The Wallabies’ confusing game of halves

Brett McKay Columnist

By , Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    Much has been written, posted, and commented upon since the Wallabies’ outstanding 27-19 win over New Zealand on Saturday night, and The Roar’s servers are certainly breathing a little easier after the volume of traffic since full-time in Sydney.

    While the win was excellent and deserving of celebration, the Wallabies will know the job is only half done – maybe not even half done, if you consider the enormity of the task that is beating the All Blacks at Eden Park.

    Then there’s the prospect of facing a wounded All Blacks side. Never mind the records and all that business, the thing that might just be grating the All Blacks the most is the fact that they are currently playing well short of their best. They had won games against Argentina and South Africa, almost despite this, but when expected to ‘bring it’ on Saturday night, they were found wanting.

    It’s hard to see the All Blacks producing another sub-par performance, but in reality they’ve produced three on the trot in The Rugby Championship. Experience suggests that makes them more dangerous.

    The bigger question for the Wallabies this week and beyond is just what to do about their halves.

    Nick Phipps was very good against South Africa in Brisbane, and again against Argentina in Mendoza. He didn’t have the best night in Sydney, and was rightly hooked after being sent to the naughty chair in the 53rd minute.

    Nic White went on and promptly played the best 17 minutes of his Wallabies career.

    53 sub-par minutes doesn’t completely cancel out two very good games though, and suggestions since Saturday night that Phipps should never pull on Wallabies gold again are as big an over-reaction as Michael Clarke retiring after the Ashes series loss.

    The Bernard Foley conundrum isn’t so clear though. He didn’t play in Brisbane, was okay in Mendoza, but was found wanting in Sydney.

    The point here is that Phipps and Foley contributed to each other’s night to forget.

    For instance, what came first, Phipps’ erratic delivery, or Foley’s extraordinary depth in the pocket? The answer is actually the latter, and Foley’s depth only increased as the game went on. Within the first minute of play, after the Wallabies regained the ball from the All Blacks’ mistake from the kickoff, Foley was already standing six and seven metres behind the ruck.

    The third pass he received from Phipps – around 40 seconds in – was just in front of the New Zealand 10m line, but Phipps was standing on the faded NRL 30m line when he let it go. Factor in angle and width, and we’re already talking passes pushing 20 metres in length. The Wallabies were already losing the gain line in chunks of metres.

    As the game went on, and the midfield organisation evaporated, Phipps was being asked to pass further and further, and this is where his accuracy started failing him.

    Three obvious examples stick out:

    • The quick pass to Matt Giteau, who wasn’t watching.
    • The flat, long pass that bounced short of Dean Mumm, killing off a Wallabies’ attacking raid.
    • The wide pass that saw Foley tackled in-goal by Kieran Read.

    I could point out mitigating circumstances in all three, but it won’t change what happened on the night.

    Regardless, for most of the time they were on, it looked to me as though Foley was always stationed on the end of the Phipps’ range. If you’re being asked to throw passes to the limit of your length for 50 minutes against the best team in the world, who are themselves frustrated and trying to get back into the game, accuracy will suffer. So passes went high, and passes bounced, and passes missed their mark.

    And because he couldn’t trust the service, Foley had to give himself more room.

    Phipps’ execution let him down; of course it did, but Foley didn’t help the situation. That’s not to excuse Phipps, just to examine why someone who played well in previous games suddenly wasn’t.

    But Foley wasn’t helping himself much either. As the game went on, and it became clear the All Blacks were there for the taking, the Wallabies needed their flyhalf to step up and guide them. But for far too much of the time he was on, Foley played way too laterally. He was already too deep, and his sideways instincts meant the Wallabies weren’t making the advantage line and were essentially being herded toward touch. Foley would force Giteau sideways, and outside backs had nowhere to go.

    Worse than that, the forward runners had no clear direction, no real idea except to charge into the defence and hope someone was behind them.

    In the first 90 seconds Matt Toomua had the ball in his hands, the Wallabies played flatter, the forwards were organised into pods inside and outside, and with similar options around Giteau wider out.

    They made 35 metres in 11 phases from the lineout just inside New Zealand territory, well into the All Blacks’ 22m, before Phipps and Michael Hooper tangled themselves and conceded a penalty for obstruction.

    From that point, the Wallabies had direction, and despite Phipps’ stupidity shortly after, it felt like the Wallabies were not just going forward, but asking questions.

    White went on after Phipps’ timeout expired, nailed a 48-metre penalty goal, and his confidence only grew from there. When Read charged up out of the line in the 72nd minute, White took the invitation to step back inside for the match-winning try.

    So what does Michael Cheika do for Eden Park?

    Certainly, the evidence gathered over the three games tells us that Toomua has to start somewhere, and on Saturday’s effort, probably flyhalf.

    But did White do enough to start? I’m not so sure on this one. Phipps had an off night, for sure, but his Brisbane and Mendoza games should give him some credit, and a chance to prove Saturday night was a one-off.

    Where Foley and Quade Cooper fit into the puzzle from here on is anyone’s guess.

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.