Wallabies and Wales closer than clean sweep suggests
Wallaby glory against Wales came with an All Black twist (AAP Image/Joe Castro)
The series is done, the silverware has been held aloft, and the records show the Wallabies clinched the June series against Wales with a three-zip clean sweep.
However, like plenty of records, the overall result really doesn’t paint the true picture.
It’s true that the Wallabies won three keenly fought internationals from three. At different points, Wales would’ve been favoured to win all three themselves. In Melbourne, and again in Sydney, the Wallabies only kicked themselves ahead with late penalties.
Brisbane was decided by eight points. Melbourne by two. Sydney by just one. That’s a three-Test clean sweep with just eleven points between the two sides.
In fact, if you go back to the 2011 Rugby World Cup third place playoff, there’s only 20 points difference across the last five meetings. Yet Wales are 0 and 5. It hardly seems fair, but I suppose that’s international rugby. It’s why teams are so desperate to pit themselves against the best in the world.
Wales played well enough to win the second Test, only to see Mike Harris’ late penalty sail between the posts. Leigh Halfpenny hit the uprights in Sydney from halfway, having not missed before in the series, and they lost by just one point. He’d slotted 15 previous international shots at goal, going all the way back to the Six Nations.
If that shot of Halfpenny’s had struck the post even just an inch more to the inside, it could’ve deflected through for the goal. And who knows how the match might’ve played out after that. I’m sure similar “what if” moments exist in both previous Tests, too.
I mention this only to highlight just how close the fortunes of the two sides are.
Already, it appears that a burgeoning rivalry is building between the sides, but then that was always on the cards with five meetings coming in the space of nine months. Another clash waits at the end of the year.
What I’ve noticed from these recent clashes and this June series is just how similar the two teams appear.
Overall, both teams run onto the ground with a real intent to play quality rugby, but often those intentions are derailed by finding ways of tangling themselves in the moment. This often leads to poor options being taken or unforced errors presenting, all from players who have much more talent than they’re showing at that point.
Both teams are capable of naming what looks to be an excellent side on paper, only for that side to produce a sub-standard performance when expectations are at their highest. Respective supporters must tire of “what if” moments like those I’ve mentioned above, just from this series. And let’s not even go down the irritating path of gallant losses.
The Welsh tight five can rightly lay claim to having the measure of their Australian counterparts come scrum time. Indeed, the Wallabies seem as unsure as ever of just who their best tight five is. The Wallabies have their moments of solid scrummaging, but forget week-to-week, often it’s a scrum-to-scrum proposition.
The Wallabies might hold a slight advantage in the lineout, but both teams found ways in this series of disrupting each other’s throw. Both sets of hookers vary their throwing with the directional consistency of my 1-wood.
Both sides comprise tough, mobile backrows led by opensides playing with maturity beyond their years. On their day, both units can be right up there among the very best in world rugby, or they can be quiet and uncohesive. While David Pocock and Sam Warburton were excellent in this series, their number six and eight colleagues lacked impact at times.
Wycliff Palu improved as the Tests went on, but I was very surprised at the sporadic performances from Scott Higginbotham and Dan Lydiate, considering the respective Super Rugby and Six Nations form they carried into this series.
‘Mercurial’ is possibly a harsh description for both sets of halves, but it was the first word to pop up and these instincts are often accurate. Mike Phillips was arguably the best no.9 of last year’s Rugby World Cup, yet we had to wait until Sydney to see anything resembling his best form.
Will Genia was very good for most of the series, but is still prone to falling back to that aimless, telegraphed-beyond-comprehension box kick.
Berrick Barnes was as surprisingly composed with his game management as Rhys Priestland’s appeared surprisingly off.
The two sides’ centre pairings are pretty much interchangeable, and the injured Jamie Roberts fits this equation, too. Both sides run a hard running inside centre with a limited distribution game and excellent defence, and an outside centre who’s essentially the same, but with no distribution game at all.
The two ‘back three’ units comprise imposing wingers who go searching for the ball, and a match-winning fullback, albeit by different methods.
You could nearly interchange players between the two sides randomly and get similar results. And when you think about that, suddenly that 20-point differential across the last five outings isn’t so surprising. Five-nil is still, but less than one try per game difference indicates two very closely matched teams.
It will be very interesting to follow the fortunes of both teams over the next couple of years. Neither will be facing a large turnover of players in that time, and by the next Rugby World Cup, the intense rivalry could be something very special.
The Wallabies have found a way to win a series that they’ve definitely not dominated, which in itself, is a pleasant change from what we’ve seen in the past. There’s good reason to be impressed, but still plenty of room to acknowledge evident deficiencies. This bodes well for the Rugby Championship, certainly, but let’s not fall into the all-too-regular trap of pre-tallying poultry.
Wales will be annoyed to be heading home with nothing to show from this series, but they have far from disgraced themselves in Australia. They will break their winning drought down here before too long.
The teams are way too close for them not to.
Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-1st Grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009 (having joined in Sept 2008), Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport