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I’m sure I wasn’t the only Wallabies fan who sat down nervously before kick-off on Saturday night. The first Test match of the year is always well-anticipated, but the transition from Super Rugby to the international scene has often been rocky for Australia.
Plus, this was against Ireland, who snuck into the country while we were still in our corners playing Super Rugby, and bringing an impressive winning streak, a Grand Slam Six Nations championship, and a bucket-load of provincial form with them.
This would be – and still is, to be fair – Australian rugby’s biggest June Test since England arrived here a couple of years ago.
The nerves were real, but the nerves were healthy, too. There had been a genuine shift in the perception of the Australian playing group over the preceding few weeks. Hope was giving way to green shoots of confidence.
What followed was as gritty and as defensively impressive a performance from the Wallabies as seen in recent times.
The 18-9 win has set a benchmark for hard work this year, from which they can build toward a series win that felt unlikely less than a month ago.
And they will need to build, for as good as the performance was, it certainly wasn’t faultless. Likewise, we certainly can’t bank on Ireland being off the pace for the second Test, in Melbourne, as they were in Brisbane.
David Pocock worked – worked bloody hard, too. he was a monster at the ruck as he has been since returning from injury this season, and even when he wasn’t winning turnovers, he was so effective at slowing down and disrupting the ball coming back for Ireland scrumhalf Conor Murray.
Though he wore No.6, Pocock played on the ball all over the field, like he always does, made some nice carries out on the edges, and scored the match-winning try, which was well-deserved.
It was interesting to see him packing scrums at No.8 at times, and equally interesting that he was replaced shortly after scoring in the 72nd minute, coming off at the same time as Will Genia, in what felt like a bold strategy.
It’s hard to recall a Wallabies player having as significant an impact as Pocock did. I’m sure there are examples, and I’m sure some of you will even make suggestions, but I’m confident none will have been in the 18 months it’s been since Pocock last pulled on the Australian jersey.
It was an incredible performance, and one that’s rightly being widely lauded across the rugby world. Any possible lingering doubts about Pocock’s ability to keep up with the modern game have well and truly been erased.
Kurtley Beale worked, too. He was the Wallabies’ next best on the field, after Pocock, and was excellent in most aspects of his game, but specifically, his tactical kicking was top-notch, and his front-line defence set the tone.
Beale did most of the exit and the tactical kicking in the first half, and it was of a quality not properly realised until Bernard Foley seemed to take over both tasks after halftime.
The change didn’t really make any sense at the time, and it certainly didn’t make sense when the Irish back-three started coming forward to field balls, rather than being in position or even being forced backwards as Beale’s kicks often did.
Those first 20 or so minutes after the break was when Ireland looked most likely, even taking the lead for a period. Foley had a decent game aside from his kicking, but he was at his most effective when playing distributor for Beale.
When Beale resumed the tactical kicking duties again, the Wallabies immediately benefitted from better field position, culminating in Israel Folau’s disallowed try on the hour and Pocock’s match-winner 11 minutes later.
Beale led the way in shutting down the Irish centres, Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw, which in turn applied more pressure on young flyhalf Joey Carberry.
But the real story in defence was the Wallabies’ starting pack, who combined for 102 of the side’s 165 tackles made, with only four missed tackles between them. That’s 96 per cent effectiveness, if you’re doing the mental maths, an incredible display.
The physicality in defence – in the first half in particular – absolutely set the bar, just as it set Ireland on the back foot.
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What still needs work
Certainly, the lineout will near the top of the list, although no massive remedial effort is required.
Brandon Paenga-Amosa gets a certain amount of leeway for being on debut, where his nerves to hit the lineout targets might even have been greater than the nerves of playing his first Test. Some timing collaborations will definitely help, but the old adage ‘better for the run’ will apply here.
The midfield defensive alignment, and more specifically, the defensive re-alignment in broken play was found wanting on occasion, with several of Ireland’s breaks through the middle made in this way.
But given that the Wallabies’ defence was more effective with fewer moving parts, an honest review this week and another week together in camp will go a long way toward addressing this too.
A reminder about discipline would be in order, given indiscretion gave Carberry four shots at penalty goal – two of them in the first half, 12 minutes apart, and two more after the break, six minutes apart.
Working with the assumption that Jonny Sexton will surely start in Melbourne, the Wallabies can’t afford opportunities like this, which could invite their opponents into the game, as they did twice in Brisbane.
With all this said – and it’s by no means a complete list of what can be improved or of what was bloody great about the win – I wouldn’t change the side for the second Test.
There may be consideration for going back to a 5-3 bench, but the bench also worked really well.
Sometimes playing groups deserve the chance to wrap up a series, and the 23 from Brisbane should get that opportunity in Melbourne.