “kickable” zone.
2 in their own 22, though 1 was in that 15m blind spot (they opted for a scrum).
Also interesting is the when. Of the 5 penalties England gave away in their own half only 1 was given before they had a 2 score lead and that was for a scrum penalty.
In contrast Australia gave 6 penalties in that “kickable area” and England took all as an opportunity to take the points on offer. Farrell missed one (off the posts) but made up the deficit with a more difficult kick in the wider 15m channel.
So what does all of the above mean? Well I think it leads us to a couple of points:
- The first is how important it is to steadily build a score, it’s how England got back into the game and it’s also how England took the game away from Australia.
- The second is the requirement for a consistent goal kicker at the top most level.
- The third is the need to respect how hard it is to come by those offers of points are and to not waste them.
As anyone who's played the game will tell you the above states the obvious, but ultimately of all the areas of play in the game discipline and goal kicking are the two that England got absolutely right on the night and Australia didn’t.
Sure Australia scored more tries than England, and we obviously applaud them for that, but it’s important to remember that Rugby has a multifaceted scoring system, therefore it is simply about scoring more points than the opposition, it doesn’t matter how you do it, it just matters that you do it. Otherwise like Football it may as well be a 1 point scoring system.
It’s a detail a lot of people in the heat of the battle miss. With the blood in your ears and the excitement of being on top for a few fleeting moments it's easy to get carried away with wanting to play Rugby.
But international players are supposed to be above that, especially International Captains.
Early in the second half of the first test, when trailing by 13 points Australia were on the attack and forced a penalty on England's 22 right in front of the sticks. It's about as close to an open goal as you’ll ever get in rugby. But Stephen Moore chose to pass up the points and kick to the corner looking to get a try, they coughed the ball up, gave three penalties away, Sio was Yellow Carded and the next time they saw the ball England had stretched their lead to 16 points.
In fact during the game, by my reckoning, the obviously kickable penalties were limited to four certainties and a maybe. Yet Australia took only two attempts at the 15 points on offer – passing up 9 points.
Perhaps it was a strategic decision by the management. The game plan was clearly to try to keep piling the pressure on England, waiting for them to break and for 15 minutes it worked. However the ability for a goal kicker to move the game away from the opposition without them really realising until it’s too late is invaluable. We've all been there, that creeping death that comes with a really good kicker slowly eroding all the zip and verve of the opposition team and I think Saturday was as perfect an example of that as you will find. England's steady flow of points from Farrell’s boot gradually sapped the Australian’s energy, slowly moving the game out of their reach.
Which is why Moore’s decision at 47:45 to kick to the corner rather than take the kick in front of the posts was such a big call.
Yes, hindsight is a great thing and I get why he made the call. Moore clearly felt the game was slipping and had started to chase the score mentally. He wanted to assert some pressure on England and regain momentum but in reality Australia had just been rocked by a superb try which, at 13-26, had taken England out to two scores for the first time. What Australia needed more than momentum was stability. So for England to make such a rare error and concede a kick under the sticks, offering the chance to take Australia back to within 10 points, receive the ball again and leave them with over 30 minutes to play?
It just can’t be passed up.
Instead they kick for the corner lose the ball, and we all know what happens next.
While Foley didn't have the best day with the boot in reality he'd only missed two kicks at that point one difficult and one more attainable, there was nothing in Foley's performance to say he'd have missed such a sitter, but then even if Moore had lost confident in Foley's stuttering kicking why did he not go to Lealiifano? A tried and tested second test match level goal kicker on the field, Moore's own team mate in fact a guy he plays along side week in week out.
Else why have two goal kickers in the squad, if you don't trust your kickers you may as well just let anyone have a go.
In contrast Hartley showed a greater respect for how hard these opportunities are to come by and continued to get his goal kicker to build the score no matter what. Even when two scores out, if the points were there he took them, the lead built and Australia bar a few last fleeting gasps of breath were literally suffocated out of the game.
The chance to be able to erode that scoreline and retain possession can’t be underestimated and ultimately in not trusting his kickers to do their job is where I feel Moore made his biggest mistake of the night. It will be interesting to see how Australia react to this test, I have a feeling Moore won’t be passing up many more kicks at goal.