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Opinion

Why it's not all doom and gloom for the Wallabies

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23rd November, 2021
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On the rugby field, Australia has at least come back to being Australia again. It wasn’t good enough to beat Wales at the Principality stadium on Sunday morning (AEDT), but it should have been.

Many of the nuts and bolts of the Wallaby machine were working much more smoothly than they were earlier in the tour.

Head coach Dave Rennie was quite within his rights to criticise another sub-standard refereeing performance, this time by Scottish official Mike Adamson. Adamson had already correctly yellow-carded Kurtley Beale for slapping down a Welsh pass in the first half, then he rewarded the same action by centre Nick Tompkins with a seven pointer in the second:

As Rennie summarised the event afterwards: “Nick Tompkins slashes the ball down in open play and somehow they say it didn’t go forward when he’s facing forward.

“They get seven points out of it instead of getting a yellow card and us getting a penalty. There were lots of decisions today I’m not going to go into but I felt they had a massive bearing on the game.”

The ball goes straight down to ground off one hand with no attempt being made to catch it. That is a knock-on in the universal lingua franca of rugby anywhere on Earth, and even Tompkins had the honesty to shake his head at his sheer good fortune after the try had been awarded.

The incident was a neat capsule of the game as a whole. Australia played most of the rugby, but Wales stayed afloat on the back of decisions which had given them (rightly) anywhere between a one and a two-man advantage for most of the match.

The Wallabies did, indeed, save their best for the last dance on tour. In last week’s Coaches Corner I illustrated just how far they had fallen away from the carrying principles which had provided the platform for their success in the Rugby Championship:

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Player Average carries per game Average metres per game
Samu Kerevi (12) 13 117
Marika Koroibete (11) 9 74
Rob Valetini (8) 8 53
Michael Hooper (7) 6 41

Over the first two tour games against Scotland and England, those figures had dropped away dramatically:

Player Average carries per game Average metres per game
Hunter Paisami (12) 9 62
Tom Wright (11) 6 42
Rob Valetini (8) 3 21
Michael Hooper (7) 2 20

In the game at Cardiff, all were restored to something like normality:

Player Average carries per game Average metres per game
Hunter Paisami (12) 13 108
Filipo Daugunu (11) 10 81
Rob Leota (6) 9 36
Pete Samu (7) 4 15

Add a Michael Hooper into those stats, and you have the raw ingredients for a winning performance, even in the absence of Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete – and without Bobby Valetini for the bulk of the game.

The possession stats were not quite as impressive as Ireland’s in their win over New Zealand in Dublin the previous week, but they were getting there fast: the balance of territory and possession was in Australia’s favour (52% and 53% respectively) despite the absence of their combative number 8, and the Wallabies enjoyed 16 minutes of attack – up from 13 minutes over the previous two weeks.

An average of 66 carries for 430 metres against England and Scotland rose to 112 for 672 metres versus Wales; the proportion of lightning-quick (0-3 second) breakdown ball climbed from 49% to 55%, while the 92% ruck retention rate was back up to 95%. These were all good signs which energised Australia’s play with ball in hand.

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The Wallabies were excellent on attack when it mattered, setting up a steady stream of positive attacking pictures after three phases of play, even with only 14 men on the field in the second period:

Australia targeted the Wales inside centre Uilisi Halaholo with success throughout the match – Halaholo tends to defend off-balance and bite on the first move he sees. On this occasion Len Ikitau is able to stand him up and fade outside to make good initial yardage. A long pass by Nic White brings play back into midfield on second phase on terms favourable to the attack:

The primary attacking trigger throughout the second half was the that little arc run off the base by White. Here it is used to commit Halaholo to the threat of Pete Samu on the short ball and create space for James O’Connor to run into behind him.

Nearly all of Australia’s best attacking work with one man less was kick-started by movement off 9, and the use of the blind-side wing and number 6 Rob Leota (who had a prodigious game fulfilling both his own role, and that of Bobby Valetini) on the first couple of phases:

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Leota has hardly returned to terra firma from winning the original lineout ball when he’s back in the think of the action, carrying well across the gain-line on second phase. As the shot widens, Australia are in position A1, with their entire back-line available for attack on third phase.

This time it is Tate McDermott running the switch play with Daugunu, with Leota again doing the heavy lifting in contact on the following phase.

The two Wallaby tries in the second half brought all of the threads of their attacking play to satisfying fruition:

On this occasion Hunter Paisami cuts the line from a great throw over the top of the lineout from the hand of Folau Fainga’a, with White and Leota combining on the short switch phase thereafter. In contrast to the third phase failures against England, the Wallabies had exactly the pictures they wanted versus Wales:

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Again, Australia is playing with a full deck of backs (minus Paisami) on the wide-side. Again, it is Halaholo, biting early on the threat of Kurtley Beale to the outside, who sets himself up for the step inside by the Wallaby full-back. Nic White finished the move by scoring under the sticks.

One of the most satisfying developments for Dave Rennie and his coaches has been the steady growth of Hunter Paisami into the yawning hole left by Samu Kerevi at number 12. His left-to-right passing will still need work, but it is in fine fettle going in the other direction:

Paisami shortened the distance to the forward pod in front of him, and consequently balanced the threat of run and pass more effectively against Wales:

Another improvement in Australian play occurred off the bench, where the Wallabies were able to get Will Skelton into the game more consistently compared to his involvement versus Scotland and England. Skelton had four carries for 15 metres, made four tackles on defence, had one critical breakdown steal and 15 ruck attendances in his 27 minutes of action.

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He obliterated Johnny McNicholl at the one-man cleanout prior to Filipo Daugunu’s scoring play in the left-hand corner:

Summary
It may not have been a day of brilliant uninterrupted sunshine – it never is in Wales at this dark turning of the year – but there were enough chinks of light in Cardiff to encourage Dave Rennie and his staff that they are on the right track, despite three defeats in a row on the end-of-year tour.

Australia returned to what they are good at – keeping the ball and manipulating the defence over a number of phases – and set up a succession of positive attacking scenarios on third phase, even after Bobby Valetini had been sent from the field.

Make no mistake, there have been positives on a difficult tour with key absences providing many of the headlines – Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete and Reece Hodge in the backs, Michael Hooper for the last game and a half in the forwards.

The lineout has been a clear improvement from the Rugby Championship (89% up from 82%, with over 20% of the opposition throw stolen) and the European-based second rows have shown that they can add value. There has been development at number 6, where Rob Leota took the carrying game by the scruff of its neck versus Wales after Valetini left for his early bath. Hunter Paisami has grown steadily into the role at number 12 as Samu Kerevi’s deputy.

While Dave Rennie will be aware that his Wallabies are still too dependent on the presence of key individuals for comfort, they saved their best for last, and left U.K shores on a high note.

Welsh folk hero Max Boyce sang at the opening ceremony of the 1999 World Cup, of technological wizardry in the brand spanking-new sliding roof: “They say it’s got a sliding roof, that slowly walks away… they’ll slide it back when Wales attack, so God can watch us play”.

If anyone caught the attention of the Divine at Cardiff, it was the Wallabies, and they won that World Cup hosted by Wales at the turn of the millennium. Australia will be a realistic chance do the same in France 24 years later.

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