Supposedly unlikely Spring Tour pass mark
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Adam Ashley-Cooper (C) catches the ball during the International Rugby Union match between Italy and Australia at the Artemio Franchi Stadium in Florence on November 24, 2012. (AFP / GABRIEL BOUYS)
Well, they’ve done it again. Only a week after writing about the Wallabies’ impressive ability to win games they’re probably not entitled to, the Wallabies have once again snatched victory from the large-looming jaws of defeat.
When five or six weeks ago I suggested three wins in Europe would have to be considered a pass mark, I probably should admit I wasn’t overly confident of it being achieved.
The big loss in Paris to start the tour certainly didn’t improve the already low hopes of success but, to their credit, the Wallabies bounced back with three wins, even if only one of them came from something resembling a reasonable performance.
So, even if we set a target that we may or may not have thought was achievable, the Spring Tour of 2012 has to be seen as a successful tour. Three wins from four games, even looking through begrudgingly generous glasses and ignoring the manner with which the wins came, is a ‘pass’.
Those three wins in a row shouldn’t be sneezed at, either. You have to go right back to 2008 and Robbie Deans’ first tour in charge to see the last time the Wallabies won three on the trot in Europe.
Funnily enough, that same tour is also the last time Wales beat Australia, with the streak now extending to eight games, including the last four at the Millennium. If the Wallabies have become New Zealand’s ‘bunny’ over the recent past, then so have the Welsh become for Australia.
And sure, it’s hardly been a sustained period of brutal domination. The average winning margin across the eight games is just a tad over six points, and it’s only that high because of the comparatively thumping 18-point margin in the first game of the streak in 2009. Since then, four of the last seven wins have been by three points or less, and only 13 points separate the four games played in 2012.
On that note, Wales must have dropped a mirror while walking under a ladder chasing a black cat. ‘How much more must we do?’ has to be the common post-match question, with two of those 2012 defeats to Australia coming in the immediate time either side of the full-time siren.
While 2012 started on a high for Wales, claiming the Six Nations undefeated, they now haven’t won a game since, and finished the year losing seven on the trot. It’s not a good look by any gauge, and neither is slipping to the third band of teams before Rugby World Cup pools are drawn.
But again, a win’s a win, and while it would be nice to point out everything the Wallabies did well, the editors won’t let me get away with writing only one more paragraph. So here’s some general observations from the win in Cardiff.
The Kurtley Beale experiment at flyhalf has to be put on ice
He started reasonably well when he first inherited the 10 jersey, but I feel his game has gone downhill on this tour. Against Wales, he started reasonably well again, and was the key to Australia playing with the width they did in their dominant first half, perhaps best illustrated by the space and time he gave Adam Ashley-Cooper who then straightened and accelerated through the missed tackles of Jamie Roberts and Rhys Priestland.
Beale and Berrick Barnes were also interchanging between the front and back effectively, without any evident effect on the option runners they were employing.
By late in the first half, though, and throughout the second, Beale seemed unsure whether he should be playing as a flyhalf or a fullback, and often found himself with no runners and isolated. It was as if the option runners didn’t know what Beale was doing either, and so only presented for Barnes, who of course threw the pass for Mike Harris to make the break which ultimately led to Beale’s match-winning try.
Beale just looks to have lost some of his decision-making in the front line, and thus reverts to the instinctive running game he plays at fullback. The Wallabies can’t afford a flyhalf who second-guesses himself; they already have enough handicaps.
Work out exactly what Dave Dennis’ best position is
It’ll take unprecedented collaboration between club and country, but I reckon heads need to come together and keep Dennis in the one position. I can’t see how he can truly become a quality Test player while ever he’s covering lock, blindside, and no.8.
In my humble opinion, he doesn’t have the size to play lock (witness what happened to the first scrum he packed into at lock) or 8. His running game is certainly suited to 8, and he played quite well there for the Waratahs this year, but he’s not that destructive presence you want in an international 8. Ask Matthew Rees.
I like the Ben Tapuai-Adam Ashley-Cooper centre combination
I think it’s the way forward in the immediate future. Both are playing in their best positions, at inside and outside centre respectively, though interestingly, they defend in the opposite lane.
This might be the problem, and I’m not sure if it’s a simple communication thing. The common denominator in most of Wales’ line breaks was Tapuai often misreading the attack, and coming in on an attacker that he didn’t need to. It happened for Alex Cuthbert’s break early on, and it happened for Leigh Halfpenny’s break that almost led to a Welsh try.
So I guess the question then becomes why are they not defending in their preferred position? Tapuai has blossomed since moving in one spot, so why complicate things and leave him defending in what’s regarded as the most difficult channel to defend? Ashley-Cooper is way more experienced at 13, so why not have him defend there too?
Before the tour, I wrote that this was looming as a make or break tour for the Rebel scrumhalf. I went further than that, actually, suggesting:
“Should Phipps fire during the Spring tour, it will cement his place as one of the leading number 9s in the country, but if he suddenly finds himself benched behind veteran Brett Sheehan, there’s no predicting how far down the pecking order he could fall.”
Now granted, he wasn’t displaced by Sheehan, but I’m not sure of too many views that have him finishing the tour better than he started. My point about him falling down the order could yet happen, and it would only take a Nic White, or a Brendan McKibbin, or even Sheehan to have a half-decent Super Rugby season for Phipps to quickly fall out of Wallaby reckoning in 2013.
This could’ve been a career-boosting tour for Phipps, but I’m not sure he’s done himself any favours at all. If he was serious, he’d re-watch the Cardiff game and study how his opposite, Mike Phillips, controlled proceedings in the second half.
The lack of evident game plan
This finally point has been a common complaint about the Wallabies of 2012, and for a good while, I felt the same way. It’s taken me to the last game of the year, but I reckon I’ve joined some dots.
I think the Wallabies do attempt to play a ball-in-hand game wherever they can, and I think that is their preferred ‘plan A’. That was certainly what they did for the first 20 minutes against Wales, and of course in the last ten, when the game was suddenly on the line.
And thus, I think the kick is actually ‘plan B’. I think their approach is to run where they think something’s on, but as soon as the opportunity dries up, they’ll kick. Likewise, in their own half, they won’t even bother with ‘A’, and just go straight to ‘B’. With the way some referees like to vary their breakdown interpretations, the safer option is to not possess the ball in your own half and be pinged. You might recall this became Jake White’s method of operation in the back half of the Super Rugby season, and it’s becoming more popular around the traps, it seems.
Of course, this doesn’t explain the stupid kicks when there’s an overlap in the opposition half, but it provides a general mudmap. Admittedly, that mudmap often isn’t executed well, but that’s a whole other set of problems.
Anyway, I was happy the Wallabies were able to send Nathan Sharpe – who had a solid final game – out a winner. I screamed with the rest of you as his conversion attempt curled around toward the black dot, but saw the irony in a conversion attempt looking good at first before ultimately falling short. There was a nice symmetry there.
And yet, the Tour has been a success. The pass mark, as unlikely as it seemed six weeks ago, was accomplished. In a season of ups and downs, it’s good to finish on something of high.
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