Supposedly unlikely Spring Tour pass mark

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    Adam Ashley-Cooper (C) catches the ball during the International Rugby Union match between Italy and Australia at the Artemio Franchi Stadium in Florence on November 24, 2012. (AFP / GABRIEL BOUYS)

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    Well, they’ve done it again. Only a week after writing about the Wallabies’ impressive ability to win games they’re probably not entitled to, the Wallabies have once again snatched victory from the large-looming jaws of defeat.

    When five or six weeks ago I suggested three wins in Europe would have to be considered a pass mark, I probably should admit I wasn’t overly confident of it being achieved.

    The big loss in Paris to start the tour certainly didn’t improve the already low hopes of success but, to their credit, the Wallabies bounced back with three wins, even if only one of them came from something resembling a reasonable performance.

    So, even if we set a target that we may or may not have thought was achievable, the Spring Tour of 2012 has to be seen as a successful tour. Three wins from four games, even looking through begrudgingly generous glasses and ignoring the manner with which the wins came, is a ‘pass’.

    Those three wins in a row shouldn’t be sneezed at, either. You have to go right back to 2008 and Robbie Deans’ first tour in charge to see the last time the Wallabies won three on the trot in Europe.

    Funnily enough, that same tour is also the last time Wales beat Australia, with the streak now extending to eight games, including the last four at the Millennium. If the Wallabies have become New Zealand’s ‘bunny’ over the recent past, then so have the Welsh become for Australia.

    And sure, it’s hardly been a sustained period of brutal domination. The average winning margin across the eight games is just a tad over six points, and it’s only that high because of the comparatively thumping 18-point margin in the first game of the streak in 2009. Since then, four of the last seven wins have been by three points or less, and only 13 points separate the four games played in 2012.

    On that note, Wales must have dropped a mirror while walking under a ladder chasing a black cat. ‘How much more must we do?’ has to be the common post-match question, with two of those 2012 defeats to Australia coming in the immediate time either side of the full-time siren.

    While 2012 started on a high for Wales, claiming the Six Nations undefeated, they now haven’t won a game since, and finished the year losing seven on the trot. It’s not a good look by any gauge, and neither is slipping to the third band of teams before Rugby World Cup pools are drawn.

    But again, a win’s a win, and while it would be nice to point out everything the Wallabies did well, the editors won’t let me get away with writing only one more paragraph. So here’s some general observations from the win in Cardiff.

    The Kurtley Beale experiment at flyhalf has to be put on ice
    He started reasonably well when he first inherited the 10 jersey, but I feel his game has gone downhill on this tour. Against Wales, he started reasonably well again, and was the key to Australia playing with the width they did in their dominant first half, perhaps best illustrated by the space and time he gave Adam Ashley-Cooper who then straightened and accelerated through the missed tackles of Jamie Roberts and Rhys Priestland.

    Beale and Berrick Barnes were also interchanging between the front and back effectively, without any evident effect on the option runners they were employing.

    By late in the first half, though, and throughout the second, Beale seemed unsure whether he should be playing as a flyhalf or a fullback, and often found himself with no runners and isolated. It was as if the option runners didn’t know what Beale was doing either, and so only presented for Barnes, who of course threw the pass for Mike Harris to make the break which ultimately led to Beale’s match-winning try.

    Beale just looks to have lost some of his decision-making in the front line, and thus reverts to the instinctive running game he plays at fullback. The Wallabies can’t afford a flyhalf who second-guesses himself; they already have enough handicaps.

    Work out exactly what Dave Dennis’ best position is
    It’ll take unprecedented collaboration between club and country, but I reckon heads need to come together and keep Dennis in the one position. I can’t see how he can truly become a quality Test player while ever he’s covering lock, blindside, and no.8.

    In my humble opinion, he doesn’t have the size to play lock (witness what happened to the first scrum he packed into at lock) or 8. His running game is certainly suited to 8, and he played quite well there for the Waratahs this year, but he’s not that destructive presence you want in an international 8. Ask Matthew Rees.

    I like the Ben Tapuai-Adam Ashley-Cooper centre combination
    I think it’s the way forward in the immediate future. Both are playing in their best positions, at inside and outside centre respectively, though interestingly, they defend in the opposite lane.

    This might be the problem, and I’m not sure if it’s a simple communication thing. The common denominator in most of Wales’ line breaks was Tapuai often misreading the attack, and coming in on an attacker that he didn’t need to. It happened for Alex Cuthbert’s break early on, and it happened for Leigh Halfpenny’s break that almost led to a Welsh try.

    So I guess the question then becomes why are they not defending in their preferred position? Tapuai has blossomed since moving in one spot, so why complicate things and leave him defending in what’s regarded as the most difficult channel to defend? Ashley-Cooper is way more experienced at 13, so why not have him defend there too?

    Nick Phipps
    Before the tour, I wrote that this was looming as a make or break tour for the Rebel scrumhalf. I went further than that, actually, suggesting:

    “Should Phipps fire during the Spring tour, it will cement his place as one of the leading number 9s in the country, but if he suddenly finds himself benched behind veteran Brett Sheehan, there’s no predicting how far down the pecking order he could fall.”

    Now granted, he wasn’t displaced by Sheehan, but I’m not sure of too many views that have him finishing the tour better than he started. My point about him falling down the order could yet happen, and it would only take a Nic White, or a Brendan McKibbin, or even Sheehan to have a half-decent Super Rugby season for Phipps to quickly fall out of Wallaby reckoning in 2013.

    This could’ve been a career-boosting tour for Phipps, but I’m not sure he’s done himself any favours at all. If he was serious, he’d re-watch the Cardiff game and study how his opposite, Mike Phillips, controlled proceedings in the second half.

    The lack of evident game plan
    This finally point has been a common complaint about the Wallabies of 2012, and for a good while, I felt the same way. It’s taken me to the last game of the year, but I reckon I’ve joined some dots.

    I think the Wallabies do attempt to play a ball-in-hand game wherever they can, and I think that is their preferred ‘plan A’. That was certainly what they did for the first 20 minutes against Wales, and of course in the last ten, when the game was suddenly on the line.

    And thus, I think the kick is actually ‘plan B’. I think their approach is to run where they think something’s on, but as soon as the opportunity dries up, they’ll kick. Likewise, in their own half, they won’t even bother with ‘A’, and just go straight to ‘B’. With the way some referees like to vary their breakdown interpretations, the safer option is to not possess the ball in your own half and be pinged. You might recall this became Jake White’s method of operation in the back half of the Super Rugby season, and it’s becoming more popular around the traps, it seems.

    Of course, this doesn’t explain the stupid kicks when there’s an overlap in the opposition half, but it provides a general mudmap. Admittedly, that mudmap often isn’t executed well, but that’s a whole other set of problems.

    Anyway, I was happy the Wallabies were able to send Nathan Sharpe – who had a solid final game – out a winner. I screamed with the rest of you as his conversion attempt curled around toward the black dot, but saw the irony in a conversion attempt looking good at first before ultimately falling short. There was a nice symmetry there.

    And yet, the Tour has been a success. The pass mark, as unlikely as it seemed six weeks ago, was accomplished. In a season of ups and downs, it’s good to finish on something of high.

    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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    The Crowd Says (137)

    • December 4th 2012 @ 2:40am
      ThelmaWrites said | December 4th 2012 @ 2:40am | ! Report

      I’m first off the mark for a change. (We in the Philippines are three hours behind Sydney time. It’s not midnight yet.) So, congratulations to the Wallabies and to all who worked hard for their wins.

      • December 4th 2012 @ 9:16am
        rl said | December 4th 2012 @ 9:16am | ! Report

        hear hear. I’ve got lots of views about the team merits and dismerits, but it would be remiss not to at least acknowledge the hard work.

    • Roar Guru

      December 4th 2012 @ 2:46am
      Poth Ale said | December 4th 2012 @ 2:46am | ! Report

      And the RWC draw for 2015 has been made.

      Pool A : Aus, Eng, Wales
      Pool B : SA, Samoa, Scot
      Pool C : NZ, Arg, Tonga
      Pool D : France, Ire, Italy

      • December 4th 2012 @ 3:37am
        AndyMack said | December 4th 2012 @ 3:37am | ! Report

        group of death…..

      • December 4th 2012 @ 5:25am
        mania said | December 4th 2012 @ 5:25am | ! Report

        d4m. boks and manu in the same pool again

      • December 4th 2012 @ 5:38am
        Bazza Allblack Supporter said | December 4th 2012 @ 5:38am | ! Report

        Interesting, I’m sure Argentina will give us a run but Pool A…


      • December 4th 2012 @ 7:48am
        soapit` said | December 4th 2012 @ 7:48am | ! Report

        yep toughest for sure but if we wanna be world champs we’ll have to be able to beat eng and wales

      • December 4th 2012 @ 8:55am
        Markus said | December 4th 2012 @ 8:55am | ! Report

        Just realised that the 4th spot in Pool A is Oceania 1 as well, aka Fiji.
        While the Wallabies *should* have no major concerns getting a win there, it’s a pretty safe bet to expect 2-3 injuries at the end of that match. Not particularly ideal if the follow-up match is against Wales or worse, England.

      • Roar Guru

        December 4th 2012 @ 9:16am
        sixo_clock said | December 4th 2012 @ 9:16am | ! Report

        Group of death indeed!! (a) Top of our pool (b) Don’t have deal with Manu Samoa till at least the semis where NZ are also waiting (c) We can and have dealt with the poms and the fireless dragons.

        On topic.

        Agree it was a pass mark B, 78%.
        Les Bleus were playing a high standard of forwards pressure Rugby which few would be able to match.
        Beale is a winger. Not a 10 and not a 15 (at test level).
        I too hoped Phipps would improve but its still Genia first and fortnight second. White has 3 years.
        Dennis is a solid fringe player at the moment and should be overtaken by Pyle, Neville, Power by 2013.
        AAC and Ben (and Drew) are not players who set up others which in a centre is a terminal disease, not enough vision.
        Game plan is dependent on having the right personnel in all (key) positions which is not a luxury we have had for some years. We have no threatening line breakers except Hooper and a pack which does not/cannot build phases and suck in their forwards.

        To still be no 3 in the world with these glaring shortcomings says more about our defence than anything. We still have zero counter attacking skills, broken field generals which all require fast accurate brains. Our game plan is: wear them down and then hope.

        • December 4th 2012 @ 11:44am
          Markus said | December 4th 2012 @ 11:44am | ! Report

          “White has 3 years” 3 years to what?

          • December 4th 2012 @ 1:17pm
            Rob from Brumby Country said | December 4th 2012 @ 1:17pm | ! Report

            Presumably he means Nic White, in which case White has three years to to develop into the kind of scrumhalf who can competently back up Genia.

            • December 4th 2012 @ 1:20pm
              Rob from Brumby Country said | December 4th 2012 @ 1:20pm | ! Report

              Mind you, I thought White was pretty good this year. Quick to the ruck, quick to clear out, and a good defender. A bit chirpy, sure, but at least he’s got mongrel.

            • December 4th 2012 @ 1:54pm
              Markus said | December 4th 2012 @ 1:54pm | ! Report

              I assumed he meant something along those lines, but I think 3 years is a bit harsh.
              He was the form Aus scrumhalf during the Super season. Strong boot and sniping game too.
              A bit raw yes, but still would have been lightyears better than Phipps at the very least.

      • December 4th 2012 @ 1:31pm
        Rob from Brumby Country said | December 4th 2012 @ 1:31pm | ! Report

        Well the good news is that at least we will have no reason to be complacent this time. Who knows how good England, Wales, or Fiji will be in 2015? Or Australia for that matter?

        In truth, I feel sorry for the Boks. Their pool is going to be terrible preparation for a quarter-final with one of Australia, England, or Wales. Or Fiji!

    • Roar Rookie

      December 4th 2012 @ 2:53am
      Neuen said | December 4th 2012 @ 2:53am | ! Report

      NZ and Tonga? Aah nothing to it we can win that group. All Blacks is nothing. All in a days work

    • December 4th 2012 @ 2:55am
      kingplaymaker said | December 4th 2012 @ 2:55am | ! Report

      I would argue that Australia in a sense had the best tour of the the southern hemisphere teams.

      Yes they were beaten badly by France, but neither New Zealand nor South Africa had to face that rampaging French team.

      Australia lost, but with a whole raft of key players missing.

      But they did have to face the same England team that beat New Zealand badly and yet won, but unlike New Zealand they did so without many front line players through injury.

      South Africa didn’t have to face France nor suffered the same injury epidemic as Australia.

      So with by far the toughest schedule and with a mass ofinjuries they did very well.

      • December 4th 2012 @ 3:04am
        Johnno said | December 4th 2012 @ 3:04am | ! Report

        England were trying vs Australia they went out 100% and we beat them fair and square, especially after our working over by the French the week before.

        France VS STH Africa would off been a very interesting match, . I’d still back the French. But correct me if i’m wrong , but i keep hearing in the French game we dominated the breakdowns we lost coz of our set pieces, Michalek’s slick passing, and the French electric use of dynamic ball runners they possess. But we won the breakdown’s apparently in the stats, not certain but apparently we did.

        • December 4th 2012 @ 3:27am
          kingplaymaker said | December 4th 2012 @ 3:27am | ! Report

          Indeed Johnno and how would New Zealand have done against that French team.

          • December 4th 2012 @ 7:24am
            Kane said | December 4th 2012 @ 7:24am | ! Report

            How would have Australia gone against that Scottish team?

            • December 4th 2012 @ 8:20am
              Christo the Daddyo said | December 4th 2012 @ 8:20am | ! Report

              Probably the same as the Wales game – won, without setting the world on fire.

      • Roar Rookie

        December 4th 2012 @ 3:05am
        Neuen said | December 4th 2012 @ 3:05am | ! Report

        Correct the Saffers lost only their pivot and one of the best tactical kickers in the game, their captain, their hooker who is one of the worlds best in BdP. They lost the worlds no 1 lineout man, their enforcer and ruck clearer, Their openside fetchers like Burger, their new pivot in Goosen, their inside centre in Steyn. Their no. 8 Spies. Their winger in Habana. So that is not a lot of guys they had to replace.

      • December 4th 2012 @ 3:39am
        Chivas said | December 4th 2012 @ 3:39am | ! Report

        I’m with you KPM. I think they went ok. The last few tours by the Wallabies have been poor to say the least. And the French, they are the French, but normally Australia has their mettle, which did surprise me a little.. it is NZ who struggles a little more against them.

      • December 4th 2012 @ 3:45am
        Ben.S said | December 4th 2012 @ 3:45am | ! Report

        When England played Australia they were missing Corbisiero, Hartley, Lawes, Croft and Foden. When Wales played Australia they were missing Paul James, Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, AW Jones, Brad Davies, Ian Evans, Dan Lydiate James Hook and George North. Ireland were missing Rory Best, Paul O’Connell, Stephen Ferris, Sean O’Brien, Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney. South Africa were missing Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis, Andries Bekker, Pierre Spies, Johan Goosen, Frans Steyn and Bryan Habana. I think it’s time you stopped referring to injuries.

        • December 4th 2012 @ 4:37am
          Johnno said | December 4th 2012 @ 4:37am | ! Report

          And Gavin Henson Ben S.

        • December 4th 2012 @ 7:51am
          soapit` said | December 4th 2012 @ 7:51am | ! Report

          mate only injuries to the wallabies have an impact on performance.

        • December 4th 2012 @ 8:21am
          Christo the Daddyo said | December 4th 2012 @ 8:21am | ! Report

          So in other words, all teams suffer injuries…

          • December 4th 2012 @ 9:50am
            johnson said | December 4th 2012 @ 9:50am | ! Report

            I think Wallabies had more than their fair share. They lost three captains to start with.

    • December 4th 2012 @ 3:26am
      kingplaymaker said | December 4th 2012 @ 3:26am | ! Report

      Lost and retired players are not the same Neuen while Steyn is a terribly limited player whose radar has been all over the place and whose replacement has been a vast improvement.

    • December 4th 2012 @ 3:26am
      Chivas said | December 4th 2012 @ 3:26am | ! Report

      Excellent article and a nice read. I have a question though, where does JOC fit in assuming he gets back to 100%. He is a game changer when he’s fit.

      Also I am unsure about options regarding first five. Kurtley does resort to type as you mention when tired or under pressure. Quade Cooper is flighty and if his head isn’t in the right place a liability. I know everyone harps on about this player or that, but there are very few that can dictate a game over 80 minutes. QC can but his consistency and the way he opens himself to mental games is a problem I think.

      I also think as someone else posted, that JOC is a ball runner too, so there is still a question mark over him being a first five and I would think it would take him at least a couple of seasons before he evolved. That leaves late bloomer Leifiano, but one good season and he’s a champion. That’s like comparing Carlos Spencer and Quadr Cooper. Makes for interesting comment by those who haven’t watched much of Carlos, but no-one who has followed rugby and all teams would give that much credit.

      So of the potential, how do you juggle the back line and ensure you are maintaining your core. Changes up until now have been fine as some are forced and some trying to find someone with the skill to actually own a position. But everyone has now been seen, so who and where

      In addition I still think blindside is a problem. For mine I like someone who can shut down the short side. I haven’t seen that this year from the wallabies.

      I think Pocock and Palu are obvious choices, but nobody has put there hand up for the blindside. I don’t mind Hooper coming in with the game opening up and if the rest of the forwards are holding there own, but he is not a starting player, with a fully fit team.

      The only other question I have is over Timani. I think he has done a great job and once again, not much else on offer, but it would be great if his line out jumping improved. Royce Willis could take line out pill and he was around 130Kg’s and would have been a long term All Black had he not gone to Japan.

      So in all the potential is there with the return to fitness and form of players like Horwill, Genia, Pocock, Palu, Mitchell, JOC, and the mental toughness gained by all the others. I think the future looks bright, but still some big decisions and time is short.

      • Columnist

        December 4th 2012 @ 3:08pm
        Brett McKay said | December 4th 2012 @ 3:08pm | ! Report

        Cheer Chivas. It’s a decent question you ask about O’Connor, but to be honest, I’d want to see him playing a chunk of the Super Rugby season before answering. There’s several options where he could slot in, but let’s see him play..

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