The Wallabies kicked off their spring tour in style with a 63-30 win over Japan in Yokohama on Saturday.
So, what did we learn?
1. Hodge steps up again
Everything that Michael Cheika asks of Reece Hodge, he does. And with a minimum of fuss. He took over at five-eighth in the absence of Bernard Foley and performed admirably.
Hodge showed deft hands to assist the second try, sending Henry Speight through untouched from Australia’s pet play ‒ inside ball to the blind winger from a lineout. He also kicked a flawless nine from nine conversions.
It wasn’t all perfect. There were some wobbly passes and a tendency to get caught in the ruck from restarts when he’d be more use kicking clear. The caveat is that this was only Japan, but it’s to Hodge’s credit that it always felt like this was ‘only Japan’.
2. One hardworking international hooker, **FREE** to good home
Not content to be a stopgap between Stephen Moore and the next generation, Tatafu Polota-Nau means business. Against Japan, Polota-Nau was involved in everything. He made 13 carries (his most in Wallaby gold) and picked up a try off the back of a rolling maul.
Yet, despite being the standout hooker in Australia at the moment, he finds himself without a club for 2018. By backing the Western Force to survive, Taf didn’t get around to making other plans. This all comes after his proposed move to Bristol in 2016 fell through due to injury.
He surely won’t be without a team for long, even if the offer comes from Europe or Japan. If that’s the case, the Australian conference will be losing one of its most devoted servants. Aside from anything else, the man’s just an absolute joy.
3. Special Ks take centre stage
There was never going to be a great deal of subtlety from a centre pairing of Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani. The 100+kg Fijian duo are both designated crash ball carriers and therefore not a natural combination.
Yet what they lacked in playmaking ability, they more than made up for in raw power. Kuridrani picked up a hattrick of tries, while Kerevi chewed off 168 metres, including ten tackle busts and two tries of his own.
One of those tries was the clear highlight of the match. Speight recovered well from a loose Hodge pass to break the line and find Kurtley Beale in support. Beale popped the ball to a rampaging Kerevi who held off the cover defence, leapt over the line and slammed the ball down as if dunking a basketball. Brilliant to watch.
4. Still plenty to work on for Cheika
It’s something of an anomaly that the Wallabies managed to score nine tries with just 33 per cent territory. It speaks to the their ability to score clinical tries from distance, but it’s also an indictment of their patience and game management at times.
Conceding 30 points is a concern in games such as these. They started well, but mistakes crept in as the game wore on. Australia missed 31 tackles and conceded a whopping 17 penalties, several due to errors at the breakdown.
Better sides will punish such sloppiness, of course. For now the Wallabies can savour another win and ready themselves to lift again in the UK.
5. Bring on 2019!
If Saturday was anything to go by, the 2019 World Cup looks in safe hands. Nissan Stadium in Yokohama was heaving with fans who cheered throughout, despite the result.
Japan is a cultural outlier in the rugby world, but the people are embracing the sport wholeheartedly. As I mentioned in the match preview, the Brave Blossoms can’t dine out on their win over South Africa forever.
The national team must continue its development to remain relevant. But there’s certainly an unprecedented level of interest in the game on Japanese shores.
Japan is one of the world’s most compelling tourist destinations. From a rugby perspective, it has the requisite infrastructure and enthusiasm to stage one of the all-time great events. If the home side can progress from the group stage, you’re going to want to be among it. Be sure to keep some annual leave handy.