“It was a win, but…” was how plenty of online and social media post-mortem commentary of the Wallabies began after Saturday night’s 16-10 over Argentina, and it’s wasn’t an unreasonable starting point.
There were certainly plenty of positives to be drawn out of the performance, and it’s worth beginning with them.
The Wallabies defended superbly well, and limited a noted broken play team like Los Pumas to just ten clean breaks from 151 carries for the match. Even 20 Argentinean offloads looks pretty miserly, and speaks for the pressure the Australian defenders applied.
Happily, it appears over the opening Tests of 2019 that Nathan Grey’s overly complicated, constantly shuffling, swing-your-partner-round-and-round defensive patterns have been shelved, with players pretty much remaining in position, and thus presenting a considerably less-viscous-looking defensive line.
This is only about three years overdue, and there’s an argument to be made that the Wallabies counterattack also appears in better shape because the players are essentially where they need to be. Which in turn, has to be making Shaun Berne’s new job as Wallabies attack coach easier.
The set-piece, too, was again very good.
Scott Sio’s return at loosehead brought benefits, but more importantly, the scrum didn’t retreat from its dominance once James Slipper and Taniela Tupou took over up front, or when they were joined later by hooker Tolu Latu.
On the other side of the coin, noted scrum doctor and Argentinean coach Mario Ledesma might achieve Sainthood if he can turn around Los Puma’s scrum, with less than two months until they face France and England in Pool C at the Rugby World Cup.
But – and there is always a ‘but’ – as so many people noted post-match and in the days since.
Certainly, the Wallabies go-forward and attacking breakdown was much improved, with Will Genia receiving significantly quicker ball than Nic White enjoyed the week before, and with Christian Lealiifano at flyhalf enjoying a return to international rugby that should just about demand this game won’t be his last for Australia before heading to Japan next season.
The Wallabies forwards carried with much more intent, were focussed on delivering quick ball back for Genia, and happily, appeared to be more aware of looking for chances to offload. Early success from second phase meant the Wallabies as a team were looking to promote the ball after contact more, and just as importantly, more players were presenting as genuine offload targets.
Now, I very deliberately use the phrase “were looking to promote the ball” here, because in actual fact, the Wallabies didn’t successfully offload any more than against South Africa the week before.
But the big difference in this game was the intent, both of the ball carriers, and of the support runners to make the offload a very real option at the very least; something that just wasn’t happening at Ellis Park.
No doubt, a number of offloaded balls that went to ground contributed to the turnovers conceded column, but again, we all saw the difference in the Wallabies attack when they looked to create broken play opportunities. Increased turnovers are going to be a by-product of offloading in traffic.
Once again, though, Tevita Kuridrani was hooked late in the game, and with James O’Connor’s romantic but thoroughly overrated return to Test rugby featuring heavily in commentary since, there is already a push for the once-exiled midfielder to start in the centres, with Samu Kerevi shuffling to outside centre.
But once again, that would be weakening would should be a strength, all in favour of what might be.
For his part, Kerevi wants to keep working with Kuridrani, telling rugby.com.au after the Test in Brisbane, “We’ve got a real combo going on – I wanted to get more ball for ‘T’ especially from last week, they had a hard line D and for us, it’s just getting more ball to those outside guys and getting Hodgey and Marika into the game.”
If the issue is that Kuridrani again isn’t being brought into the game, surely the question needs to examine why this is. And a look at the Super Rugby stat sheets provide a hint that the issue is not necessarily Kuridrani.
I reckon I counted half a dozen times when Kerevi went to the line with Kuridrani following right behind him in good position for an offload, but Kerevi either didn’t see him, or didn’t look for the offload. It’s true that Kuridrani shelled one Kerevi offload in a handy position on the field, but Kerevi still only got two successful offloads away for the game.
Kerevi was great for the Queensland Reds and according to the Fox Sports Lab, topped Super Rugby for runs, run metres per game, tackle busts, and offloads.
But a look at the numbers of Chris Feauai-Sautia for the nine games the played together as a 12-13 combination show that Kerevi’s centre partner didn’t enjoy a lot of flow-on from the no.12’s carnage. While Kerevi offloaded nearly twice a game they played together, and managed at least line break assist per game, Feauai-Sautia only managed three line breaks and five tackle busts in those nine games together.
Feauai-Sautia also carried half as many times as Kerevi, and similarly made only half as many metres per game. And yes, correlation certainly does not imply causation; but when an inside centre is dominating, and the outside centre next to him is not enjoying the fruits of that domination, it’s worth exploring why.
And more so when Kuridrani’s Super Rugby numbers – in a team where he was probably more of the focal point in the midfield attack – show one line break and nearly three tackle busts per game. Not to mention the seven tries to Feauai-Sautia’s and Kerevi’s five each. If the Brumbies had no trouble getting Kuridrani into the game, then why can’t the Wallabies?
And why on earth is bringing O’Connor into 12 and shifting Kerevi out the solution?
It’s great the Wallabies had more intent in their attack, and the confidence that intent brought to their attack in general was clear. Koroibete’s set piece try was as good as any we’ve seen in any competition this season.
It’s similarly great that the simplified defence is working well. And even that with one in five tackles being missed, it was still clear that Australia were able to reset their line pretty efficiently when Argentina looked to counter. This can only serve them well in the coming months.
It’s great that Lealiifano enjoyed a strong return to Test rugby and now provides a genuine option at flyhalf when not that long ago it was assumed Kurtley Beale might be it.
And it’s wonderful news that David Pocock is edging closer to the return. Could an ACT Rugby Elimination Final be the kick-start that bounces him back into the Bledisloe frame? That would be great news on a number of fronts.
There’s no doubt that the ultimate pre-Rugby World Cup test now looms over two legs in Perth and Auckland.
But there’s equally no doubt that the Wallabies are in a better place for that test than they were even only a week ago.