The countdown to Japan continues and the Wallabies have earned an important win as they look to build some momentum.
The game was a special one for a number of reasons which we’ll come to, but it has also served to give both players and fans alike some hope.
Hope can be a cruel mistress as we all know, but at least this Sunday there are some positives that can be discussed over breakfast rather than people angrily eating their toast and wondering if the time has come to give up on the Wallabies.
Playing off No.9 was good
Will Genia had a good night. While Nic White had a pretty good game last week, Genia was able to bring a bit more directness to the Wallabies on Saturday and was able to unleash the bigger ball runners.
The Wallabies used Genia a lot on Saturday to dictate their play and it worked well. He delivered a lot of flat passes that his forwards could crash onto and this was crucial to get the Wallabies going forwards and challenging the usually solid defence of the Pumas.
The old campaigner has understandably lost a yard of pace over the years and so his darts from around the ruck aren’t quite as effective anymore, but his experience and ability to guide the team are perhaps even more valuable.
The other side of this coin of course is that the runners need to get their timing right and to punch holes in the defence. This did happen at times but it needs to happen every time and the runners need to sharpen up their ball handling.
The challenge for the Wallabies – as for many of the top tier nations – is being able to switch between styles when it’s needed.
Playing off Genia can work really well but defences will adapt and so the Wallabies need to develop the ability to play effectively off 9 when it suits them and then off 10 when it suits them.
Wallabies look better with ball in hand
For a while the Wallabies have had a bit of an identity issue. The days of the free-flowing, creative and fast attack that saw Australia dominate so many seemed to have been lost.
The Wallabies of the past four years have had individually talented players but they’ve been unable to turn that into an effective attack consistently.
At times they’ve then focused a lot on a kicking game that a) wasn’t executed well enough and b) was very un-Australian.
Against the Pumas there was a genuine desire to keep the ball in their hands and not kick possession to the Argentinians over and over and it was great to see.
Reece Hodge’s try was relatively simple in the grand scheme of things but the execution of the pieces that made up the try were really nice to see.
Big ball runners acting as genuine distractions, Christian Lealiifano’s deft dummy and then pop pass, the line from Marika Koroibete and then the link up with Beale and finally Hodge.
Yes there were a couple of passes in there that made it a little bit trickier for Hodge than it needed to be, but overall it was lovely to see.
Last week there were far too many forced offloads but this week we saw a number of effective pop passes with forwards drawing opponents and hitting gaps. Samu Kerevi continues to have a good season and with ball in hand he looked like a real threat.
One frustration was that when there were initial line breaks or opportunities created, the handling errors crept in and the follow up support was unable to turn a half break into a real threat. There were a number of times when a positive initial piece of play fell to pieces with an error soon after.
The Wallabies need to keep committing to this running style of rugby – partly because it can be very effective and partly because they really don’t have the players to employ a good kicking game.
They need to play to their strengths and if they can keep the forced offloads out and sharpen up on the handling errors then they can really scare teams.
Wallabies able to absorb in defence
There’s been a lot of discussion about the Wallabies defence against the Pumas already this weekend and deservedly so.
The Australian side have been far too soft in recent years with a combination of lack of organisation and simple missed tackles causing them problems.
Against the Pumas the team didn’t try the rush defence that so many sides are using at the moment. Instead they sat back and let the Pumas come to them – absorbing their attack and not offering the potential gaps that a poorly executed rush defence can lead to.
This was notable in the second half where the Pumas had more possession and territory but were only able to get one try right towards the end of the game.
Now it’s worth noting that the Pumas don’t have one of the most effective attacks in world rugby and there are going to be sterner challenges for this new Wallabies system to cope with over the coming weeks and months.
Just like with their attack, they need to be able to switch between defensive styles during a game – either to cope with what the opposition are throwing at them or to keep the opposition attack guessing and unable to find a rhythm.
It’s also worth noting that the Wallabies missed over 25 per cent of their tackles and there’s no defensive system in the world that can cover up for a team that can’t tackle.
The Wallabies scrum is becoming a weapon
There was a lot expected of the Wallabies set-piece given the way in which the Brumbies performed so well this Super Rugby season. Against the Springboks last week there were some good moments but still plenty of work to be done, but against the Pumas this week however the scrum really stepped up.
Over the course of the match the Wallabies pack earned their team five penalties – some at very key times that allowed the Aussies to wrestle back control and relieve some pressure.
This was even the case after the bench was being used which is important to note because in other aspects of their game, the subs coming on actually made things worse.
This is a good step forward for the Wallabies. Long has their pack been seen as a weak spot in their game and if they can turn it into a real threat then that is going to be huge.
However, the Pumas’ pack is not at the top of its game right now and has been monstered by a number of teams. The real tests for the Wallabies set piece will come against scarier packs and they need to show that they won’t roll over.
The Bench was a disruption
In today’s international rugby arena, the bench needs to be a genuine part of your game plan – not just a group of guys who can come on if there’s an injury.
Teams around the world have found ways to use their subs as a way to increase the tempo at which they play or the style of their approach.
When done well this causes the opposition a whole world of challenges – the style you’ve been getting use to for the past 55 minutes can suddenly change and you’ve got to rethink everything, usually as fatigue is starting to kick in.
Unfortunately though on Saturday, when the Wallabies started to bring on their subs, they lost something. The rhythm went and the potency was reduced.
Of course with a World Cup on the horizon, you could argue that there is value in Michael Cheika testing out a few players and combinations.
However that really feels like something that should have been done in 2018 and that now, with only a couple of months until the big dance kicks off, the focus should be on giving your best combinations time together.
Come the World Cup, the teams that succeed are going to be the ones who can use their full squad and match day line ups without sacrificing overall quality of performance.
The Wallabies are not there yet and they are running out of time to figure out how best to use the players available to them.
Stop giving the ball back to the opposition!
Last week the Wallabies had 20 turnovers. This week they had 24. That’s not the trend you want. Far too many times, half breaks by players were spoiled because of a handling error.
One prime example was early in the game as Izack Rodda made a great break in the 13th minute. He was clean through and the Wallabies had a good chance to turn this into a real try scoring opportunity. However moments later the big man had knocked on and the attack had come to an end.
Through a combination of handling errors and some poor ruck work at times, the Wallabies averaged a turnover every three minutes.
When you consider that the Aussies had 51 per cent of the possession then at most, they actually turned the ball over once every one and half minutes. That’s crazy and is not something that can continue.
The thing that came to their rescue was that the Pumas took the Wallabies 24 turnovers and said “We can do better than that!” and conceded possession 30 times in the match.
In the next round of the Championship, this number has to drop for the Wallabies. The All Blacks, even though they’ve been a bit out of form, are likely to punish that number of turnovers and make things very difficult for the Aussies.
Finally some good news!
This year has been a difficult one for rugby in Australia. The positive news stories were far too often drowned out by discussion of social media, match attendance figures or disappointing club form.
But on Saturday rugby fans got to celebrate a couple of genuinely positive moments – Lealiifano starting at fly-half and Will Genia saying goodbye to Suncorp Stadium on a high. Both of these players had good games against the Pumas and are a lot to do with why they got the victory.
Genia’s place is pretty much assured as the starting scrum-half for the World Cup but Lealiifano is still in a battle to get a ticket to Japan.
To be fair, he’s showing some abilities that Australia have been missing and Bernard Foley might be getting a bit nervous that his pole position for the fly-half role is under threat.
But whatever happens down the road, it was great to see several happy news stories all wrapped up into one game of Australian rugby and to then top that off with a victory against a team that ran the All Blacks very close last weekend was a cherry on top.
So the Wallabies picked up a good win and there were some definite positives. Was it a great performance? No. Are there still plenty of questions that need answering? Yes. But it’s a win and that win can help build confidence in a game where confidence matters so much.
The next two games will be the real challenge for this side. If the All Blacks pick up two decent wins over their trans-Tasman rivals then the positives from this match will all be forgotten.
At the same time – put in two good games against the best team in the world, with maybe even a victory in there too, and you have to say that’s a good few steps towards success in Japan.