The Wallabies versus Barbarians match was a festival affair rather than a win-at-all costs contest, but what came through was the spirit of the Wallabies and their joy of playing the ensemble game.
Even when time was up and the Wallabies were leading by only four points, they refused for what seemed like several minutes, as play raged up and down the field, to kick the ball out and finish the game.
This enthusiasm for playing the game is something that New Zealand teams have frequently shown in the past, but few Australian sides.
But here were the Wallabies having a crack at their seventh try, even though they gave a very good Barbarians side the chance to pull off a rare victory against a touring international side.
In fact, a terrific tackle by Bernard Foley stopped what seemed like an inevitable Barbarians try to save the match for the Wallabies.
I saw in this attitude from the Wallabies some of the old glory and magic of the Randwick Club when Michael Cheika played for them. The Galloping Greens ran the ball from all over the field to defeat their opponents and win the hearts of even supporters of their opposition.
This statement of intent from the Wallabies came after another week from hell for Australian rugby when it looked like the game was going to be pulverised into submission by an incompetent management and board.
There were all sorts of things done incorrectly with the Kurtley Beale code of conduct inquiry. But the worst, in my view, was the way that Bill Pulver, with the approval of the board, prejudged Beale before the inquiry started. They made it clear that they wanted the player found guilty of the accusation of sending two different sets of texts and photographs, and dismissed.
It never seemed to occur to Pulver to ask himself why senior members of the Wallabies supported Beale (but not the first text message). Was this support, which prompted an ARU source to tell the media that Michael Hooper needed “counselling”, based on nothing other than sticking up for a mate?
Or did the players know a lot more about what happened between Beale and Di Patston than Pulver and the ARU board seemed to know? And if the players know a lot more than what has come out from the official statements, what might this information be?
I think that the way the Wallabies played against the Barbarians was their answer to Pulver and the board. You do your worst but we will do our best.
A friend in South Africa, an old timer like me, sent me an email that I think sums up the Wallabies first outing under Cheika.
“Like many others I revelled in the Baa-baas game. I know that it was not a deadly serious Test match but all credit to John Kirwan for masterminding the most entertaining game of rugby I’ve seen for many years,” he wrote.
“Good to see that the Wallabies are on an upward curve. If Mad Michael can rein in his rugby rage, they will do well this year … I fancy a loose forward trio of Scott Higginbotham, Michael Hooper and Sean McMahon on the flanks. Potent stuff.
“Quade Cooper will be back soon. Will Genia looked understandably rusty. Pity the Honey Badger is not available. Israel Folau still gets suckered on defence.”
I agree with all of this, to a greater or lesser degree. And with the proviso that this was a festival match. But Sean McMahon does look to be a real talent, with the look of a young Richie McCaw about him. His motor, too, is big. He upset the final ruck getting his foot to the ball which allowed the Wallabies to stop the last charges of the Barbarians.
McMahon’s pace, strength and work ethic all suggest that the Wallabies have a very special player here. I reckon that he will be introduced to the Test arena, as a reserve probably, very early on this tour.
The point about Folau is well made, as well. He is often nowhere to be seen when the opposition make a break out that leads to a try. His attack, though, is superlative and playing at fullback allows him to pop up everywhere his fancy takes him. So reading the game, especially the opposition breakouts against the run of play, remain a work-on for Folau.
Henry Speight made his debut, finally. Admittedly it was his first Test and he has been out of rugby for some time. He was strong and vibrant on attack, butut I thought he was found out continually on a defence.
Was it just the way things turned out, or special planning by Kirwan, that saw so many Barbarians attacks going down Speight’s defensive zone? Whatever, he was comprehensively out-played by Nick Cummins. Kirwan was impressed enough, from first hand experience from the coaching box, with the Honey Badger to suggest that Cheika should do everything possible to get him home.
Kirwan also mentioned the way Cummins read the Wallabies attacks and “cut off their wide ball at times”, something that can look easy when it is done properly (by the Honey Badger) but which is extremely difficult to do, as Speight demonstrated to his cost.
Tevita Kuridrani was again outstanding. He and Folau give the Wallabies size and pace in the backs, something that has been lacking in Wallabies since Stirling Mortlock retired.
There are signs now that the backs will become the sort of feared, efficient and try-scoring unit they were in the days of Rod Macqueen.
But what of the forwards?
The scrum still looks wobbly from time to time. The lineout was strong and Sam Carter and James Horwill looked strong in the set pieces and with the ball in hand.
Overall, though, the increased physicality at the breakdown and tackle collisions that Cheika talked about earlier in the week was not noticeably apparent. The pack, even though Matt Hodgson was leading the side, lacked the sort of mongrel the Springboks and the All Blacks invest in their play. Hopefully, the Wallabies are keeping something in reserve for Wales next week.
At half-time the score line was Wallabies 14-12 Barbarians. In the second half the scoring ran like this: 21-13, 21-19, 21-22 (choruses of Swing Low Sweet Chariot, England’s rugby anthem swept around the ground at this time), 26-22, 33-22, 40-22, 40-29, 40-36.
The surge in points for the Wallabies came with the introduction of Foley into the play. I am not going to bag Cooper. But right now he lacks the zip about his work that Foley offers.
So I expect that Nick Phipps/Bernard Foley to be the starting halves, with Genia and Cooper as the reserves.
My guess is that Christian Lealiifano did enough in his time on the field to retain his position as the inside centre. Adam Ashley-Cooper will come back on one wing and I think that Cheika will retain Rob Horne, although there is too much of a likeness between the play of Ashley-Cooper and Horne.
Speight’s attack is better than Horne’s but against the big Welsh wingers his sometimes clumsy defence could be exposed.
The most worrying thing for Cheika is that once again, the Wallabies conceded a couple of tries right at the end of the game. Is this a fitness issue or is it a mental thing?
Against this, the Wallabies did hold out during those last couple of hectic and desperate minutes for a needed victory, something they couldn’t do against the All Blacks, the Pumas and the Springboks in their last three Tests under Ewen McKenzie.
Next up Wales and the first real Test for Michael Cheika’s coaching regime.