One step forward, a couple back for the Wallabies

Scott Allen Columnist

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    The first match of this year’s Rugby Championship, in Sydney, was one of the most painful I’ve watched the Wallabies play – the performance was nothing short of embarrassing.

    The second match, in Dunedin, was a fantastic improvement which offered fans a glimmer of hope for the rest of the season.

    Their performance in Perth on Saturday was, unfortunately, a couple of steps backwards again.

    It must be frustrating for the coaches when they make improvements in one area only to watch the team struggle in other areas – there’s only so many holes in the dam you can plug at once.

    Take the set pieces from the match against South Africa.

    • Restarts: two of six were poor – a dreadful start to the match for Bernard Foley when the opening kickoff didn’t get anywhere near the ten-metre line at the start of the match, and a poor chase in the second half which allowed the Springboks to bring the ball back unopposed.
    • Restart receipts: two of seven were poor – Israel Folau was late getting to the contest in one and gave away an obvious penalty and if that kick in the second half had gone another ten centimetres, the Springboks would have won another as none of the Wallaby players had reacted quickly enough.
    • Scrums: seven of 15 Wallabies scrums were poor, with the lowlight being the penalty under the posts in the 67th minute which gave the Springboks the lead late.
    • Lineout on own throw: the Wallabies only won five from ten on their own throw and only delivered clean ball in four from ten, including three where the throw wasn’t straight (although only two were picked up by the referee).
    • Lineout on opposition throw: the Wallabies were poor in seven of 13 lineouts where the Springboks threw the ball in. The penalty Ned Hanigan gave away in the 78th minute for playing the jumper in the air was actually the fourth time the Australians were guilty of that error, which tells you that they were late getting into the air to compete.

    It’s hard to play good rugby when you’re having that much trouble with your set pieces, so I suppose it’s a positive that the Wallabies managed a draw.

    What kept the Wallabies in the match? It was largely down to the performances of Michael Hooper and Kurtley Beale.

    Beale has returned from his stint in England as a much better player, who doesn’t just offer x-factor as he used to. He’s working hard, his defence has improved significantly, and he seems to be really stepping up as a leader.

    Hooper certainly has a big engine, as he showed in his chase to run down Jan Serfontein, which saved the match.

    Michael Hooper Australia Rugby Union Championship Bledisloe Cup Wallabies 2017 tall

    The major problem area for the Wallabies in general play was their inability to control their attacking rucks, which allowed the Springboks to disrupt the quality of ball Australia had to attack with and led to six turnovers of possession.

    Is this a back-row issue? Not necessarily, but the current trio isn’t balanced and Hanigan doesn’t deserve a spot.

    Controlling your attacking rucks to provide quick, clean ball is vital for a team that wants to play the expansive type of rugby the Wallabies seem to be aiming for.

    Michael Cheika was interviewed by Fox Sports during the match and his comment in relation to the issues around controlling the ball in the ruck was, “We’ve got to ruck past the ball and use our legs. We’ve had the message at half time so let’s see how the boys react from here.”

    I agree they were losing the ruck contest with some ineffective cleanouts, but the bigger issue was why the Springboks were winning the race into the Wallabies’ attacking rucks, forcing the arriving players to desperately try to shift South African bodies off our ball.

    Take these two examples.

    The first came in the second minute of the match, when Sean McMahon took the ball in following a quick tap. That’s Pieter-Steph du Toit already over the ball, and Hanigan and Sekope Kepu are still metres away. So from our first possession, it’s a turnover!

    The second is from the 75th minute, with the Wallabies hard on attack, trying to score match-winning points.

    Jordan Uelese and Tom Robertson have cleaned out the first two Springboks but no-one else showed the urgency required to get into the contest and save our possession. That’s Jaco Kriel over the ball taking away our final opportunity to win the match. Adam Coleman arrived after this frame and was correctly penalised for clearly coming in from the side.

    Where was the urgency to get in ahead of the Springboks? Surely, the players understand the fundamental rule in attack – you can’t attack if you don’t have the ball!

    So, I see this as an issue for the whole team but obviously getting the balance of your back row right helps.

    Your No.7’s most important role is to be first into attacking rucks. That’s right, I don’t think a No.7’s primary role is to try and disrupt the opposition’s ball in rucks – I see that as a shared priority for the entire forward pack.

    If your openside can get into as many of your attacking rucks before the opposition arrive, then you’ll deny the opposition the opportunity to disrupt your ball. To play that way, they need to be a support runner, not a primary ball runner, and they need to stay close to the ball to be in the right position to get into rucks early.

    Of course, having a 7 who can also compete hard for the ball in opposition rucks does help disrupt their attacking flow and it was noticeable in both matches last month against New Zealand that the Wallabies were making little impression on the speed of the ball the Kiwis were able to play with.

    Hooper, for all his positives around the field, isn’t ever going to be the type of player I’ve described – he is a primary ball-runner and is better suited to playing that little bit wider. Does that mean Hooper shouldn’t be in the team? No – he’s obviously one of the first picked, but that does mean someone else in the forward pack has to fill the role I’ve described.

    Who is that player? Unfortunately, I’ve been too busy in other areas of rugby this year to watch enough of the contenders to answer that question, but I’ll keep an eye out and get back to you.

    Scott Allen
    Scott Allen

    Scott has been a rugby contributor with The Roar since 2013. After taking some time out to pursue other roles in the game, including coaching Premier Grade with University of Queensland and the Wallaroos at the recent World Cup, he’s returned to give us his insights. You can follow him on Twitter @ScottA_ to hear more from him.

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