A Wallaby series report card
The Wallabies have just white-washed the highest ranked team in Europe by winning three hard fought, closely contested games. Apart from the obvious positive of the three nil series win, there were many positives, many tactics that worked, and some areas for improvement.
What was most impressive from the coaching perspective was that Robbie Deans somehow drew together players from five under performing provincial sides to beat the highly regarded Welsh.
The Wallabies’ coach can be proud of some of his improved, subtle yet intelligent tactics led well by David Pocock, Will Genia and Berrick Barnes.
We should give a great deal of credit first to the performance of the forwards’ loose play. Apart from Pocock’s obvious world class pilfering, all the forwards can be credited with having generally dominated at the breakdown.
This was much to the dismay of the Welsh coaches who began to make excuses and cry foul because they had no answer to not only Pocock’s superiority but to our ‘pod systems’ in place to support our ball carriers.
Another area of strength was our new halves combination. Genia’s sniping runs initially cut through the Welsh defences, which in turn placed less pressure on Barnes in the next two tests. It was also great to see some innovative rugby from these two.
Barnes choosing to attempt drop goals at tactical moments, kick long from quick penalties, as well as Genia’s decision to tap and go from in front of his goal posts are great examples of purposeful decision making, otherwise known as intelligent rugby. There were many more pleasing examples from the Wallabies.
Another tactic that worked well was the scrum half and fly half often joining the fullback as our back three in defence. This is a consolidation of Deans’ tactics from last year but it is now working much better.
The obvious advantage is that it gives us our best kicking options from the back and yet it still gives us the option of creative counter attacking raids when our centres and wingers track back in support.
The selection and general performance of Pat McCabe and Robe Horne in the centres is also worth noting because this helped sure up our go forward, despite the criticism of it stifling our attack out wide. It also gave us some extra weight in defence in the mid-field from set piece and from phase ball out wide.
Deans deserves some extra credit for adopting the progressive tactic of playing centre-a-side in defence where possible, which helped stifle the Welsh when they went wide on many occasions.
At the right times the Wallabies were clinical in their try scoring and some resulted from excellent passages of play. Still, many may say we did not score enough tries.
The truth is, try scoring is relative to the opposition. The Wallabies scored as many tries in the first test as the rest of Wales’ opponents managed in the entire Six Nations combined.
The Wallabies scored only a further two tries in the final two games of the series, which can either be viewed as an area of concern or as indicative of how well drilled the Welsh defence normally is.
The Wallabies can also be happy with their own defence. Wales, who have some state of the art attacking weaponry, managed only one good try a game. Their tries to Cuthbert, North and Ryan Jones were deserved from the good lead up play and so were not really a result of any atrociously poor Wallaby defence.
Their try to Davies in the second test was a piece of misfortune but also a result from a tactical area where we need to improve. Unfortunately it was also an issue in the extended lead up to Jones’ try, but I’ll expand on this tactical failure shortly.
Fearful this might now seem somewhat of a ‘puff piece’ there are still many areas the Wallabies must improve in order to have a chance at winning the inaugural Rugby Championship.
There is no surprise that the biggest requirement for improvement is in the set pieces.
Benn Robinson was disappointingly over-powered by Adam Jones at scrum time and I fear this is a complicated problem with a controversial solution.
Robinson is our best loose head and his position in the team is not in question. We either put up with this or we look deeper into his lack of success. Sharpe for all his good work around the park is a weakness in the scrum behind Robinson.
This weakness may also have something to do with one of our flankers, namely Higginbotham, releasing himself from pushing duty too early and too often. This last point is easily fixed by better coaching but we do need a more powerful lock behind our loose head if we wish to improve our scrum.
It must be said that Sitaleki Timani made a big difference on Kepu’s side of the scrum on Saturday. Deans may need to persist with Timani for the greater good and either ask him to push behind Robinson or extend this positive by selecting our two most powerful locks at scrum time, namely Timani and Douglas.
This would be at the expense of our line out jumping ability and although this also is an area that needs to improve, it is the lesser of two evils.
For this to work we would then need a better third option in the line out. One might get the feeling we need Rocky to return to the fold. Alas, if Elsom’s days are over than Dave Dennis seems the best option as the alternative in the lineout. He does have the added advantage of a much higher work rate than Higginbotham.
Another glaringly obvious area that we fell short in was that our blindside wingers often failed to drop back as cover whenever the full back joined the attacking line. In the second match we used the blindside winger as the ball runner and because the full back was also up, the bad pass led to a kick through with nobody at home and to an inevitable Jonathan Davies try.
On Saturday there were two occasions where something similar happened with Beale up in the line. One such occasion led to the eventual Ryan Jones’ try and in the final minutes of the match, when Hook kicked ahead, this tactical failure almost cost us the game.
The last area that Australia needs to improve comes back to the original point about Deans bringing together players from the under performing franchises. What we need to do is ensure the franchises have a consistent approach in adopting the majority of the national side’s tactics.
The last thing we want is to end up is the situation in Ireland with its feeder clubs playing completely different styles of rugby. Munster for example play 10-man rugby where as Leinster play expansive rugby. Join them together and you’ve got a schizophrenic Ireland side that often implodes as they did on Saturday and at other times plays well, as they did the Saturday before.
With more test standard players than the other franchises, Deans should insist that the Waratahs in particular follow his lead, including playing a much quicker brand of rugby. The other Australian franchises generally do, but it is time the Waratahs played much more like the Wallabies, for everyone’s benefit.
The Wallabies receive a B+ for the series. Keep up the good work!
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