There were 84 points scored in the Wallabies final Test against England. When last did we see an English team score 44 points in a full series, let alone single Test match?
Sorry, I couldn’t help myself having one slight pot shot at the Poms, who just handed us our first whitewash in years!
So what went wrong and what do we need to focus on leading into the upcoming Rugby Championship? A fair bit some might say, but I believe that if we tweak a few things the Wallabies can be a serious contender to push even the most well-tuned rugby machine, whether that’s the English or the All Blacks.
At this time, Test match rugby requires a few things to be successful: accumulate scoreboard pressure, do the basics extremely well and win the mental battle.
In the most recent series, was it a lack of Test match preparation? It is worth noting that the Northern Hemisphere teams have recently had their Six Nations tournament. Is that why Ireland beat South Africa in the first game, or why Wales kept the All Blacks honest for 60 or so minutes of their opener? Team continuity is extremely important in any environment, and it showed in all three series.
If I use a single statement to outline my main areas of concern, it would go something along the following lines. Being the most faithful Aussie supporter my Wallabies bashing is generally kept to a minimum, but I will try to be factual to provide an honest appraisal: We did not once have the same team taking the field during the series. Our set piece was inconsistent and our basics, such as team shape, breakdown accuracy and discipline, were not up to Test match standard.
Let’s look at each of these individually
Seven different locking combinations, changing front rowers, losing one of our best players in Kurtley Beale and changing 12 twice is no good for anyone. I think having a 12 that can take the pressure off Bernard Foley, by creating attacking options for the team and causing the defence to make decisions, is vital to our success.
This is where Kurtley is the master. He provides that much-needed energy to the backline and provides the option for the 10 and 12 to interchange. Most great teams have always had this luxury at their fingertips. Get this right and the likes of Izzy come into the game, forward runners are able to provide both options for the attack and force the defence into making decisions.
For me, the greatest concern is the locking combination, possibly due to the fact that it is the position closest to my heart. It is pretty basic; we need two jumping locks should you wish to play David Pocock and Michael Hooper together in the back row. Both are brilliant players but not the greatest lineout technicians.
Good teams will expose us at lineout time, and clean ball from set piece will become extremely difficult.
Our locks need to be physical and intimidating workhorses. The less you see or hear about these guys the better. Who was the other lock for England partnering the future great Maro Itoje? Tough question? Why, because he was doing his work. He was bashing the breakdown, making tackles and working until he ran out of juice. Then on comes Courtney Lawes, who set up the final try in Melbourne which destroyed our hopes. It was the break from Lawes up the middle.
That’s impact and that’s what we need. Will Skelton or Dean Mumm can both do this. My picks for the starting team, therefore, are Rob Simmons (he can call a lineout and has the experience) and my other lock is slightly left-field. It is the man who finished the final Test at lock, Adam Coleman. I suggest sticking with him – we need him to develop at this level.
Forgive me if I now get slightly personal, but going into this Rugby Championship, our forward pack should look at their opponent and desire to physically dominate that player. Not gain parity, but absolutely dominate them. Regardless of the quality of player they come up against, that is irrelevant. Believe in yourself men, back each other up and fly into your opponent. Do this and our backs will repay the piano pushers’ hard work and we will see some magnificent rugby.
Basics – Shape, set piece and accuracy
I was lucky enough to be invited to watch the Wallabies train on Friday before the final Test in Sydney against England. What and how we trained was not how we played. We did so in patches, but rugby is an 80-minute game. Under pressure, which Test match rugby is all about, we were unable to revert to type. Reverting to type is being able to perform your game plan no matter what the circumstance.
We were far too guilty of running one out straight into the teeth of their defence, which resulted in either a turnover or having to utilise more players to recycle the ball. Watch closely the next time we play, which is against the All Blacks.
Off the set piece, our 6 and 7 play on opposite sides of the field in the 15-metre channel. This way we have ball runners out wide, plus backrowers to help the backs secure the wide channel.
But this increases the emphasis on the midfield winning the collision and breakdown to generate quick ball. An example of this working is Michael Hooper’s try in the first Test against England in Brisbane. The ball was moved quickly, the clean out was ferocious (have a look at Stephen Moore’s clean out) and the passing was crisp. If we can do it once, then why not on a consistent basis?
That is what Michael Cheika is working towards. It’s different to Izzies’ try off Bernard. The passing and breakdown work was superb.
The set piece is the lifeblood of any rugby team and is how you get our potent backs the ball in their hands on a consistent basis. If you can do it well in one game, there is no reason why you cannot do it again in the next game.
Cast your mind back to the first Test in Brisbane. A lineout move was called cleverly as Itoje was trying to read the middle and back of the lineout defensively. Hooper was called at the tail and the drill was excellent.
What does this do? It opens up the lineout for the rest of the game because they have to worry about it. That is smart rugby, but not an option you want to rely on. It is making the defence make decisions. That is key.
Simmons, Coleman, Fardy, Hooper, Pocock: That is our best lineout at present while the players I believe are best suited to the back five, Mumm and Skelton, would sit on the bench.
The scrum is ever-evolving. We have the players to be successful, that’s for sure. All we need to do is take referee perception out of the game and be consistent. The key is consistency for Australia. On our day, we can go with any pack, but if our concentration is off it is a multiplier effect in reverse for some reason.
We need to be the most consistent pack of scrummagers in the game. We should only ever get beaten by a better scrum, not by our own poor concentration and execution.
Breakdown accuracy for me was the next issue. We are giving away far too many penalties and are having to commit far too many players to recycle the ball. How do we change this? We need to have the will to want to bash each and every breakdown and target the threat. Call his name, let him know you are coming and legally whack him.
A clean out is the only legal opportunity you get to physically move a body without the ball. Let’s get excited about winning the breakdown and getting quick ball. It basically lets us do what we train to do, which is play with continuity and win the gain line.
So what now?
So where does this leave us? It leaves us in a position where we have to come home like a freight train out of control in the Super season and believe in what we are doing. Our physicality needs to be consistent, our shape needs to be brilliant and we should be able to do it without thinking. This will allow us to convert any form of pressure into points. This is done by being patient and not panicking. We have the cattle but we just need the consistent mindset now to compliment this. It is key!
Come the Rugby Championship, let’s focus on ourselves, get the basics right, get our mindset superior and go out to play for our mates. The coaches, the players and the strategy are there. Let’s take what we do on the training field and make sure the hours on the paddock relate to some backline or forward magic.
Us supporters should be excited about the Rugby Championship. Our Wallabies have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Australian rugby will always have my support and so too the players, but I dearly want them to be able to deliver what they are capable of, and be able to sit in that locker room having a laugh about the battle they have just endured after walking in victorious.