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Opinion

A bullet pass from a lock, and other wonders from the Wallabies’ Brisbane win

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20th September, 2021
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The best Wallabies performance in recent memory. That’s about as definitive as I can be about where that 30-17 Wallabies win over South Africa on Saturday night ranks.

Certainly, the best of the last couple of years, with the Bledisloe win in Perth two seasons ago the next obvious stopping point. I don’t rank wins (or losses), and even though it’s easy to say, ‘that was the best win I’ve ever seen’, it’s almost impossible to outline why.

Paul Cully likened these twin wins over the Springboks to the back-to-back wins over England and Wales at the 2015 Rugby World Cup and when you do give that assessment some thought, especially with how the Wallabies had played up that point six years ago, it’s not a bad comparison.

Were these wins better than those at Twickenham six years ago? I don’t know. I don’t know how anyone knows.

But what these wins have done is restore a lot of faith and repay a lot of dented confidence of Wallabies fans over the past few years. The jump to no.3 in the world rankings was a welcome surprise, but by and large, the reaction over the last few days has been more about enjoying these two performances for what they are right now, and not what may or may not follow.

And look, Wallabies fans have become used to toasting the small moments here and there in recent years, so a couple of impressive, clinical back-to-back wins should be toasted, I say.

Because after all, there genuinely was so much to enjoy.

Like when replacement lock Darcy Swain caught a pass in midfield from hooker Feleti Kaitu’u, just after Reece Hodge had pilfered ball from Springbok winger Makazole Mapimpi. Swain had prop Angus Bell beside him, and he looked to see the South African defensive line holding back.

Reece Hodge of the Wallabies

Reece Hodge (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

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In a moment where many a Wallaby of times not too distant past might have thrown the panicked pass, Swain had a moment to look and think.

And what he saw was space. But seeing the space and doing something about it was a challenge. Where the space was, was where the ball wasn’t. What was the best way to get it there?

So there was Swain, ignoring Bell, and ripping at least a fifteen-metre pass to Matt Philip, who quickly found Samu Kerevi coming around the corner, and who in turn got an offload away to Pete Samu as he went to ground.

Samu – who is suddenly having the same kind of impact off the bench as he was for the Crusaders, which put him onto Michael Cheika’s radar a couple of years ago – made an incisive line break that ultimately led to Marika Koroibete’s second try.

But in stumbling to regain his balance after first contact, Samu saw as was heading for ground that his support wasn’t nearly as close as S’busiso Nkosi, who was starting to position himself in front Samu to get ready to pilfer.

The momentum with him still, Samu hit the deck but half got up and half rolled forward as Nkosi made contact. That extra movement was enough time for Philip to arrive, clean out Nkosi, and that presented the ball for Tate McDermott to find Koroibete down the short side for his second try.

None of it happens without Swain’s pass.

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Like when Bell only a few minutes earlier threw a superb pass under some pressure to put Taniela Tupou in space down the short side.

We’ve all seen the ludicrous offload Tupou got away for Koroibete, an offensively good piece of play that almost certainly would have drawn criticism if it didn’t go to hand but it did so let’s quickly move on from its 50-50 nature at the time and just re-live the head-on angle in our minds… tighthead props aren’t supposed to do that!

But what I loved more about that passage was that there were at least two other Wallabies there with Tupou and Koroibete when the ball found space. Ridicu-stupendo-crazy good offload or not, that try was going to be scored because Wallabies had put themselves into positions that they haven’t always put themselves into.

That’s been one of the highlights of the Wallabies over the last 160 minutes of play. They’ve created opportunities, and put themselves into great positions to finish them off. Support lines, attacking cleanouts, the pass that matters; they’ve all been there and it’s been wonderful.

The feeling that this game might be different came in the 13th minute, when referee Matthew Carley upgraded a penalty advantage to the Wallabies to a yellow card to Faf de Klerk for the most cynical of cynical infringements!

Be still my beating heart!!

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Quade Cooper

Quade Cooper. (Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

Only weeks ago, I discovered on these very pages that my pet hate of second infringements by a team already conceding advantage was in fact an annoyance widely shared, it was a genuinely great moment to see a referee do what so many haven’t done in the past.

Long may it continue, please.

Carley’s was another solid performance, carrying on from Luke Pearce last week, even if his rush to make decisions in conjunction with TMO Brett Cronin nearly left one foul play incident over-sanctioned and the other one nearly not sanctioned at all.

(And on the topic of Jasper Wiese, I’m not suprised he has now been cited for what amounted to a clear shoulder to Kerevi’s head in a breakdown situation. It wasn’t as similar to Scott Barrett’s red card in the aforementioned Bledisloe Test in Perth a few years ago as I thought it might have been, but we’ve certainly seen reds for similar in recent times.)

With the evident abundance of backrow options available, Lachie Swinton finds himself at a bit of a crossroads. His 33rd minute yellow card was his third card in twelve months for either a high tackle or dangerous play.

“He just got caught upright and because he’s upright, there’s contact head on head and he’s responsible as the tackler. So we’ve got to accept that and he’s got to be better,” Dave Rennie said post-match.

And that’s certainly true. He does have to be better. But if you think you’ve heard Rennie say this before of Swinton, you’d be right.

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“He made an error and he got punished severely for it. We’re going to ask that that’s an area (for him) to work on, but we don’t want to take away that edge,” is what Rennie said after the red card on debut last year.

If someone can convince me he’s learning lessons and making adjustments, I’m all ears.

There was so much to like.

Dave Rennie looks on.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Len Ikitau showing what he can do in attack when the Wallabies play to him and not away from him. Samu Kerevi’s link work was significantly improved, and outside men were the major benefactors.

Philip’s defence and especially his breakdown work was incredible. Tupou’s motor in the face of a physical Springboks pack and Tom Robertson being asked to cover the other side of the scrum from the bench.

Hodge wasn’t great under the high ball and this has to be a consideration for fullback options to replace the unlucky Tom Banks, but his kicking game and his kick chase pressure and his counter-rucking was so good that he probably needs to start in the back three somewhere.

Nic White was wonderful from the start and didn’t at any point have to bite down on a mouthguard full of grass.

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The maul defence was incredible and Rennie was only half joking when he said in the presser, “obviously Dan McKellar is the most excited about that.”

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This was a most complete performance. From 1 to 23, from 24 to whatever the squad numbers now, from Rennie to his assistants, and all the medical and performance and backroom staff behind the scenes.

There was so much to like, and it’s great to feel confident about the Wallabies again.

And long may that continue, too.

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