Richard Harris was the Australian anesthesiologist who helped rescue Thai children trapped in a flooded cave. On a recent podcast, he talked about how he handles high-pressure environments.
When cave diving, a distance line is used which is basically a guideline that follows you to help you exit a cave in low visibility situations. On one occasion it broke, leaving him trapped with limited oxygen with no obvious exit strategy.
He described the pressure as a visceral physical sensation slowly rising through his body to his neck. What he did and how he survived, I will come back to during the article.
It was a crucial series of high-pressure rugby for many reasons. There is tension around the Super Rugby competition going ahead with New Zealand, there is much-needed leverage for a potential private equity sale and there is renewed interest from fans with the Wallabies’ first sold-out game in quite some time.
Australia have had bad luck in the form of injuries and if you subscribe to Ben Darwin’s GainLine Analytics you will understand the detrimental impact injuries have on cohesion. However, other than providing some broader context, there isn’t much focus. Dave Rennie himself dismissed injuries as an excuse.
Australia topped several statistical metrics, but this was not reflected in the scorecard. I will refer to four key areas where the match was lost and four key stats that are important in the larger context of the game:
Australia vs England
59% Possession 41%
17 Kicks In Play 26
13 Concession turnover 8
2 unloadings 7
The battle ahead
England won the physical. As bad as Australia is, credit goes to the England strikers who were fantastic. Even without the talismanic Maro Itoje, England dominated the winning line. Rob Valetini, Ray Leota and Harry Wilson were chosen for their running plays but they all struggled to penetrate the winning line due to a strong, willing and well-drilled England defense.
When attackers picked and left, they sometimes wandered into dead ends, isolated themselves, and resulted in turnovers.
Australia was inaccurate in the cleanup. There were countless examples of this. In the 32nd minute, Wilson was unable to clear Bill Vunipola, resulting in an English penalty. Again in the 39th minute, Wilson and Hunter Paisami fail to clear Lawes, resulting in a penalty and try shortly after.
England forwards were constantly clashing in rucks that slowed down or knocked over our ball. Courtney Lawes pulled off three turnovers on her own. The Wallaby forwards didn’t make many turnovers, didn’t cross the winning line and were inconsistent on the free kick.
England kicked a lot more than Australia (26-17). They were content to cede possession (59% vs. 41%) to gain territory. They challenged the breakdown where they hit more turnovers than the Wallabies (13-8). England were able to generate kickable penalties by defending aggressively.
When Australia turned to Reece Hodge to get them out of trouble, England had all the answers led by Fred Steward. Australia failed to counter the territorial pressure and eventually succumbed.
The Aussies gave up trying to penetrate around the ruck and, predictably, came out wide long before they earned it.
This allowed England’s covering defense to gobble them up easily. To counter England’s defensive pressure, Australia played very deep and often conceded significant amounts of territory behind the winning line in attack. Noah Lolesio, like many round fives, thrives on the ball from the front foot behind a strong Brumbies pack but really struggles to manage a game without him.
In defence, there were times when Australia panicked and rushed to end an overlap. Both times the Wallabies were knocked out, allowing England to make line breaks they should have scored on.
Basic Skill Errors
To make matters worse, there were some basic passing errors at key moments from Taniela Tupou, Dave Porecki and Hodge. Tupou’s overhead pass in the 36th minute allowed James Slipper to strike.
The passes were often behind the man, forcing the player to check, lose speed and give the defense extra time. When you step out to outflank a team, you can’t afford those imprecise passes.
You can see in the table above that England made five more offloads despite having far less possession. Too often the Australians threw low percentage passes resulting in turnovers rather than making contact, engaging defenders and looking for an offload.
Australia lost the turf kick battle. It may have been a predetermined strategy with big boot Reece Hodge, but during rallies teams rotate who’s at the back and quite often it’s Lolesio or Koroibete who lack penetrating kicks.
England have several skilled kickers in Marcus Smith, Steward and Jack Nowell.
Australia’s general game kick lacked intention. It was often not in space but rather directly towards their well-positioned bottom players.
An example of this was in the 19th minute, Paisami’s grubber straight to Smith who returned it with interest. There is no real positional or strategic gain here. This resulted in a massive net loss of territory. Compare that to Smith’s kick at 10:30 p.m. where he planted a contested bomb that Steward recovered.
Kicking for the touchlines is tricky in an oval-shaped pitch, but Hodge took charge of that and kicked wide which resulted in an England line-out 15 yards out. our line. Nic White’s box kicks are usually a real strength, but he often kicked too deep and into the field, resulting in an unchallenged easy spread.
Kickoffs weren’t accurate. They were neither contested nor in the back of the corner.
This facilitated exits to England. I wrote an article here about the importance of accurate kickoffs that about three people have read:
If you are going to make mistakes, you have to consider the risk-reward. Wilson committed several no-win penalties by failing to roll and then tackling a player beyond the ruck. There was no real advantage in either game for Australia, but you risk a costly penalty.
Compare that to England. When they lost a penalty advantage in their own 22, they recommitted to kill the game. They lost nothing.
At first glance, many penalties seemed lazy and unnecessary, but some of them were also born out of pressure. Fatigue, frustration, and poor decision-making are all made worse by pressure.
So how did the diver survive in my intro? He found a way to stay calm during the pressure. He used a simple distraction technique that psychologists often prescribe to patients.
He slowly started counting to 10. Once he reached 10, he started again.
This was a temporary measure that helped keep the pressure at bay. This slowed his breathing and prolonged his oxygen supply.
By remaining calm, he was able to stop siltation and improve his visibility. He was able to slowly reflect on the situation and return to his backup plan. He found cracks of light and finally identified his way to the surface.
When Australia’s ‘Plan A’ didn’t work, they panicked both in attack and defence. This led to baseline errors, discipline issues, and aimless kicking. Australian fans hope that over time their team will develop their composure.
Recently, I noticed that Hugh Van Cuylenburg, who is a mental health and high performance expert, was involved with the Queensland rugby league team when they recently won at Origin.
It might be a wise addition to a young squad struggling with pressure.
Quade Cooper helps handle the pressure by having a balanced lifestyle so his whole life isn’t defined by his athletic success.
Patsy Tremayne is a Sydney-based performance psychologist with a background in elite sport. With just 13 months until the next World Cup, Australia’s developing squad will need all the help they can get.
Australia will be hoping it’s long enough for their developing squad to gain the confidence and composure to help them win an unlikely World Cup.