Wales, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, England and Australia have identifiable paths to winning the William Webb Ellis Cup.
Something has happened to the Wallabies. They’re beginning to transform and progress. This article might sound like a knee-jerk reaction to the Wallabies first win over New Zealand in over two years, but in fact it’s something I’ve sensed since their tour to South Africa.
I wasn’t even that annoyed by the Wallabies one point loss to New Zealand this year, because I saw signs of improvement for once. I saw Australia finally moving forward.
Earlier this year I was completely dejected after the Wallabies lost to New Zealand in Melbourne.
The Wallabies, as far as I saw, didn’t do too much wrong in that game, but it was obvious New Zealand were a class above. Australia was full of hard-working players who just weren’t as good as New Zealand. Australia just didn’t have the cattle.
In hindsight the Wallabies did make a few mistakes in that game, but even then I thought, ‘If they corrected those mistakes, they’d still have lost.’
The sad fact was I didn’t see any progress, any evolution, occurring in the Wallaby side. It’s fine to say ‘oh we’ve got a young side’ if you see players getting better, a team moulding together, and potential showing itself.
I didn’t see that with these Wallabies earlier this year.
Then in New Zealand the Wallabies again confirmed by feelings. The commitment was there. Their defence was better. They had possession and territory. But their tactics were predictable and showed a regression in form.
Bob Dwyer said it best when he said the Australian attack was one defences love. It was ‘one phase crash ball’ play that highly organized defences love playing. In fact it seemed New Zealand were content on not contesting the breakdown in that game, knowing that Australia were going nowhere.
After that game I’d just about given up on Robbie Deans. The tactics were horrible and I felt the coach was to blame. He’d been given so much time to transform this Wallaby side, and instead they were going backwards I felt.
Everything changed in South Africa.
First off, I never, ever, expected Kurtley Beale to become the wonderful fullback he’s becoming right before our eyes.
I saw him in his first Test this year, and he dropped the ball the first time it came to him if I recall correctly (hey Matt Burke did the same thing in 1993). He looked nervous, uncertain, and unsuited for Test match rugby.
But against South Africa he revealed himself as an exciting attacking fullback. He set James O’Connor up for the try of the season, as decided during the John Eales Medal count.
The next week he sped-up to support James O’Connor for a try almost as equally as exciting. And of course there was his incredible penalty kick at the end of the game.
In Melbourne with Horne at outside centre and Ashley-Cooper at fullback, I really didn’t sense much progress happening. Ashley-Cooper is a very, very good player (and I’ll say something about him below), but at fullback, despite being very good, he didn’t provide the spark a player like Muliana does. Maybe it was a lack of real express pace.
But now that Beale is at fullback, I see an injection of pace and awareness the Wallabies desperately needed.
On Saturday night Beale was Australia’s best back, yet again!
Firstly he held somebody up, preventing a try. Then he set Mitchell up for a try by holding on to the ball, dummying, and just ensuring Mitchell had that extra pace that enabled him to get over the line.
Then, there was that final counter-attack, where he stepped-off both feet, beat one player, gained about 20 metres, and Australia were again in a good position in snatch the game. Stephen Donald made a crucial mistake by not booting it out into the stands.
James O’Connor is another revelation. It has annoyed me how maligned he’s been by Australian fans in the last year. O’Connor is incredibly talented. He’s always been incredibly talented. People forget how outstanding his form was for the Force in 2009 when he played inside centre.
There lied a problem, however.
Deans didn’t see him as an international inside centre, and truth be told, neither do I. Did anybody notice how many tackles Nonu shrugged off last night? A lot!
There’s a fear O’Connor isn’t a good enough defender to play inside centre for Australia, and I think it’s a fear that’s well-founded. O’Connor is a gutsy player, who tries to tackle everything, but he’s smaller than other players (despite the muscle he’s put on this year). It’s just physics, I’m not doubting he’s a gutsy person.
But the problem is O’Connor isn’t a natural fullback. He never looked totally comfortable under the high ball.
I actually felt his counter-attacking was quite good. I remember South Africa giving teams headaches in 2009 with their kick-chase game. Australia couldn’t match it, and only O’Connor seemed able to counter-attack well and beat the first tackle. He actually made some gutsy runs against South Africa.
But there’s no doubt he never looked settled at fullback. Teams looked to expose this. And New Zealand did this very well in 2009. It would seem Ashley-Cooper, who was much better under the high ball, was the preferred choice before the mercurial excellence of Beale showed itself.
It was disappointing to hear people saying he shouldn’t be in the Wallaby side. He was certainly talented enough to be in the side. I felt Deans ruined things by putting him in a position where he wasn’t as comfortable. If he was to play anywhere, I thought, it should be his preferred inside centre position.
But then again, he’s small, and inside centres have to make lots of tackles. It seemed like he was that jigsaw piece you just couldn’t squeeze anywhere, no matter how hard you tried.
Then Australia went to South Africa. Let me say this: James O’Connor got the better of Bryan Habana in South Africa. He was a better winger than Bryan Habana during those two Tests.
In fact one of O’Connor’s counter-attacks in one of those games led to an Elsom try. Often he found his way inside of Habana with terrific positioning to receive the ball.
Has O’Connor finally found in place on the wing? He was terrific last night. In fact he’s been terrific in the last four Tests. And no, O’Connor wasn’t to blame for McCaw’s try in the Sydney Test this year.
I remember in Melbourne this year a few New Zealanders went to my Swedish friend and said, ‘Is that James O’Connor at the back of the program? Why’s he on it?’ My Swedish friend said, ‘Isn’t he very good or something?’ The fact is O’Connor hadn’t found his feet at Test level yet. I was annoyed by those comments, because O’Connor’s always been talented.
Forget his awesome dead-straight final kick; the rest of O’Connor’s game was very good (except maybe one or two tackles missed).
A few things appeal to me about O’Connor on the wing. One: he goes looking for the ball as a winger. Two: he has a sense of awareness – of which option he should take. Three: something about Beale and O’Connor working together feels so right.
Beale and O’Connor have been so good together that I don’t see how Digby Ioane will get back into the side, and I’ve been saying for a while that Digby, given time, will be Australia’s best back.
I’d sooner drop Drew Mitchell, who I admire, than drop James O’Connor right now.
Also, Australia may need a better goal-kicker than Giteau next year, and O’Connor might be a better selection I feel.
However, if there was one atrocious thing about the Wallabies last night, it was their defence. There were way too many tackles being missed, with the All Blacks shrugging off Wallaby tacklers.
One Australian player in that backline knew how to defend: Adam Ashley-Cooper.
Beale has been a revelation is that he injects pace, awareness, instincts, into the side Ashley-Cooper didn’t have. But Ashley-Cooper is an excellent player, no question. I was wondering whether he should be kept at 13 permanently? The answer seems to be: yes.
Ashley-Cooper runs excellent lines, as evidence by his break that led to his try last night. His defence is excellent. He can stand-up in the tackle. He’s got good leg-drive. Last night he looked isolated in the last minute, before making a small, but very important, run back towards the forwards.
I look at the Wallaby backline, how small it is, how Australia might become a side that sacrifices a try or two for the sake of scoring three of four. It’s a backline with speed now that Beale and O’Connor are playing so well. But it needs a courageous player who can tackle and make yards, and Ashley-Cooper fits the bill. Let’s keep him at outside centre.
The only exception to this would be if Will Chambers plays an awesome Super 14 season next year. He’s got the size Australia sorely lacks, and his form was excellent this year.
Australia’s backline was once a puzzle. Gregan, Larkham and Latham left, and it seemed Australia never properly filled these positions with Burgess, Giteau and Ashley-Cooper, despite those players being very talented.
For two years it seemed like Australia was making no progress there. It was argued Deans didn’t know how to coach a backline. But Australia finally have a side that can score tries – and lots of them.
Do people remember how long it was before Australia got an extra bonus point in a Tri Nations match? Over two years! It’s a fact; Australia didn’t know how to score tries for a long time under Deans’ reign.
The last four Tests have seen Australia play some beautiful attacking rugby. Not all their rugby is attractive, but in attack they know they can score.
One thing missing in Australia’s side last night was Berrick Barnes. Australia did not have an inside centre who could put Nonu down until Barnes came on. Barnes is like Jonny Wilkinson in a way. Neither are big men, but what they lack for in size they make up for in timing their tackles, hitting players in the right spot, and positioning themselves very well. I just hope Barnes stays injury free.
Barnes is the preferred selection at 12.
What’s more there’s a little bit of depth in Australian rugby. Turner played well at wing against the All Blacks in Sydney. Davies would make a good Wallaby winger with his speed. Digby isn’t back yet. In fact if we get too many wings, we can move Digby to outside centre, where he’s an excellent player – he’s got size!
This isn’t to say Australia doesn’t have areas to work on (defence, scrum), or gaps to fill in (Sharpe needs a better second rower).
But they’re finally evolving. They’re now a side with speed, creativity, and they can create tries.