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Two cheers only for the Wallabies' gritty win over the Springboks

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Expert
9th September, 2018
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6147 Reads

So there were the Wallabies pinned near their tryline, with a precarious five-point lead, and minutes to go before full-time.

In the stands, some of the spectators covered their eyes as they couldn’t bear to watch the play unfold.

Far away from the action on the field, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika was indulging in his usual explosive ranting and gesturing.

On the field, the Wallabies were composed, smart, and played with their eyes open.

The Springboks, with their might is right philosophy, sent groups of runners to smash through the defensive line of the Wallabies.

The Wallabies countered by bunching their defenders near the rucks so that the Springbok runners ran into a brick wall that had been reinforced.

They gambled that the Springboks did not have the confidence or the skills to test the defensive wall on its unguarded outer perimeters.

As Cheika noted: “Everyone held their nerve pretty well in the end.” Not quite right. All the Wallabies but not the coach.

The players’ gamble not to cover the outer zones came off as the wall was not penetrated. The Springboks fumbled on one attack. And in their last desperate foray, the ball popped up and Bernard Foley snaffled it to allow the Wallabies to boot the ball to the stands.

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In between these last desperate attacks by the Springboks were several scrums that tested the resolve and skills of a pack that had been smashed earlier in the Test with a series of rolling mauls.

In the 68th minute of the Test, Matt Toomua, the steadying influence with his general play and goal-kicking the Wallabies have lacked, kicked a penalty that extended the lead to five points. Only minutes earlier, the Springboks had been attacking Australia’s tryline.

That penalty by Toomua followed a power scrum from the Wallabies that was led by Taniela Tupou, who came on after 47 minutes to replace Allan Alaalatoa.

Taniela Tupou

(Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

The Springboks were leading 18-17 at this point. This switch marked the turning point in the Test – they did not score again. The Wallabies forced two penalties that Toomua converted, their only points in the second half.

The fact is that the Wallabies are a stronger side when Tupou is on the field. This fact then forces an important question: why is Tupou used as a replacement rather than as a starter?

A former All Blacks selector (and player) Earle Kirton, a mentor of Clive Woodward, always insists that the best time to play your impact players is at the start of the game.

It is time for Cheika to take this advice and start Tupou.

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The gritty win by the Wallabies stopped a four-Test losing run by Cheika’s side. It was, as the politicians say, the win the team had to have. If the Springboks had won, they would have moved from seventh place on the World Rugby Rankings table to fifth place, and the Wallabies would have dropped from fifth to seventh.

Australia’s victory was achieved, too, without Israel Folau, David Pocock and Adam Coleman, three stalwarts of the team.

It was achieved, as well, without Bernard Foley as a starter. He came on, replacing Jack Maddocks, in the 68th minute. Aside from his timely interception, he was nondescript in his play.

I think that Cheika is right when he says he intends to persist with the Kurtley Beale-Matt Toomua five-eighth combination.

My suggestion would be to underplay Beale’s role at number 10, though. Use him there occasionally to attack the gain-line and for inside-pass plays.

Beale is not a natural number 10. He does not play to a plan. He is an instinctive player and is best when he is taking gaps rather than creating them for other runners.

Kurtley Beale Australia Rugby Union Championship Wallabies Bledisloe Cup 2017

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Throughout Beale’s career, too, there has been a fundamental weakness in his play as a playmaker. That weakness, which he shares with Quade Cooper, is that when he passes he turns his shoulders rather than squaring them.

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By turning his shoulders, he allows defenders to drift across to cover the next runner. Moreover, with his shoulders turned, he is an easier target for tacklers.

There is one further consideration for Cheika to ponder in his quest for quality playmakers in the Wallabies. He needs a back-up for the now-redundant (at this time, anyway) Foley. My suggestion here is that he considers developing Jack Maddocks as this back-up option.

This should be a project for Stephen Larkham who was converted centre/fullback himself before Rod Macqueen gave him the role of playmaker for his Wallabies side.

We are seeing with the All Blacks that the playmaker role is being handed out to various players in the side on the field rather than being the sole task of a designated number 10.

It was a devastating break by fullback Ben Smith from the first receiver position that finally broke open the Test for the All Blacks against a sometimes brilliant counter-attacking Pumas side.

Nothing is new in rugby. David Campese, a brilliant winger who could have been an equally brilliant number 10, was sometimes used by the Wallabies as a first receiver in general play.

The more immediate task for Cheika is to prepare the Wallabies for next weekend’s Test against the Wallabies. If the Pumas play in anywhere close to how they confronted the All Blacks, or are allowed to play in that manner, the Wallabies are in for a torrid time.

Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika speaks to his players during an Australian Wallabies training session

(Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

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Cheika needs to select a squad and organise tactics that acknowledge this Test will be more challenging for the Wallabies than the Springboks encounter was.

Unlike the Springboks, who were pathetic and clueless in their back play, the Pumas were aggressive in their running, especially their back three, and scored three tries against a tough All Blacks defence. They could easily have scored several more.

The Springboks were one dimensional, essentially smashing forward with rolling mauls or one-off hit-ups.

If Israel Folau is fit for the Test, serious consideration has to be given to playing him on the wing and leaving Dane Haylett-Petty at fullback, his best position and the best choice at 15 for the Wallabies.

In the forwards, Tupou should be a starter and a decision needs to be made about cutting Tatafu Polota-Nau adrift from the Wallabies. The veteran hooker is clearly past his best. Cheika needs to settle on Tolu Latu and/or Brandon Paenga-Amosa.

Wayne Smith pointed out in a column in the Australian that Cheika has “worked his way through virtually every alternate pairing” with his second-row combinations.

It is time for the Wallabies coach to establish his best three, possibly Adam Coleman, Rory Arnold, Izack Rodda, and concentrate on enhancing their combinations and skills.

Izack Rodda runs for the Wallabies

(Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

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Then there is the question of the best back row for the Wallabies. On Saturday, without David Pocock, Lukhan Tui was played, with some success, as the blindside flanker.

But this success was due, in large part, to the fact that the Springboks hardly ran the ball wide into Tui’s sideline defensive channels. Against the Pumas, he will be confronted with wingers and a fullback with pace, swerve and neat footwork, combinations that undid him when used by the All Blacks.

The main complaints about Michael Cheika as the national coach and complaints that have led, in my view, to his poor winning Test record are his boorish, unprofessional behaviour in the coaching box and his lack of insight and rugby nous with his team selections.

Cheika needs to have someone in the coaching box like Bob Dwyer or Rod Macqueen to help him as a selector, rather in the manner of Grant Fox with the All Blacks, and as a calming influence when Cheika explodes into a useless fury about a refereeing decision that runs against his team.

For the win against the Springboks to have any real meaning, it has to be used as a sign that there remains the hope that this generation of Wallabies can be much better than their results against Ireland and the All Blacks suggested.

In this spirit of a careful and guarded optimism, therefore, I am awarding two cheers only for the Wallabies’ victory over the Springboks.