It’s a special time isn’t it – the start of a new international rugby season? Even more so in a World Cup year. All the hope and dreams, the thoughts of what could be and that maybe, just maybe they could go all the way.
Well those dreams might still exist in many Wallabies fans but they certainly took a dent in the very first outing for the team as they lost to the Springboks in Johannesburg in Round 1 of the Rugby Championship.
Now in honour of those hopes and dreams let’s try and find a balanced set of talking points and not focus completely on the frustrations and disappointments. It won’t be easy…
Offloading everything is not a good idea!
So one can assume that in the Wallabies’ training camps over the past few weeks there has been a big focus on the importance of offloading.
Given the size of some of the Boks pack it makes sense that the Wallabies would want to play a high tempo game and keep the ball alive.
However perhaps they haven’t quite reached the teaching point yet that says that offloading is not always the right play.
Time and time again forwards and backs forced passes or offloads when they a) didn’t need to, and b) the passes had no chance of actually finding a teammate.
From the second minute when Folau Fainga’a tried offloading to Bernard Foley despite the fact that there were three Springboks in between the two Aussies right up until the end, player after player gave away the ball when they really didn’t need to.
Michael Hooper did it, Foley did it (a few times) and of course Dane Haylett-Petty did it – and those are just the ones that immediately come to mind.
Not a single one of them worked and the repercussions were one of two situations – the Wallabies lost the ball to the Boks, or, the Aussie player receiving the poor pass was immediately put under a huge amount of pressure.
In a couple of instances the Boks not only got the ball back but soon turned that possession into points.
Now of course there is a new attack coach in place and Shaun Berne should be given some time to get the team playing the way he wants.
But surely these professional rugby players have the ability and experience to know that while the overall strategy might be to offload a lot to keep the attack flowing, if the pass isn’t on then it simply isn’t on and you go to ground with the ball and make sure possession is retained.
Speaking of game plan…
What actually was the game plan?
This isn’t meant to sound as though it looked like there wasn’t a game plan but more that it was tricky to figure out how the selections and the game plan the team played aligned.
Michael Cheika and his fellow selection panel mates had got some decent sized players in the back row and centres.
Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Isi Naisarani, Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani bring over 440kg of muscle and power to the party and so you’d assume that we’d see plenty of plays where Nic White and Foley gave quick flat ball to these weapons who were taking the ball at pace and crashing into the defensive line.
The 88kg of Elton Jantjies must have had a few cold sweats when he saw the Wallabies team list and thought about the juggernauts that were likely to be coming down his channel time after time.
But that didn’t happen. The ruck speed was just that bit too slow and the passing not flat and crisp enough and the runs just not there.
The Boks meanwhile made great ground by sending their big men at Foley. To be fair to the Aussie flyhalf he stood up pretty well but he couldn’t stop the home side making important metres and sucking in a second or third defender.
The Wallabies passing and running game was just too lateral. Curiously it was Kurtley Beale who brought some direct running and really cause the South Africans some problems after he came on.
Beale has far too often been caught doing an impression of a crab as he scuttles sideways for the Waratahs this season, but against the Boks his change of pace, good running lines and quick feet saw him slice through the opposition a few times. Shame he hadn’t been brought on earlier.
Great news about Dane Haylett-Petty
It’s great news – DHP has got the worst game of his life out of his system before the World Cup! Isn’t it wonderful?
The Wallabies No.14 did score a try to be fair but fans and Dane alike will remember this game for what he did wrong than the five-pointers he scored in the first half.
Passes that went behind teammates and out into touch, forced offloads that turned over possession and led to Springbok scores minutes later and of course there was that time he dropped the ball over the goal-line and botched a certain try.
One thing that he did highlight was that he’s not a winger. In the 62nd minute the Boks had a ruck about 20m from the Wallabies line and about 3m from the touch line.
DHP was there and covering the short blind side. Instead of holding his position in defence and forcing the Boks to take the ball back towards the open side where the Aussie’s defence was waiting, DHP tried to compete at the ruck – a ruck already won by the home side – and ended up leaving an impossible to resist hole down that blind side.
Herschel Jantjies couldn’t believe his luck and scampered away to score his second try on his debut.
Whether another winger would have made the same mistake is obviously just speculation but DHP has shown that he’s not perfectly at home on the wing and the selection panel are going to need to think about whether his utility value is worth the risk of him not being a specialist.
The set-piece was actually pretty good
It wasn’t all doom and gloom though. The Wallabies line out was a key area of discussion ahead of the game.
The Brumbies line out and driving maul had been a great weapon in their impressive Super Rugby season and fans were hoping this would be repeated at international level.
The line out didn’t lead to any tries unfortunately but it was solid and they only lost one of their twelve throws.
Unfortunately they didn’t really get much chance to use it as an attacking weapon but it was reliable and Rory Arnold also made himself a pest on the Boks’ own throw.
The scrum unfortunately wasn’t as solid. There were times when it was properly monstered by the Springboks and other teams will have been paying attention to this.
However to give them their due, the Wallabies pack fought back hard at the scrum in the final 20 minutes or so and managed to regain some pride.
Against the All Blacks and Pumas though they will be put under more pressure again and will have to be better.
One thing that will frustrate the Australian coaches is the number of turnovers. The Wallabies conceded almost 20 turnovers in the game and that just kept taking any momentum or rhythm out of their attack and gave the Boks precious possession when they needed it.
The Wallabies back row is going to have to work harder in the rest of the Championship if they want to build pressure on their opponents.
Just too many silly errors
In any international game the margins are pretty slim. Mistakes can be punished and if you make a number of them then you really are making the game so much harder for yourself. The Wallabies were their own worst enemy at times and this has to stop.
Whether you want to pick Taniela Tupou’s pointless hit after the whistle had gone that led to him being sin-binned, or DHP’s long list of mistakes, or Isi Naisarani’s fumbled pick up from the base of a scrum that led to a turnover or… you get the idea.
No team is perfect of course but so many of the Wallabies’ errors were ones where the player had made a deliberate decision – it wasn’t poor skills or an unfortunate error. This poor decision making under the pressure of Test rugby has got to disappear from their game.
Nic White offers something new
Let’s end on a positive note – Nic White had a pretty good game. He’s not yet challenging Will Genia for the starting spot but he’s a better back up than Nick Phipps (maybe it’s the absence of the “k” that makes the difference).
Early on in the game White used his sharp kicking game well and in the eighth minute he showed some great awareness when he spotted that his previous high ball kick had drawn the Boks winger up into the front line and so at the very next ruck he kicked again into the space left in behind the Boks and pinned them right back deep in their 22.
As mentioned earlier in this article, he wasn’t able to get his big forwards making some big runs but that’s partly down to the slower rucking from the pack that meant the defence was well organised by the time he got his hands on the ball. That being said he’ll want to get his distribution a little bit quicker in the next few games.
It will be interesting to see how he plays as a sub and if he can bring something exciting later in the game when he comes off the bench but it’s good to see that the Wallabies are closing the gap between their best two scrum halves.
Overall, it wasn’t a great performance from the Wallabies and when you consider that the Springboks team was missing several of their best players, the loss becomes even more concerning.
Watching the intensity of the Pumas or the resilience of the All Blacks in the second game of Round 1 should also scare Aussie fans as the rest of the Rugby Championship is going to be very tough.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom and if the Wallabies can tighten up their scrum, use their big runners better and stop forcing passes then they will be a much harder team to beat.