By Brett McKay Roar
The experimentation is over, or at least it should be. With the Wallabies’ 47-10 win over the Unites States behind us, the Rugby World Cup is now front and centre.
So what did the win over the Eagles tell us?
For one thing, it was good to see the Wallabies capable of switching their focus, and altering their method of operation in the second half. And sure, they altered it because I’m sure they received the mother of all half-time sprays from Michael Cheika.
They switched their focus in the second half because they also switched their focus in the first half.
So while the paint-stripping message from the coach was being jackhammered into their heads, they’ll have realised that they rather severely went ‘off reservation’ after getting out to a 14-0 lead in the first half.
And hopefully that message was re-hammered at full-time. If the Wallabies allow themselves to drift in a Rugby World Cup game like they did between the 17th and 40th minutes, they’ll be on a plane home way sooner than they’d prefer.
Similarly, if they let their discipline slip as they threatened to in that same period, then they can expect the same fate. Though the news over the weekend about Leigh Halfpenny is not brilliant for Wales, it will bring some relief to Pool A combatants who operate close to the edge of legality.
One thing we did find out is that Mario Ledesma’s magical scrum whispering has worked on the Wallabies second-stringers – which is just a general term for this team; no doubt, some of them will be in the first choice team.
Australia’s scrum intent and domination was clear very early in the Eagles game, and was arguably the most complete and impressive part of the Wallabies’ performance.
This time last year, I was writing in numerous outlets about the back five’s inability to bind properly and offer even some semblance of support to the front row on the ‘set’ call. In 2015, on Ledesma’s watch, it’s very clear that the Wallabies forwards now operate as an eight, and we already know that the improvements have been noted by opposition coaches.
(Just an aside, what does this immediate improvement, with the hire of one man for a very limited timeframe, say about Wallabies forward and scrum coaches for as far back as you’d care to go?)
And that’s certainly good news. All too often in recent years, there has been major degradation of the Australian scrum once the bench forwards have come on, but that hasn’t really been the case in 2015. Come the closing stages of the crucial Rugby World Cup matches – not to mention the knockout stages, if good enough of course – that’s going to be massive.
While the scrum was good, it’s fair to say some players’ fortunes improved, while others didn’t help their cause.
Certainly, Tatafu Polota-Nau was very good, and it was really encouraging to see him going full tilt right up until being replaced with 20 or so minutes to go. It made sense that Stephen Moore sat this game out, but it was equally important that Polota-Nau played deep into this game.
Greg Holmes was a major factor in the Wallabies establishing the early scrum domination, and there’s no doubt in my mind that his presence in the squad has brought out the best in Sekope Kepu. Sean McMahon was outstanding in defence, and with his ball-carrying and versatility he will do his chances of winning a bench spot in the big games no harm at all.
I’ve been critical of Kane Douglas’ selection this season, and I was pleased to see him play 80 minutes. I’m prepared to remain open-minded, and I’d love for him to completely prove me wrong, but I’m not convinced he was as strong in this game as has been made out. He was good in the lineout, but only two carries for the game across 80 minutes? As I say, I’ll happily be proved wrong.
Rob Simmons will be better for the run, but looked off the pace in his comeback game. Wycliff Palu gave a nice pass inside for Nick Phipps’ try but not much after that. Phipps himself was very good until that point, but then like rest of the Australian backline, strayed from the script. Will Genia stuck to the plan in the second half, and provided some spark, and we saw yet another Wallabies’ uplift on the back of a scrumhalf change. Phipps himself has provided that spark in 2015, so it can’t just be all on Genia in this game.
Bernard Foley kicked with confidence and deliberate focus from the tee, nailing his first six conversions from all over the park. But he still played way too deep, for mine, and this is something I wrote about only a month ago. Why is it so, Bernard?
Henry Speight was disappointing at outside centre, and Joe Tomane not that much better on the wing.
So what now? Cheika said before the game that he had his plans in place, and that only injuries in this game in Chicago would divert him from that course. Certainly, seeing the likes of Moore, Kepu, David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Matt Toomua, Adam Ashley-Cooper, and Israel Folau on the sidelines would seem to confirm that perhaps he does now know what his first-choice team is.
But will we see that team against Fiji, or will we have to wait another 10 days, with the Uruguay game in between, until the England clash to finally find out who the first choice team comprises? Surely, if nothing else, the USA game proved the folly in underestimating what lower-ranked teams might be capable of pulling off on any given day.
I thought it was quite funny hearing Cheika have a little chuckle on Friday, saying “we do have a plan, contrary to popular belief”. But the thing is coach, with so much chopping and changing over the last few months, it’s been difficult for the average Wallabies follower to understand what the plan is.
And it’s great to know that there is a plan, and even that you know what the first XV is.
But is there any danger in letting us see it now?