Wallabies still doubtful despite win over Springboks
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From the start this Durban Test, the Wallabies’ change of heart was obvious.
Will Genia took the kickoff and five breakdowns ensued, the first policed by David Pocock, Nathan Sharpe and Ben Alexander, the second where the ball was taken forward by Rocky Elsom who was covered by Stephen Moore and Scott Higginbotham, and the third was James Horwill backed up by Sharpe and Sekope Kepu.
On the fourth, Higginbotham trucked it up into a withering de Villiers hit where he was backed up by Moore.
Finally the fifth was a Sharpe hitup with Pocock, Alexander, Horwill and Kepu in his pocket, before Will Genia opted to float over a box kick and put the Springboks under pressure.
Thus began a Test which highlighted the most frustrating aspect of Wallaby culture – that only at the final desperate moment after a horrible loss and scathing criticism, are the Australians able to get up for the occasion.
Rarely do Wallaby teams win tough matches against leading sides without the pressure of the final stages of a tournament or some stinging critique to prod them into action.
The Wallabies only win the tough games when put under huge pressure by the public and the coaching staff – generally speaking, the honour of wearing the green and gold is not enough to have the Wallabies putting their bodies on the line.
But for now, that pressure existed and the Wallabies responded.
The early exchanges were torrid and the Wallabies gave out as much as they received, to the point where some of the tackles bordered on dangerous.
First Elsom on Botha where a scuffle ensued, then Elsom again on Russow and then McCabe on Fourie – all tackles where the man was lifted.
It wouldn’t surprise if the Wallabies had been coached to lift the leg in the tackle to stop the Springboks rumbling forward on their feet. It was effective and had the desired effect of giving the Springbok forwards cause for thought.
All this effort was led from the front by captain Rocky Elsom who answered his critics with the biggest first eight minutes ever by a Wallaby forward.
In an astonishing opening to the match, Elsom made several big tackles, one clean linebreak followed by a 40 metre run, and won a couple of lineouts, as well as his work at the breakdown.
If the Wallabies were looking for a man to follow, they couldn’t have done better than Elsom. The only unfortunate part being that, like the Wallabies, Elsom had to get to the point of having the public calling for his head before he put in a big game.
By contrast, Richie McCaw does it every single match, regardless of circumstance.
Another defining feature of this game was the absence of Quade Cooper, who didn’t touch the ball until the 4th minute – a veritable eternity considering how much they have relied on him in recent times, and a definite contrast to the All Blacks Test where the Wallabies play immediately revolved around Cooper and Beale from the very start.
It appeared to be a deliberate ploy to keep Cooper out of the game and to take the Springboks on in the way they least expected, with direct forward running through the inside channels.
Indeed, the first time Cooper took the ball to the line himself from phase play was after halftime in the 45th minute.
If we had hoped that the Wallabies would heed the calls to win the forward battle before going wide, we were well rewarded in this match.
The centres Pat McCabe and Adam Ashley Cooper were rarely sighted during the first 40, but when the Wallabies opened up in the second half, both reaped the rewards.
Ashley-Cooper gave glimpses of his incredible athleticism and McCabe providing steadfast support to a James O’Connor shimmy, which led to McCabe’s first Test try, and the only try in the 14-9 win to Australia.
Although the Wallabies clearly made a conscious decision to play direct early, the lack of centre involvement also reflected some very poor handling by the men in gold.
Several times early passes went astray from first and second phase, leading to turnovers before the centres could be unleashed on the broken defensive line.
The Wallabies application was admirable, but their handling was awful, and the All Blacks will never allow such slackness to go unpunished.
The Wallabies also bombed two tries, first with O’Connor throwing a pass which was intercepted by Jacques Fourie on the Springbok line, and then with Kurtley Beale being wrapped up by some desperation defence.
But the encouraging part was that when the Wallabies were judicious with their options, they opened up the Springboks with the ease of a housewife opening a can of beans.
Had some passes stuck and the support players been a metre or two closer, the score could well have been 30.
Part of the Wallaby dominance in the second stanza accrued through a rampant Wallaby scrum, greatly assisted by the shift of Bok skipper John Smit to tighthead. Former Springbok prop Os du Randt was recently scathing of Smit’s continued selection, and on this performance it’s hard to argue.
Smit was totally off the pace in the loose (a stark contrast with his replacement Bismarck du Plessis) and his scrummaging was dire.
The Smit/du Plessis/Steenkamp front row was overwhelmed by a resurgent and heavy Wallaby pack – a fact which must provoke South African concern and Wallaby optimism in equal measure.
Ben Alexander and Sekope Kepu were both fully functioning adult front rowers in this match, and the hooker Stephen Moore played all over his opposite number Smit – by the time du Plessis joined the fray, the battle was won.
After their listless performance last week, the Wallaby forwards to a man stood up to be counted, and few more so than Nathan Sharpe.
Sharpe’s omission from the NZ tour was more about shuffling players for game time than form-related, but in this match he showed his real value to this Wallaby side, and he must be an automatic World Cup selection.
Apart from the strong scrum, Sharpe was tireless in the loose and made several fighting ball carries to get the Wallabies on the front foot.
Late in the match, he and James Horwill forced a turnover from a Springbok maul through sheer brute strength and force of will, and it was this sort of uncompromising play that Wallaby supporters will be looking for in the pointy end of the RWC.
Anthony Faingaa was another who put a strong reminder of his talents to the selectors. World Cups are won with defence and Faingaa is without question the toughest defensive centre in Australia.
His timing isn’t bad either – his rushing shutdown of JP Pietersen was a wonderful example of anticipation and correct decision making, as was his late game takedown of Jacques Fourie, a notoriously difficult man to put down.
Overall, this was a Wallaby performance to be proud of, but only when the Wallabies can strong two or three of these together, can Australian rugby fans start to get excited.
The Wallabies have a nasty history of disappointing those who care for them the most.
This team has shown that they can bring out the big guns when their backs are to the wall, but they struggle for motivation when the stakes aren’t as high or when the public is on their side.
It’s only when they arrive at the last chance saloon, that they seem able to pull their boots on and stand up to the gunslingers of world rugby.
This makes them prime targets for a boilover in the pool stages of the Rugby World Cup and unless they can complete this Tri-Nations with a strong, aggressive performance against the All Blacks in Brisbane, they remain doubtful prospects for Eden Park in October.
Andrew Logan has played rugby for over 25 years. A contributor to The Roar since its inception, he also writes for Inside Rugby magazine, and Super Rugby and international match day programs. A regular panellist on ABC Grandstand discussing rugby and other sports, Andrew has appeared on ABC's The Drum and also Sky Sportsline. He has convened and managed several touring sides including the Australian Rugby Sevens team on the IRB circuit, and the Australian Barbarians XV.
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