In rugby, just like in politics, there are known knowns, there are known unknowns, there are unknown knowns, and there are unknown unknowns. Do you follow?
It’s not Donald Rumsfeld, the former United States Secretary of Defence who first coined this word salad in 2002, who must now contend with a philosophical quagmire. That task falls to Dave Rennie, Australia’s beleaguered coach who leaves Dublin a very confused man.
The known knowns are easy to identify. His team has lost another tight game. It was a point that was the difference in their reverses in Paris and Florence. This time it was three. Had Blair Kinghorn been more accurate from the kicking tee, they would have lost in Edinburgh as well.
Rennie must know that his side is a limited one. Beyond one neat bit of interplay that saw Jordan Petaia score down the right, they attacked like a cluster of individuals rather than a cohesive unit. Mark Nawaqanitawase was immense out wide. Rob Valetini was destructive around the fringe. Michael Hooper thrummed with a trademark effervescence. But none of them seemed to be playing the same game. Thank goodness they were wearing the same coloured jerseys.
As to why this seems to be a perennial issue brings us to some known unknowns. Is Rennie a limited coach? Are the players not responding to his prearranged tactics? Is Australian rugby in such a state of crisis that even the most astute rugby brain wouldn’t be able to turn them into World Cup contenders? We know there are answers, we just don’t know them yet.
Those are conundrums that need solving down the line. Next year’s showpiece is forming a little too quickly over the horizon. On the evidence of the last four weeks the Wallabies will be watching another country’s captain lift that famous golden trinket.
Then again, something happens to Australian teams whenever the quadrennial showpiece event rolls round. And that brings us to the unknown unknowns.
Who can say what it is that lifts the Wallabies when so little is expected of them. Perhaps it’s that Aussie derring-do? The belief that no matter the code, no matter the odds, some true-blue grit and a bit of natural athleticism will see them through.
Nawaqanitawase embodied that against the world’s No 1 ranked team. Raw and sinewy, he routinely bust over the gain-line, bringing tacklers with him as he cantered upfield or plucked high balls out of the air. Nic White also embodied this spirit, fizzing the ball left and right with almost no regard for any game plan. One wonders if he’d received any instruction all week.
And that’s the point about this Australian outfit. There are gifted athletes throughout a line-up that have recently come within a score of beating Ireland, France and New Zealand. They’ve already beaten the Springboks this year, as well as England. They go into every contest with an almost naive chutzpah. If only someone could channel that fighting zeal into something that made sense.
To give Rennie some leeway, his charges are too often guilty of foolish errors. There were four neck-rolls committed by an Australian on an Irishman inside the first 37 minutes. The final one saw Folau Fainga’a - who once again missed his jumper with his first throw-in - yellow carded before the half-time break. How can a coach account for such recklessness? Does a head coach of a national team really have to include a line about neck-rolls in his pre match team talks?
At one point in the first half Australia held the ball for 21 phases inside Irish territory. The ball went left then right then left again before they coughed it up and conceded a penalty on the floor. Ordinarily a team with that much possession would grow in confidence, assured in the belief that they’d be leaving the red zone with points on the board. Not Australia. They seemed to panic as the phases mounted. The straight arm of referee Ben O’Keef almost came as a relief.
But there are those known unknowns that Rennie must cling to as he gears up for the final match of his European tour, a now must-win game against Wales next week. He knows that this team is erratic. He knows that they’re just as likely to hit the self-destruct button as engage in some mind bending play that can turn a match. He just doesn’t know what’s behind this oscillation between the sublime and the ridiculous. If he did then maybe he could do something about it.
As it is his best choice is to simply let Australia be. To do his best to steer the chaos but ultimately unleash it onto the park and hope it clicks. In Nawaqanitawase he has a genuine superstar in the making who showed some grunt as well as guile. Len Ikitau’s ability to straighten the line is an asset while Andrew Kellaway and Tom Wright advanced their status with strong showings.
Logic would suggest the Wallabies are distant outsiders for World Cup glory. But that’s only accounting for what you think you know about rugby.