Wallabies on the verge of a memorable victory
Adam Ashley-Cooper crosses in the 76th minute to set up the Wallabies' 16-15 win over the Lions in Melbourne. (Image: Tim Anger Photography)
This Saturday night the Wallabies walk along a tall, narrow ridge. Down one side is a devastating, and for some in the camp career altering, loss.
The other direction is a victory that ensures this Wallabies group, perhaps viewed as underachieving, will always have an historic occasion to hang their hat on.
Here are a couple of things that stand out to me as important considerations for how the third and final Lions Test will play out.
George Smith is back
The man many still believe is the strongest Australian openside flanker playing is available again. He will certainly bring some strength in terms of knowledge, versatility and game understanding.
I believe respect for his body of work and status in rugby circles slightly inflated his Brumbies exploits this year in many a nostalgic viewer, but I can’t argue that he was a very effective player this year.
His strongest games for Brumbies – where he was legitimately in best-on-field discussions – were the first few back.
The hope from me is a lay-off; injury enforced or not, will see a similar level of strength and purpose on his game. As the Super Rugby season took its toll he reverted to a more nuanced style that involved more linking and less belligerent ball carrying.
Smith’s performance needs to build on Hooper’s strong ball running and speed around the park while adding a higher level of ruck impact in what might be his last ever Wallabies match.
Having said that, he does get around the park well and will adequately fill in at fly-half for those times Christian Leali’ifano isn’t available to do James O’Connor’s job.
Ben Mowen is a high-performance conundrum
The same reason I had conflicting feelings about Ben Mowen’s tremendous work with the Brumbies this year have also translated to his play with the Wallabies.
Mowen shows a remarkable ability and desire to get around the field and be involved as often as possible at the ruck, with the ball and in tackles. But he also gives away a lot of penalties that negates some of the good work, especially evidenced last weekend.
The simple problem is Mowen spends a lot of time on the wrong side of the ruck, in front of the last feet and struggles mightily to respect the referee’s call for “hands off” as quickly as others.
Combining Mowen with Smith means we will have two flankers that have a particular penchant for drawing the attention of the referee.
As players who are present at so many rucks and mauls I hope they are smart about how they tried to influence the game because they will both have many opportunities to do so, positively and negatively.
Don’t give Leigh Halfpenny more chances to win the game.
Backs reserves are left thin
Deans is tempting fate with his decision to make the bench a six/two split in favour of forwards. He hasn’t added any particularly game-changing forwards to the list either.
In the first Test the Wallabies backline was shifted due to injury in the very first minute and they kept dropping all night. I’m sure I saw Hawkeye, Houlihan and Klinger arguing on the sideline about just how to attend to all the wounded flooding off the field.
Adam Ashley-Cooper is now the most important defender in the backline with Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies together in the middle of the field.
He’s also the one who’s been beaten up in both games so far and needed more time to work into game shape during the week. Trying that trick a third time in a row is stretching the realms of good management a long way.
Leaving Nick Phipps and Jesse Mogg as the only back reserves means Adam Ashley-Cooper coming off, even just five or 10 minutes before time, will cause a fairly painful re-jig.
If another back has had to make way before that stage things will be even uglier. Deans needs to pray and fast in the hope Ashley-Cooper isn’t injured.
I always thought the series was over if Will Genia was injured as he is one of the main difference makers. Lack of bench alternatives leaves a second scenario where the Wallabies could be carrying another large liability at outside centre.
Only a naive person would suggest the fact an openside flanker defending at inside centre for a set piece move didn’t a large part in the Lions’ second try at Suncorp.
Looking at the bench of each team I think the Lions now have a balance needed to come home with a wet sail in game three, after fading somewhat in the first two Tests.
Look at who is going to be running onto the field late in the match – Tom Youngs, Mako Vunipola, Richie Gray, Justin Tipuric, Connor Murray and Manusamoa Tuilagi.
That’s a whole heap of increased work-rate, forward impetus at the ruck and powerful running around the park. I can’t see the Wallabies bench adding the same level of power and impact.
What that means is the Wallabies can’t afford to be the ones coming from a length back late in the contest.
The Wallabies must develop some attacking cohesion earlier in the match and force the Lions to scramble and exert more energy defending their line rather than setting up kicks for goal.
The Wallabies improved in their cohesion in the second Test, more than some people realise.
While they didn’t decimate the Lions in the possession measurement and there were many frustrating errors, they held the ball for five phases or longer 13 times over the match. The Lions only did that seven times.
That includes the strong build up to the much-awaited try.
Key to this is Will Genia moving the ball around the first few channels rather than just selecting the first runner available and a fluid partnership in midfield orchestrating the Wallabies wider speed men.
At times in the second Test Genia seemed content to just pick up the ball and shovel it along, he can’t do that this weekend.
Genia needs to drag the first man around the defensive line and keep hitting forwards around the corner or wider out. Then the backs will have room to move, after the Lions have been stressed by consecutive phases.
Even a poor O’Connor couldn’t mess that up by the 15th phase.
The Wallabies shouldn’t rely on a fast finish, instead there needs to be cohesion and clinical execution earlier in the match.
On the verge of an historic achievement, leaving more ‘til the end of the games gives more room to the uneven bounce of the ball, the referee’s interpretation and lady luck.
Of course, that’s where we’ll end up anyway, won’t we?
I can’t see this being over until the game clock shifts to red and we’re waiting until the final kick puts the ball in touch.