The Wallabies get 6 out of 10 for their 37-14 win over Fiji

Spiro Zavos Columnist

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    On the Friday before the Melbourne Test between Australia and Fiji, I was chatting with my son Zolton about how the match might turn out.

    “The Wallabies would have to be favoured to win by about 30 to 40 points,” Zolton suggested.

    I assured him that this was about what we should expect.

    You have to go back to 1961 for a Fiji victory against the Wallabies. Moreover, the Wallabies (despite the general dismay about their performances last year) are number 3 on the World Rugby rankings. Fiji is 10th.

    But the Wallabies were coming off two successive defeats (England and Ireland) at the end of 2016.

    And there was one other aspect to the Melbourne Test that nagged away, rather like a sporadic toothache. Back back in 2011, as part of a warm-up of matches to prepare for the RWC tournament, the Wallabies were defeated by Samoa at Parramatta.

    When first tier national teams play Tests against the Island sides there is always the nagging doubt (rather like playing France) that if everything goes well for them, they are capable of pulling off an unexpected victory.

    Because the unexpected can happen in Test rugby (ask the Springboks about their 2015 RWC loss to Japan), there is always lingering fear about predicting a certain Test victory for a dominant side.

    We know now that the unexpected did not happen. The bookmakers were correct with their odds on a Wallabies victory at $1.03 to $1.00.

    The Wallabies started strongly and scored a try within 4m.20s from the start of play.

    There was a lot to like about this opening onslaught. It suggested that the coaching staff had done a lot of thinking since last year and had come up with some answers for the Wallabies.

    The Wallabies unveiled a new formation from the kick-off, as Rod Kafer noted. And some clever things in their back-line alignments, especially around Karmichael Hunt, Bernard Foley sometimes playing the runner off Hunt’s passes and numerous positional switches for Israel Folau.

    Hunt played the role of second receiver fluently, aside from an initial error. He also alternated cleverly with the only indispensable Wallaby, Bernard Foley, as first receiver.

    This use of a playmaking inside centre to augment the playmaking number 10 has been a Holy Grail of Australian rugby since the heyday of the system back in 1984 when Mark Ella and Michael Lynagh excelled in their roles and gave a scientific and ruthless cutting edge to the back line attack of the Wallabies.

    I haven’t been a great proponent of Hunt as a Wallaby starter, certainly not as a fullback. He seems to me to be heavy-footed, if I can put it that way. He is not particularly quick, a clumper rather than a fluent runner.

    He is abrasive, though. And as he demonstrated in his first Test, he has a sharp passing game and can straighten a back line that has a tendency to drift. This squaring of the shoulders by the inside backs when they attack the opposition is the key to successful attacking play with backs and forwards charging on to the set-up passes.

    I’d like coach Michael Cheika to continue the experiment of the two playmakers (Foley and Hunt) with a proviso. I’d like to see some with more genuine pace at outside centre.

    When Samu Kerevi comes back, he could be this player. But who right now is for Cheika to decide.

    Reece Hodge, perhaps, although his defensive work needs to ramped up. Possibly Dane Haylett-Petty who is a terrific all-round player, rather like Conrad Smith, who has all attributes, especially the defensive skills and know-how about reading plays to be a stand-out player in this position.

    Where would Tevita Kuridrani play in this sort of lineup? On the wing, I would suggest. His block-busting, bull-dozing style is best suited to a position where he doesn’t have to worry about feeding wingers or making crucial defensive decisions.

    I know, I know. Haylett-Petty plays all his rugby at full-back and on the wing. So why shove him into a new position?

    In the last year or so, rugby has continued its evolution into a game where the numbers on the backs of players, except obviously for the set piece plays, don’t have the importance they used to have. The skills that have allowed a natural full-back like Haylett-Petty to be effective in his catching, passing, running and tackling under pressure as a winger are transferable, in his case, to the centres.

    Israel Folau Wallabies Australian Rugby Union 2017 tall

    (AAP Image/Joe Castro)

    Will Cheika follow this advice?

    Of course he won’t, certainly not for his starting XV for the Test against Scotland next weekend.

    But I think it is an idea that has merit as a work in progress, especially looking towards the RWC tournament in 2019.

    I was surprised that Will Genia won the official man of match award. He was effective and played with the surety and calmness he generally exhibits.

    But surely Israel Folau (despite his yellow card) was the standout Wallaby on the field?

    He scored the first try from a cross-field bomb from Foley by soaring in the air, defying gravity like a rugby union Michael Jordan, and snatching the ball as he fell to the ground to plant it down for a try.

    With his AFL experience and his wiry body build (despite his obvious size and strength), Folau is a formidable attacker when the ball is in the air. The coaching staff seem, finally, to have worked out ways of keeping Folau in play, even when he is playing at fullback.

    Let’s hope that the systems used to allow him to get his hands on the ball more frequently than he has been for the Waratahs can be refined and perfected to allow Folau’s natural rugby talents to flourish during the harder Tests to come later in the season.

    The result of the systems at Melbourne, anyway, was that Folau had his first two-try Test since November 2014. He looked more like the prodigiously gifted and dangerous player who was so sensational in his first Test against the British and Irish Lions four years ago.

    One aspect of the play of the Wallabies against Fiji, and it is a recurring problem, is that they started brilliantly and after about 20 minutes lapsed into a sort of lacklustre, laboured industriousness that afflicted so much of their play last year.

    At the 17th minute mark, the Wallabies were leading 15-0. They added another 3 points in the next 23 minutes up to half-time. Then in the 53rd minute of play they scored another try to take the lead out to 25-0.

    After this, the Wallabies scored two more tries and conceded two tries to the Fijians, who finally converted a huge amount of time inside the Wallabies 22 in the Test into points.

    It remains a mystery why the Wallabies have this knack of turning off after making an explosive start. It also happened in the June Tests against England, especially in the opening Test when for 15 minutes or so the Wallabies looked like world-beaters or at least England-beaters.

    Sam Carter Wallabies Australia Rugby Union 2017

    (AAP Image/Joe Castro)

    The mystery can be explained by a lack of muscularity and physicality in the Wallabies pack. The players just do not have that collective mongrel that the best packs, like England, Ireland, the All Blacks and the Lions against the Crusaders, have with all their forwards really hitting their targets in tackle like missiles.

    Teams like these, when they get on top, tend to stay on top making each thumping run or tackle another blow to weaken their opponents. The rain of blows often tends to blow away their opponents.

    There is a tendency for the Wallabies (think Sekope Kepu in the RWC 2015 final) to mistake swinging arms and boiling anger for effective physically intimidating play.

    The problem with this foul play attack is that it often leads to yellow cards, as the Waratahs can confirm with their yellow card tally and poor results this season.

    Playing with legalised mongrel is facet of the play of the Wallabies, and Australian rugby in general, that needs addressing. There are no genuine HARD MEN in the Wallabies or Australian rugby, in fact, who can intimidate their opponents with legal, savage, abrasive smash-and-grab forward play.

    The backrow that the Wallabies fielded at Melbourne played well but did not impose themselves on the Fijians. The Fijian forwards, in fact, ended the Test holding their own against the Wallabies pack.

    Ned Hanigan, for instance, already has the physical dimensions to be an enforcer. But his body hasn’t hardened up, nor has his mind. There is too much pretend muscularity with flaying arms and legs and angry gestures, rather than the real mongrel thing, in his play.

    Hopefully, this will come. For he is a player for the future and worth keeping in the starting XV. He is good around the field. He is a lineout winner. And he has the sort of galloping speed that players of his type need to make an impression on opponents. And he has the unbreakable spirit that boys from the bush seem to always have.

    One other point about Hanigan. He is Wallaby 902. A country boy who plays out of the Randwick Club, he is the 102nd Wallaby from the Galloping Greens.

    Think about this. One Sydney rugby club had provided one out of every nine Wallabies. This is an incredible statistic that should give the ARU board members some cause to re-think their stupid policy of rejecting the traditional grassroots of the rugby game here in Australia.

    Now for Michael Hooper. I thought he did well enough but not outstandingly well as the Wallaby captain. He took the easy penalties early on, which is always the right thing to do. He was busy around the field. And his interventions with the referee were shrewd and effective.

    But there must be a question mark over his captaincy given the woeful performance of the Waratahs this season under his captaincy. This is a valid point made by Mark Ella on Saturday in The Australian in an article titled: “It’s not how much we win by that counts, it’s how we play the game.”

    For me, too, he allowed the Wallabies to drift too much through the Test. Someone like George Gregan or Nick Farr-Jones would have had the whip out on the Wallabies who seemed to be easing off too much in their play for my liking, once the game’s result seemed to be settled.

    There is also a sort of question mark over his play. I’ve tried to think about why, even when he plays brilliantly, which is quite often, he rarely has a dominant impact on play.

    He is, it seems to me, a flanker playing as an inside centre rather than an inside centre playing as a flanker. In other words, he plays like a back rather than as a forward.

    For instance, he rarely wins turnovers that turn matches, He rarely makes the bone-crashing tackles that win matches.

    He needs a complementary player, either at number 6 or number 8, to do the impact things. Richard Hardwick came on and immediately won a turnover that stopped a Fijian resurgence.

    My feeling is that if Cheika wants a balanced backrow, he needs to play an abrasive turn-over expert like Hardwick to work with Hooper’s brilliant running and tackling game.

    We come finally to the case of Stephen Moore.

    Surely it was a very odd decision by Cheika to play the Wallabies squad captain as a reserve? Surely the Wallabies captain should be a starter?

    So how does one explain the decision to play Moore as a reserve?

    Wallabies coach Michael Cheika (left) and captain Stephen Moore

    This decision was taken to see if Moore can be used as an impact player, as one of the Cheika’s famed “finishers.”

    Well, he did score a try from a lineout drive. But the reality is that he had little impact on play and he seemed to be off the pace of the game when he came on late in the Test.

    The truth is that Moore either starts or he isn’t in the starting squad, or for that matter in the Test squad.

    I think that there are very really serious questions to be asked about whether Moore’s Test career should be extended into the November Tests.

    For what it is worth, I believe that Bernard Foley should captain the Wallabies.

    He is far and away the most indispensable player in Australian rugby. He plays, too, with an understanding of the correct tactics the Wallabies should be playing that is beyond other Wallabies, at this time.

    To sum up, the Wallabies were good enough to win comfortably. But not good enough to be comfortable about their performance. Therefore, I allocate a 6 out of 10 for their first Test performance in 2017.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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