Was Pretoria a baptism or burial for battered Wallabies?
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What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Was the brutal bashing of this young and unlucky Wallabies team by a resurgent Springboks the making of them, or will they be scarred for life?
It was a strong Springboks team, stronger than the one beaten by the Wallabies three weeks ago. They were at home and desperate. They are a different team at home.
The Springboks changes introduced several talented and fearless youngsters, Taute, Goosen and Etzebeth, all 21 years old or younger. Lambie, another youngster, was on the bench.
The Wallabies were severely underpowered with almost 20 starting players missing. Quade Cooper’s bleating was not helpful.
Kurtley Beale was at 10, just a few weeks after the revelation that he has lost his desire and magic, at least for the time being.
Beale had never started at 10 for the Wallabies.
The Wallabies had never won at Pretoria.
From the first Springbok series with the ball, they ran straight and hard. By comparison, the Wallabies first play was a Barnes grubber from inside his own 22-metre line that went generously to Brian Habana, still one of the most potent wingers in world rugby.
In commentary, Phil Kearns correctly called it a rubbish grubber kick. Brainless would be just as accurate.
The previously reliable goal kicker Barnes, pulled his first shot at goal. Even after six minutes, Samo was caught running east west across field.It was all ominous for the Wallabies.
At the 20th minute, with the score at 0-0 and the Wallabies back line continually going across field, they made a critical error in defence. They disappeared.
Barnes was on the short, right hand side of the field with both centres, McCabe and replacement Fainga’a. Habana, Goosen and Kirchner did the rest after some decoy lines in midfield to ‘transfix’ the remnants of Wallabies defence. It took just four phases.
If the Wallabies were to have any chance of winning this game, their previously strong defence would need to remain strong.
Another chip kick, this time by Beale, failed again. A very poor lineout followed and Goosen gassed McCabe on the outside. Goosen was outplaying Beale time after time.
His speed of foot and vision was outstanding and Habana’s workrate was exemplary for any aspiring back three youngster.
By the thirtieth minute, it was 14-0 and on the Wallabies had again spotted their position a potentially match winning lead.
The Springboks had been released form their shackles and they grew in execution levels and confidence. They increased the pace of play and the Wallabies simply could not go with them.
Even when they had the ball, the Wallabies backs lacked communication, structure and directness. Losing McCabe temporarily and Barnes and Adam Ashley-Cooper permanently in the first half did not help.
The Springboks won the breakdown and forced many turnovers. They made 10 line breaks to the Wallabies two. The Wallabies missed 34 tackles to 14 by the Springboks.
There were so many things against this Wallabies team before and during this game that a loss was almost inevitable.
However, I do not understand why Harris, Fainga’a and Shipperley, all Reds teammates, could not manage to catch, draw and pass to make a decent fist of a half break by Beale in the 50th minute.
On the next play, Shipperley took a pass from Beale, complete with some decoy runners, but was picked off and turned the ball over. This is just not acceptable.
Later, he was caught again. Shipperley has gone from a long striding, try scoring Reds player to a hesitant, confused Wallaby.
Dave Dennis gets better with every game for the Wallabies. Phipps pass seemed quicker and flatter than in his debut game. Alexander and Tatafu Polota-Nau tried all night. Hooper is dynamic, but has a very high error rate that negates his good work.
Beale did not work at 10 but he is lighter and faster than in past weeks. There are glimmers of the old Kurtley thankfully re-emerging.
Next week, a backline of principally Reds players will aid cohesion and is their best chance of a win.
Harris should be at 10 next week in Argentina with McCabe and Fainga’a in the centres and Shipperley on the wing with Beale at 15.
Since the Rugby World Cup play off game for third place, I have observed that this team does not lie down. While I wish they would display more cohesion, brains and flair, I cannot fault their tenacity.
Winning close games, winning from behind and great defensive efforts is an emerging pattern for this vintage.
While the Pretoria game had so many unfortunate, unlucky factors, I was encouraged that this team kept playing, albeit it with the Springboks hands around their throats.
When the Springboks eventually relaxed, the Wallabies started to get some continuity and make some yardage.
This young and desperately exposed Wallabies team might just have been inadvertently baptised and galvanised in the process.
If nothing else, next season, there will be plenty of competition for places in what Quade Cooper calls the yellow and I call gold, jersey.
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