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The wrap: Observations on a big weekend of Test rugby

England will once again pip the Wallabies in the second Test. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
Expert
12th June, 2016
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Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane delivered a high quality contest, full of pace and endeavour from one side, and rugby smarts from the other. The opening twenty minutes were as breathtaking as for any home Test in recent years, the Wallabies true to their word to play the game at breakneck speed.

For as long as their handling held, and the possession flow allowed, the Wallabies looked like world beaters and, with more luck, could have been ahead by more than ten points.

More of the wash-up from Wallabies vs England
» SPIRO: Can the Wallabies win at Melbourne?
» Moore can take a leaf out of Smith’s book
» Five talking points
» Who should replace David Pocock?
» Match report: Eddie’s England too good
» DIY player ratings
» Roar Forum – what changes should the Wallabies make?
» Watch the full highlights

But invariably England found their feet, adjusted to the pace of the Wallabies game and, more importantly, began to impose their own will, gradually controlling then eventually setting the tempo of the match.

This was achieved through clever direction from halfback Ben Youngs, off the back of cohesive and direct forward play. Indeed for those Roarers who argued on Friday against the notion that forward packs win Test matches, I present this match as exhibit A.

For all of the Wallabies threshing around like a mad roofer early on, England showed how in Test rugby, it is the straightforward, ‘missionary-style’ laying of solid foundations before adding the fancy trimmings on top which still has the most going for it.

Not that England was in any sense boring, just that they showed keener balance and variation, better sensing the right time to shift the ball. And they had the game’s standout player in flanker James Haskell.

World rugby is currently blessed with several outstanding middle rowers and Maro Itoje showed that he certainly belongs in this echelon, a superbly athletic and skilled middle rower, the only criticism of him being that he was ‘best on ground’ in the carrying-on-like-a-pork-chop stakes.

Indeed, both packs seemed rather too keen to offer advice on the run to the other, making for some potentially unsavoury moments which referee Romain Poite, in the main, handled with calmness and good grace.

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His advice to skipper Stephen Moore at one point was vintage Poite: “Stephen, we won’t talk every time I blow my whistle”. Poite should also have had a stern word to Wallabies water-boy Nathan Grey, who stupidly made a play at a kick over the sideline, interfering with England fullback Mike Brown.

At 41 years Grey might believe he has more rugby left in him but really, who does he think he is, George Smith? Credit Brown and England for not making more of a potentially explosive moment.

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika now has a challenging tactical puzzle to solve over this coming week. His comments after the game seemed to indicate a willingness to push on with this high speed approach, just to do it better and for longer. He is now without David Pocock and, even if he gets a dry night in Melbourne, this is an approach fraught with risk.

Make no mistake, apart from the need to straighten the attack in midfield – this was most often the fault of the second receiver turning his back to the line and pivot passing to a running player who was too deep – the Wallabies, for the most part, played well.

Halfback Nick Phipps showed outstanding endurance, fast to the breakdown and, considering the massive number of clearances, providing excellent service. And Dane Haylett-Petty showed himself to have a great temperament for Test rugby.

Their problem is that the Wallabies need to find a chunk of forward grunt and improve their set-piece, and even if they do, it just isn’t possible to replicate their opening twenty across the whole game. Any game between two well matched sides will always settle, will always have twists and turns, a penalty here or a counter attack off a dropped ball there.

A gracious Eddie Jones spoke after the game using a cricket analogy, about a batsman facing a fast bowler who doesn’t see the first delivery, but gradually becomes comfortable at the crease and gets used to the searing pace. It’s not hard to imagine Jones willing Cheika to play in the same way, and for his side to soak it up all over again, then pick off the game through their traditional strengths and Owen Farrell’s dead-eye goal-kicking.

Another lesson there too for the Wallabies, perhaps too emboldened by Super Rugby. Unless in extreme circumstances, always take gift penalties in front of the posts with 30 minutes still to play, and keep the scoreboard ticking over.

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Cheika believes that his side has this improvement in them, that they can do more of what he wants, better and for longer. And they must also improve their decision making under pressure. But I’d argue that it’s actually England who has the most improvement in them, for one, adjusting their defensive line to ensure that a front rower is not isolated in centre-field against Israel Folau.

What it will come down to is the Wallabies ability to provide a stable platform at scrum. They were far from humiliated and there seemed a good case for Dan Cole to be penalised more but, regardless, the Wallabies need to get past this and simply find a way to keep their scrum up and steady.

If they can manage this, then they have a much greater chance of making their ball movement count for something.

The highlights came nice and early at Eden Park, Lizzie Marvelly’s excellent rendition of God Defend New Zealand blown out of the park by Pwllheli born, Blenheim schoolteacher and mezzo soprano, Elin Tomos (please excuse my Gordon Bray moment). There is no piece of music as stirring as the Welsh national anthem, even more so when sung as beautifully as this.

As if emboldened, Wales played with daring and great defensive commitment, before succumbing, inevitably enough, once the All Blacks eventually found their rhythm, and the two benches were exposed.

Not for the first time, the All Blacks got wonderful value from their replacements – Beauden Barrett, Patrick Tuipolotu, Ardie Savea and Wyatt Crockett all influential, with Nathan Harris capping his return to Test rugby with the final try.

Beforehand there were many messy moments, the Welsh successfully disrupting the breakdown, and Taulupe Faletau and George North making big gains with the ball, both enjoying by far their best matches against New Zealand. Unfortunately for North, a hamstring strain signals the end of his tour.

Waisake Naholo was an enigma, proving high on gas, but low on finesse – scoring twice but bombing two other almost certain scores with poor decision-making. Very much still a works-in-progress.

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New Zealand’s best was Keiran Read, clearly determined to begin his tenure as captain by leading from the front. Perhaps assisted by an injury free run, he now seems to have put the uncertain handling of a couple of seasons ago well behind him.

It’s hard to know what was going through referee Wayne Barnes’ mind, after battling through eight long years before being largely forgiven by the New Zealand public for his blatant forward pass error in the 2007 Rugby World Cup, he re-opened old wounds by denying a perfectly fair try to TJ Perenara.

After missing a couple of forward passes during the match, he inexplicably ruled Aaron Cruden’s release to Perenara forward, despite TMO George Ayoub and anyone with a basic understanding of the law telling him it wasn’t.

There is nothing wrong with a referee taking responsibility for a decision, as Barnes indicated he was. But to be so obviously wrong on a basic point of law is quite incredible.

On the plus side, how refreshing was it to see two sides scrum fairly and sensibly, the only scrum infringement of the match coming in the 78th minute.

In Cape Town, French referee Mathieu Reynal must have wondered what he did to deserve two sides determined to test every last strand of his patience. South Africa’s early discipline was appalling, and Reynal deserves credit for awarding Jared Payne’s opening try and still following through with a yellow card for Lood de Jager.

Too many times referees take the cop out option if a try is scored, and complaints about a double punishment are simply nonsense.

More difficult times were to follow however, Reynal showing Irish loose forward CJ Stander a red card in the 22nd minute for sending Patrick Lambie to sleep with a careless hip. Stander will feel hard done by, but whether the intent was there or not, players kicking the ball are entitled to be protected from defenders recklessly smashing into their jaw.

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As for the rugby, this was noticeably a level down from the other two matches, partly because Ireland, a man down, were forced to play conservatively, and partly because South Africa, a man up, didn’t have the tactics nor execution to take advantage.

Handling errors were a killer, more so two silly penalties from Frans Malherbe that allowed flyhalf Paddy Jackson to keep enough a buffer for the inevitable close finish.

Ireland in fact did superbly well not to concede a penalty in the last few minutes, where a kick to the corner and a line-out maul drive might have broken their hearts.

In the end, nobody can deny them their history-making, debut 26-20 win away in South Africa – just reward for manful effort and for their shrewd coach Joe Schmidt. Surely one of Ireland’s greatest ever victories.

For their part, it would be nice to view this as a low point for South Africa, not of Japanese proportions to be sure, but surely the side Allister Coetzee puts out next week will play with far more cohesion, urgency and passion than this one?

So, with due respect to Argentina and Italy, and all of the other nations fighting out a massive weekend of Test rugby, the score after the first week sits at 2-1 to the Northern Hemisphere. Not that anyone gives credence to such an arbitrary measuring stick, but nevertheless, a result most would have seen as highly unlikely in the wake of last year’s world cup.

Another juicy round awaits next week, no match more mouthwatering than in Melbourne, where Michael Cheika has a massive task ahead of him to overcome a quietly content and confident Eddie Jones.