Since they were overwhelmed by the All Blacks at Eden Park a few weeks back, this Wallaby team has continued to grow. Numbers, body position, urgency and leg-drive at the tackle contest have all improved out of sight. As is absolutely necessary, this is now happening from minute one – not in the desperate ‘last ten minutes chasing a deficit’ urgency that we’ve seen so often in the past. As a result, they have secured some quality recycled ball and inflicted considerable pain on their opponents – literally and figuratively.
I have been critical – especially in recent times – of the lack of accuracy in our support play. In rugby, ‘support’ means support of the ball and the ball-carrier, giving him, the ball-carrier, opportunity to ‘do his own thing’, secure in the knowledge that his team-mates will be on-hand when, and if, the occasion demands it. Such accuracy in support also – by definition – provides numbers at the tackle contest, with urgency. We’ve come a fair way in a few weeks and we can be better still. Then just watch our attack go! Not just the backs either – with such opportunities, Samo (obviously), Elsom, Kepu, Moore and Alexander are no slouches either. With TPN and, hopefully, Palu coming off the bench, we can add still more. A healthy prospect, indeed!
Some will complain that I have not included Higginbotham in this group, given his size and outstanding pace. I must say that I have been singularly unimpressed with him in this season’s internationals to date. Simply put, he is way too loose. A forward, who runs looking for space and expecting ‘someone else’ to get the ball to him in that space, will have no place in my team. If he rarely comes into contact with the opposition, he might as well be a little bloke. His role, and that of all of the forwards, is to play in ‘the middle’ and make space for others. Then, frequently, he will arrive into those close spaces and his size and pace will be put to excellent effect. As an example, just consider the difference that Daniel Vickerman has made to the team – he’s a big bloke who is always in contact with the opposition. He’s smart too – smart enough to understand the role that he is playing and the benefits that he’s creating.
While on that subject, our forward pack is beginning to look like a real ‘forward pack’. There’s still some work to be done in the set pieces, but we’re getting there in the ‘tight-loose’ play. I’ve always thought that “good big blokes are better that good little blokes” and our selectors are now able to follow in that direction. The return of both Samo and Vickerman has been ‘manna from heaven’ and the prospect of adding TPN and Palu to the squad gives further cause for optimism. An old coach mate of mine and I used always agree (only half jokingly) that the game is about’ “when they have the ball, bash ‘em and, when we have the ball, bash ‘em!” Many a true word spoken in jest!
While I’m reminiscing and on the subject of forward play, there was an old ‘adage’ which said that “if you can throw a blanket over your eight forwards at any time, they’re going ok.” There’s not too much wrong with that thought process either.
Our restarts – our kick – need to improve. Cooper’s kicks lack height and too much easy ball results for our opponents. Often New Zealand were able to immediately send us back into our own half with return kicks. Compare this with South Africa and New Zealand where we are frequently under considerable pressure just to claim and consolidate possession. Incidentally, AAC – who played superbly – is a better chaser than both Ioane and O’Connor – and I’m pretty sure he’s not as quick?
We can still improve quite a bit, and we will need to if we are to get somewhere near our potential in the coming weeks. There are a number of teams of real quality in this year’s championship. The quality across the top ten or so teams looks to me to be higher than ever and no team at all is sure of their path through the stages. Our lineout was shaky – we lost our first two throws and never challenged the New Zealand throw at all. This will be fixed, I’m sure. Our scrum wobbled once or twice – although the ref allowed Mealamu to come up under pressure and bring Alexander with him. Dare I say it; our support play must improve still further. This will give our quality attack some space – and they don’t need much!
After the match, I was thinking that, with a little more game time, we can add Slipper, TPN, Sharpe, Palu to the match-day forward squad and Barnes, Mitchell and O’Connor to the backs. Maybe we can’t fit them all in but it’s quite a prospect. Now, if we can only use our bench wisely, we will be a handful for any opponent. [I can’t offer any advice here. I come mainly from the pre-substitutes era and have no track record in such matters.]
For the Wallabies, Genia was a deserved man-of-the-match but he must thank his forwards. They were all great. Horwill was in the thick of it, but gave away far too many penalties and I formed the impression that he was not too much bothered with the Laws of the Game. Vickerman, Samo, Elsom and Moore were juggernauts – just fantastic! Pocock is looking much more like his ‘old’ self; Alexander was tighter and subsequently better and Kepu is getting to understand the pace of the game. He is a superb athlete and 120kgs – keep your eye on him!
We are a show for the RWC! We need to be at our best in the vital matches and ‘turn up early’ in every match, but we have some real quality, and we are a show!
P.S. The ref was very good at the tackle contest. No one was allowed to go “off your feet and slow their ball down.” This is refreshing, particularly if you’re playing New Zealand.
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