Why Australia couldn’t trouble the Kiwis
Australia and New Zealand clashed twice in the first two rounds of the inaugural Rugby Championship. The wallabies were defeated 27-19 in the first encounter, and although playing much better in the second, recorded a 22-0 loss. The All Blacks looked far from unbeatable, the Aussies were able to find some possession and opportunities but they did not seem to exert any real pressure on the opposition. So why did they struggle? Where were the weaknesses? What can be improved upon leading up to their third round match against the Springboks? Here are some observations:
1. Execution and decision making. There were quite simply too many errors from a top ranking international side. Not only knock-ons but kick-offs out on the full, inaccurate passing, lineout issues and a plethora of other incidents that will have Robbie Deans curled up in a dark room, rocking back and forth. For example: Digby Ioane takes the ball into contact in centre field just over halfway line. Barnes receives ball from said ruck and promptly kicks to Ioane’s wing, sparsely populated by some of the tight five…unintelligent.
2. Key players’ performance. Kurtley Beale will be trying to push the first test out of his head for years to come. He evaluated himself publicly on Twitter, “Worst performance in my career ever!!! #FACT”. This is almost certainly correct. Beale has become Australia’s X-factor, creating moments of magic from unlikely situations and positions, while quietly dealing with the responsibilities of an international fullback. However, Beale found himself beaten one on one twice during the two tries conceded by his side. The first try scored by New Zealand was created by fixing the Wallaby line with textbook decoy runners. The Kiwis’ midfield runners include Ma’a Nonu, Sonny Bill Williams and Hosea Gear, who are almost genetically optimised for fixing defenders. The move released fullback Israel Dagg who stood his opposite man up then beat him on the outside, all in a 5 metre channel. The second try saw Beale get caught out of position and again beaten to the corner, this time by Jane. The Aussie fullback also contributed heavily to point 1 above, most noticeably knocking on in his own 22 under no pressure.
Will Genia, who plays such a central role for the Wallabies, also underwhelmed. Genia not only provides stability and strategic direction, but is often the catalyst to line breaks and exploits defensive errors well. He failed to provide the direction and penetration needed. He was also binned in the second test for cynically slowing play.
3. Aggression and mobility of All Black forwards. The Kiwis reported that they were initially surprised by a lack of physicality. These feelings were backed by media and fans, suggesting why the men in black dominated the contact zone. Keven Mealamu returned to his best after suffering a calf injury, having one of the games of his career. Alongside Liam Messam, who is finally starting to show his enormous potential on a consistent basis, he enabled his team to recycle possession at an incredible rate. Messam now completes a well balanced back row which picked up numerous turnovers and denied Australia a clean platform to work from.
As you may be starting to ascertain, there was no great strategic oversights, no colossal mismatches. Although it sounds puerile and thoughtless what Australia really need to do in their next test is simply play better. Cut out the errors, get more brutal in contact, up the line speed in defence and, when they get hold of the pudding, keep New Zealand working hard with good ball retention and quick phase play.
There are a few positives that they can take away though. The loss of David Pocock, the herculean openside who would trouble McCaw on the World XV team sheet, may not be as catastrophic as first thought. They will certainly miss his leadership and physical presence but his replacement Michael Hooper appears to be a sound replacement. The 5 ft 11in flanker is a specialist turnover artist and could be a key to overhauling the Boks. South Africa doesn’t possess a specialist openside, other than the unavailable Heinrich Brussow, and usually opt for two men of freakish proportions with the sole aim of inflicting maximum damage. This week the chosen thugs are Willem Alberts (6 ft 4 in, 19 st 10 lb) and Marcell Coetzee (6 ft 3 in, 16 st 10 lb). Hooper will be quicker to the breakdown and could cause havoc if he can weather the furious beating he will undoubtedly receive.
Stephen Moore came back into the side for the second test and really helped pick up the pace and physicality. Unfortunately, on the brink of becoming Australia’s most capped hooker, he picked up a hamstring strain this week and is out of selection. Australia should be looking to get Digby Ioane onto the ball with pace. He is probably the strongest runner in the fifteen, eats up ground and will pose the biggest threat to SA defence. The exciting Dominic Shipperley makes his debut on the wing and will look to show the pace and agility which earned him his place. Facing up against Hougaard, who has played most of his rugby at 9 so far, he could be in for some points.
Although South Africa didn’t look rampant in either of their opening matches against the Pumas, the Argentineans have a knack for breaking down opponent’s structure and both side play an attritional style of rugby. I think although Australia will come out gunning, they will be beaten down up front and lack the runners and creativity to trouble the solid midfield of de Villliers and Steyn. Genia holds the key to getting the Wallabies on the front foot. If he can get in behind the Springboks sluggish back row and keep the tempo up then it could be an interesting game.
Comments, opinions, corrections welcome.