This time a week ago, anticipating the first Test match of the season, one simple objective was identified. After only one win in Dave Rennie’s first year, the Wallabies needed to beat France by whatever means, by whatever margin, and get their season started on a positive track.
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By now everyone knows the story. The Wallabies conceded a 15-0 start and butchered two or three tries before seemingly coming up short at 20-21. That didn’t take into account the French, who, only needing to win a lineout and kick the ball dead, were spooked by a rampaging Taniela Tupou and forgot the old rule of never passing the ball to a man in a worse position than yourself. Or Tate McDermott.
Reaction to the win covered the full spectrum: from despair at a continuation of error-filled, disjointed, inconsistent play to relief and joy at being able to stay in the fight and win a Test that could easily have been lost. Yes, winning ugly can be a beautiful thing.
But that was then. Caveats about typical first-Test rustiness and lack of combinations only stretch so far. If the Wallabies’ job last week was simply to win, their job this week must be to win with far more authority and conviction.
France has strode forward under Fabien Galthie, coming second in this year’s Six Nations and developing the kind of depth that has pundits everywhere nodding in agreement about their chances in the 2023 World Cup.
But make no mistake, this touring side is well short of top class. They offer big bodies, flashes of skill and a Test-ready pragmatism that the Wallabies have, for some seasons, lacked. They deserve respect and are no easy-beats.
But they are – or should be – 20 points off being a genuine contender away from home against any genuine Tier 1 Test nation. And with the rust-shaking first match out of the way, it’s time for the Wallabies to present themselves as a genuine Tier 1 nation by putting in a commanding, more accurate performance in Melbourne.
There are some promising building blocks in place. Last season in six Tests the Wallabies converted 28 penalties in the attacking half into a grand total of seven points, a success ratio of a minuscule 3.6 per cent – or, to put it another way, a stratospheric failure rate of 96.4 per cent.
In Brisbane the Wallabies received ten penalties in the attacking half. They kicked for goal on three occasions, all successful, and kicked for touch seven times, resulting in two converted tries. All up, a very handy 23 points and a confidence booster that this side can indeed convert territory into points through improved decision making and better execution.
Where the latter is concerned, the stamp of Brumbies coach Dan McKellar was all over the first try to Brandon Paenga-Amosa, with Rob Valetini, stationed on the side of the attacking maul, deliberately yielding to the French counter shove. As a result, two of the biggest of the French pack careered forward, suddenly ahead of the ball and out of play, providing impetus for the Wallabies maul to regather momentum and take it right to the line.
The second try also came from a lineout, but here the Wallabies showed patience and organisation before Michael Hooper showed a nice understanding of the law which says that one’s arse cannot be offside in the in-goal area by sneaking the ball onto the tryline.
On the other side of the ball there is plenty of improvement required.
The first scrum saw a clean strike and solid platform, but in their desire for early psychological ascendancy the Wallabies forgot where they were on the field. An unnecessary second shove saw the ball spill free when the real opportunity for the Wallabies was to save the he-man stuff for further down the park and focus instead on completing a professional exit down to halfway or beyond.
France’s second try also came from a misfired attempt to establish scrum ascendancy and a breakdown in defensive structure. Post match, halfback Jake Gordon copped heat for misreading the inside transfer and ending up on the wrong side of the ball, tackling nobody, but he had plenty of mates.
Watch how Noah Lolesio runs up on his man but then passively and inexplicably stops short of contact and forgoes the opportunity to snuff the move-out. Watch Michael Hooper get tangled up on the side of the scrum, the usual subtle holding back of players, that prevents him getting across in cover; yet watch again and see that it is Hooper who actually initiates the jersey grabbing, then wonder why he would do something that achieves nothing other than taking himself out of play in a dangerous defensive position.
Watch how Tom Wright, on the blind wing, fails to see the play unfolding and shows no urgency to get across to provide a second line of cover defence. And watch Harry Wilson, meerkatting on the back of the scrum, even putting his head back down for another shove, long after the ball has gone – another potential second-line defender putting himself out of business.
With a punishing program of conditioning work now bedded in, now is the time for the Wallabies to sort out matters of defensive responsibility and the system. As well as the French try illustrated here, there were far too many first-up tackles missed, with the consequence that opportunities were squandered to put the French under pressure.
One way to accelerate that is to ensure continuity in selection. It was thus no surprise that Rennie announced only one change to his side for the second Test: Taniela Tupou and Allan Alaalatoa swapping their starting and bench positions.
The Wallabies have been working with Ben Darwin, a proponent of cohesion, and while Rennie yesterday specifically denied that Darwin is “influential” in selection, he conceded that there was “a bit of logic” around continuity, providing what was originally decided as the best 23 players available, another shot at things.
If the alternative is tossing players in and out from week to week based on knee-jerk reactions to a bad pass or a poor kick or because there are too many Waratahs, then I’m backing this selection to get the job done tomorrow night.
As important as beating France with authority is, job two is even more crucial. It involves Rugby Australia CEO Andy Marinos and chairman Hamish McLennan jumping onto a zoom call with their New Zealand counterparts and putting into action something that has been talked about and skirted around for too long.
In Dunedin on Saturday, New Zealand beat Fiji 57-23 – comfortable enough on the scoreboard, but nobody who watched the match could fail to be impressed by the Fijian’s physical presence, organisation and cohesiveness. This despite their build-up being compromised by logistical factors related to COVID-19.
Put simply, Fiji no longer belongs in some ‘Tier 2’ backwater. They are a fully-fledged rugby nation that must be playing regular Test matches against the best opposition.
Across the last two World Cups – the stage where no nation holds anything back – Japan has beaten South Africa, Ireland and Scotland. They are a fully-fledged rugby nation that must be playing regular Test matches against the best opposition.
This is not World Rugby’s problem to fix. Not only should Australia and New Zealand take responsibility for making this happen – now, not in five or ten years – there is a potential payday for them in doing so.
The Six Nations is undoubtedly rugby’s most successful, long-standing competition. It has long been viewed with envy from this part of the world, partly for the financial riches it delivers to its member nations but also because the southern hemisphere nations have never been able to cobble anything together that remotely matches it.
Until now. When Argentina joined the Rugby Championships in 2012 it involved an element of what then New Zealand Rugby CEO Steve Tew described to me as New Zealand, Australia and South Africa being “good corporate citizens”.
Despite issues around isolation, lack of a professional domestic structure and COVID impacts, there can be no question around Argentina’s place in the top echelon of rugby nations. In case anyone needs reminding, last year the Pumas defeated New Zealand and drew twice with Australia.
As a matter of urgency, Fiji and Japan must be accommodated in a similar manner.
Sure, there are challenges. Fiji lacks the infrastructure to host three major international matches a year. Japan can be a confounding place in which to do business.
But there are solutions too. There is already a man on the inside of Japanese rugby. National coach Jamie Joseph is held in high regard and has the currency to enable him to play an influential role in bringing Japan’s administrators into the fold.
As for money, earlier this year CVC Capital Partners paid £365 million for a 14.3 per cent stake in the Six Nations for the next five years. That’s A$678 million to retain ownership of 85.7 per cent of your own competition, with the potential to leverage higher returns through the relationship with the investor.
Nobody is comparing the current commercial value of the Rugby Championships to that of the Six Nations, but a revamped competition, with rugby’s exciting emerging nations on board, has untapped potential for a private equity investor and with no requirement for the farm to be sold off.
The existing SANZAAR agreement and broadcasting deals and New Zealand’s prospective deal with Silver Lake can all be accommodated. Administrators have shown admirable agility under COVID – any potential double counting and conflict over who owns what are merely matters to work through.
It would also force the hand of South Africa. Are they part of a fresh, new six-nation Rugby Championships to match that of the north, or are they the newest member of a revamped Seven Nations, leaving the Rugby Championships to comprise five nations?
For Australia and New Zealand, keeping South Africa in the south is preferable, but frankly, it doesn’t matter too much which way they go. What matters is that the pussyfooting and jockeying for position comes to a head and that an opportunity is seized to reset international rugby in our region.
If longstanding concerns about the quality of the sides and ‘who pays for it?’ are now off the table, what exactly is the impediment to making this happen? Right now?
Fiji get another chance against New Zealand this week in Hamilton, and there’s nothing to suggest that we won’t see more of the same, albeit they will need to ensure better defence against the lineout maul and in the wide channels.
Having conceded three tries from lineouts themselves, the All Blacks will obviously put whatever time they don’t apply to ensuring more assertiveness and accuracy in supporting the ball carrier and at cleanout towards their own line-out defence.
On the plus side, how great was it to see Brodie Retallick back in black, particularly in concert with Sam Whitelock, whose second-half injection was telling.
Also pleasing for All Blacks fans was the crisp backline attack – the oft-maligned Rieko Ioane having by far his best Test outing at centre and the sublime first-half try to Jordie Barrett a masterclass for young players in how to catch and pass the ball at speed.
It was left to Dane Coles, who managed to score four tries in one half of Test rugby, to neatly sum up his contribution and the match itself, telling Israel Dagg, “It was good, mate”.
That’s exactly what we’ll all be saying after Fiji and Japan are included in the Rugby Championships.