Catching up now main priority for dedicated tourist
Stephen Moore acknowledges that the Wallabies have fallen behind their biggest rivals, writes Brendan Fanning
Stephen Moore has never heard of The Gathering. He doesn't know if it's a hoedown or a shake-down, but in a nursing home in Navan this week he hopes to be part of a little get-together that will mean a lot to him and his family.
Moore's parents Tom and Maureen, from Tuam and Swinford respectively, never had to try too hard to keep their son in touch with his clatter of Irish cousins, among them Meath goalkeeper Paddy O'Rourke (right). One of the great benefits of touring is that you sometimes get to catch up with friends and family who otherwise would be out of reach. For Stephen Moore, this is one of those times.
Along with his mother, who arrives in Dublin on Wednesday, and his 10-month-old son Theodore, he will get a special photograph taken when he visits his grandmother, Bridget. Four generations of the clan together.
It might well be the highlight of Moore's week. Touring has been an all-round better experience for Australia's most capped hooker, thanks to having his wife and infant along for company. They are a welcome respite from the day job which clearly is a great way to earn a very good living, but has its drawbacks. For Australians, the set-scrum is the equivalent of trudging into the office on a hungover Monday in mid-winter.
Last week their coach Ewan McKenzie was on to the IRB looking for clarification on the penalty-fest that cost them the game in Twickenham. It wasn't something you expected, with Mako Vunipola at loosehead instead of Alex Corbisiero, and sometimes you thought referee George Clancy was refereeing perception as much as fact.
"Five penalties and a few free kicks," Moore says, matter of factly. "I was really happy with the way we scrummaged on our own ball but the penalties were all drawn on opposition ball. Once again England kept the ball at the back and the ref interpreted it as he saw it. Look, talk to 10 people and you might get 10 different views on how it should be refereed. I respect the guy in the middle who has to make the decision at the time and they're doing that to the best of their knowledge of the laws."
Australia were never a big scrummaging nation. You could say the World Cup quarter-final in 2007, where they were dismantled by England, was the confirmation that they had a crisis on their hands, and since then there have been only varying degrees of discomfort. Like the Third Test against the Lions four months ago.
"I would have thought if they could have picked a way to start the game – basically with a scrum – they would have taken it, and that's how it panned out," he says. "They scrummaged really well the whole game. A lot's been said about it but they were particularly good there in that Third Test and that's what swung it in their favour I guess. There's a whole bunch of 'what ifs' around that, and they got momentum from that start, but they kept it – which is to their credit."
The folks back home didn't see it that way. Of course it pains them that they're not very good at it, but even if they were you wonder would it make scrummaging a more popular pastime Down Under.
"Certainly in Super Rugby – if you look at the conditions – in Australia it's (the game) seen very much for its entertainment value," Moore says. "It has to be attractive. And what's seen as attractive down there is not necessarily seen as attractive up here in Europe. You go to some games up here and the crowd is absolutely thrilled to see a game with half a dozen scrum penalties and that's what they see as dominance in a game. And that's probably more suited to Test match rugby.
"I know at the Brumbies this year we certainly used our scrum as an attacking platform in terms of getting ascendancy and drawing penalties and building the scoreboard, and that's probably a bit more similar to what you guys are used to up here. That makes it different and when you translate that into a Test match – for guys who are playing Super Rugby and then coming up here – it's a lot different. We knew the Italians would try and keep the ball at the back of every scrum and look for a penalty and they'd wait 20 seconds if they had to. If you did that in Australia, people would go: 'What the hell is happening? We want to see people running with the ball!'
"It's a very different approach and there's no right or wrong – you've just got to adapt to a different style and particularly when we come up here on tour."
Four years ago when they came north they were in that precarious position of being two years out from a World Cup and wondering if they were on the right track. They weren't. They were locked in to Robbie Deans, who was having no luck in shifting the balance of power south of the equator, and they are even further behind now, with the Springboks flexing enough muscle to have everyone alarmed. McKenzie – like Joe Schmidt – needs to run to catch up.
"We've gone from having the same coach for five or six seasons to a completely new set-up with a whole new structure and philosophy and style of playing," Moore says. "I guess we're still adapting to that and finding the game that will suit us. It's a fine line between playing that attacking rugby and being strong in your fundamentals – your scrum and maul and lineout and work around the breakdown.
"We're still finding our feet in that regard. Results is where the buck stops – that says it all. The All Blacks are still out in front of everyone but in terms of us they're well ahead of us in consistency. They're at a high level every time they play and that's a credit to their group and it's something we're trying to chase. The Springboks are improving as well and this year especially compared to the last few seasons. That leaves us around that third/fourth slot with a few other countries. I've said it before a few times, there's any number of teams in that group who can beat each other on their day. We're probably seeing that more and more in Test rugby and I guess the goal for us now is to get ourselves moving forward. We're too inconsistent in the way we're playing. Until we get that we're going to struggle to get where we want to go."
For Moore, the battle will be domestic as well as international this week. The cousins are circling and looking for tickets for a sold-out game, enhanced by the Wallabies' hammering of Italy yesterday. . And his young fella is still trying to figure which end is up. All of which is a welcome distraction.
"It's good to have him over," he says. "We're spending a lot of time away from home these days so it's great they can come over and spend a bit of time, and it'll be great next week to meet the family and all the rellies in Ireland. Really special."