The Wallabies snuck home 31-28 against the Barbarians at Allianz Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The Baa-Baas were full of beans and raced to an early lead before the Wallabies reined them in with the help of two yellow cards.
It may not have been an official international match, but there was still plenty to talk about.
1. A scrappy old affair
Nine tries in an exhibition game is a fair return. And the Wallabies won in the end. So why wasn’t it as much fun as it should have been?
For starters, whenever you make 13 changes to your starting team, you expect a lack of cohesion. Sure, the Barbarians were thrown together as well, but they’re unburdened by the pressure of expectation and structure.
It was the Baa-Baas making most of the early running, offloading and breaking the line at will, only letting themselves down with a lack of discipline. In contrast, the new look Wallabies’ spacing, depth and communication was a shambles.
2. So, who staked a claim?
With Spring Tour spots up for grabs, there was plenty of intensity in the early stages, especially from the Barbarians.
Eto Nabuli looked dangerous in attack. Wycliff Palu rolled back the years to turn Jordan Uelese into a crash Test dummy. Taqele Naiyaravoro had his best game to date in any jersey ‒ the big man gobbled up two tries, three linebreaks and 172 metres from just eight carries.
Andrew Ready was probably the best hooker on the park. Quade Cooper was lively and faultless with the boot. Cheika also had praise for Brumbies-bound loose forward Isi Naisarani.
For the Wallabies, Jack Dempsey led the way until his injury (more on that later). Ben McCalman was dominant off the bench. But, by and large, it was a stuttering performance by the men in gold.
Billy Meakes was anonymous at 12. Duncan Paia’aua struggled with his game management and execution at fly-half despite grabbing two tries. Henry Speight also got on the scoresheet with a fine finish on the stroke of half-time, but otherwise looked like a headless chook.
3. Costly injuries to Dempsey and Tui
Hindsight’s a wonderful thing. But in an exhibition game with wholesale personnel changes, and the opposition down to 13 men, that’s probably the time to protect your key players.
As it happened, Jack Dempsey stayed on until the 76th minute when he twisted awkwardly in a ruck and had to be carried off with a completely lame left leg. The post-match report suggested his hamstring had been torn from the bone.
If that’s the case, it’s similar to the injury suffered by Lachie Turner a few years ago. He was never the same player afterwards.
Dempsey had put in another strong shift up to that point. The setback came after promising youngster Lukhan Tui also succumbed to a hamstring, though he was at least able to walk himself off the field.
Injuries will always happen in rugby. The logic behind Cheika’s changes in the first place was obviously to keep his stars in cotton wool. It’s just that much more frustrating when it happens in a game of little consequence.
4. Izzy phoned it in
Bearing in mind his upcoming sabbatical, there wasn’t much to be gained from the inclusion of Israel Folau (except perhaps to sell a few extra tickets). From the wing, he struggled to get involved in a fixture famous for attacking verve.
The lack of hunger was evident when he didn’t even attempt a simple tackle on an off-balance Tom Banks. The winger wriggled free, sparking a neat exchange between Palu, Tim Nanai-Williams and Naiyaravoro who strolled over for his first try.
To be fair, Folau wasn’t helped by those inside him. He’s not the kind of player who can win games on his own. He needs a coherent backline to create the space and he’ll do the rest. Enjoy the break, big fella.
5. You can take the Alan Jones out of talkback radio…
Brendan Pickerell’s refereeing was patchy, fair enough. You could argue that both yellow cards issued to the Barbarians were harsh. There’s certainly an argument that he didn’t act in the spirit of the occasion by killing off the contest for the fans.
Alan Jones is a no nonsense, keep it simple, ‘let the boys play’ kind of coach. No sooner had the final whistle blown than he was right back to his shock jockery. “Woeful…the bloke was out of his depth,” he said in an impassioned critique of the referee.
It was a snapshot of the cartoon outrage he routinely slips into on air ‒ an approach that surely resonates with many disillusioned fans whose only wish is to see the game flow. He might have had a point, but he was petulant in making it. Naturally, he had less to say about the Barbarians opening try coming from a forward pass.
Jones coached the Wallabies in the 1980s and it’s clear he hasn’t read a rulebook since then. He was baffled that Taniela Tupou’s try was disallowed after the old ball up the jumper trick.
It might be a crowdpleaser, but the fact is you can’t hide the ball in your jersey. Jones failed to grasp this even after having it explained to him.
As an invitational coach in a one-off game, Jones might feel like there’s nothing to lose by mouthing off. After all, he does it professionally and on a daily basis. Whether he cares or not, there’s still some semblance of dignity at stake.