Not quite 99 problems, but the Wallabies only have time to fix three

Brett McKay Columnist

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    The Hume Highway between Sydney and Canberra has been good to me over the years; the couple of hours of dual carriageway provides plenty of time to think, and more than a few columns have written themselves at 110km/h.

    It was the same story on Sunday, with plenty of time to contemplate what I’d witnessed the night before. But with so many issues within and around the Wallabies’ performances against New Zealand, things didn’t quite flow as nicely as I’d hoped.

    With so many ‘what went wrong?’ thought-bubbles floating around, it was and still is easy to jump from one to the next without actually solving anything.

    That in itself reminded me of something.

    Before the June Tests, Eddie Jones told me that when you take over a team, there’s always 50 things that need fixing, but only enough time to fix three. And the key – and what sorts the good coaches from the really, really good coaches – is the ability to work out addressing which three things can have the biggest impact on the team.

    That’s the challenge for Michael Cheika this week. He’s obviously not taking over, but he is effectively starting again. All the ‘what were they doing for four weeks?’ questions are valid, but reviewing that now doesn’t help what needs to happen this week. Plus, there isn’t the time anyway.

    The Wallabies have probably already identified that they were comprehensively thumped at the breakdown, and annihilated in the lineout, and smashed in defence, denied the gain line and any semblance of go-forward.

    They would already know that the depth they were forced to play at meant their already limited kicking length was further eroded. And that they didn’t kick well anyway. And that they then missed too many tackles. And that they were then thumped at the breakdown. Rinse and repeat for 80 minutes.

    But what are the Wallabies’ three things? Is it even possible to find three that will have an impact within a week?

    The three I’d be targeting are making the gain line, the breakdown, and the lineout.

    Addressing these three elements will almost certainly necessitate changes, but changes on their own won’t make a lot of difference. As it was, Cheika made eight changes to the starting XV alone from the last Test against England in June. And named a whole new bench. Mass change didn’t work last week, and it’s hard to see how it works this week.

    That’s not to say some changes wouldn’t be justified. More than a few reputations took a beating on Saturday night, and the questions being asked are generally on the money. Where the line falls between too many changes and not enough is anyone’s guess, though. (Click to Tweet)

    Changes in the midfield will be required, obviously. Even though Cheika says he still sees Israel Folau as a fullback, he probably needs to play outside centre. Not necessarily because he’s the best option at 13, but because Dane Haylett-Petty is a better option at 15, with a kicking game that the Wallabies desperately need, but have dumbfoundingly ignored to date. And yes, Folau hasn’t done a lot of defending at 13, but neither has Bernard Foley, and look how many times the All Blacks ran at him in Sydney.

    The gain line and breakdown go hand in hand to a degree, and one of the reasons Foley played so deep was because the Wallabies essentially never made the gain line. Compounding the issue was a lack of breakdown presence, which couldn’t produce quick ruck ball in order to play on the front foot.

    And it’s certainly true that the All Blacks’ incredible defensive line speed and intensity were factors in the Wallabies’ woes. But they also brought a fair amount of it on themselves.

    Ben McCalman has always been a serviceable player, but he isn’t that big, ball-carrying No.8 the Wallabies need, nor does he bring the breakdown intensity of Scott Fardy, the man he replaced.

    Kane Douglas started with plenty of intensity, but none of that translated into gain line metres. Is it time to see if Lopeti Timani can be the rampaging ball-carrier that so many want him to be? It can’t hurt. If he can bend tackles against New Zealand, then he’ll bend tackles against anyone.

    The question then becomes does Timani add enough at the breakdown? Timani 8 would bring the curtain down on the Michael Hooper-David Pocock double act, and getting Pocock back to his roots would have to help the breakdown situation. But Timani would probably also mean the Wallabies need a Fardy-type player back at blindside, for both the left-edge ball carrying and breakdown presence he brings.

    And that, in turn, would also give another prong to the lineout. Keiran Read’s post-match assessment that the All Blacks “just got in front and jumped quicker” would’ve been funny if it wasn’t so accurate. The Highlanders turned their own lineout troubles around by getting in front and jumping quicker than the Brumbies in the Super Rugby quarters, and indeed, Eben Etzebeth has made a career out of the tactic.

    The Wallabies made the job easy for the Kiwis though, by starting with Rob Simmons and a secondary jumper in Douglas, and occasional options in McCalman, Pocock, and Hooper. Getting in front and jumping quicker was always going to work, and you could see all night what kind of pressure Simmons was under from Read and Sam Whitelock. If Read didn’t get up quick enough, Whitelock still made it a contest in the air.

    More genuine lineout options are desperately needed. But that doesn’t mean picking a lineout-only option like Dean Mumm is going to fix anything. Mumm doesn’t address either of the ball-carrying or breakdown problems, and his selection on the bench was one the Wallabies didn’t need with Fardy there too.

    A functioning lineout can help build a base from which other aspects of the game can flow. A solid set piece is needed to win quality ball, and from there the breakdown and gain line components follow.

    Just focussing on defence – as “easy” as Nathan Grey worryingly thinks that is – and making backline changes won’t matter a jot if you can’t provide a platform from which to use the ball.

    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.

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