Why Wallabies’ halves dilemma may become massive problem

Halfback Nick Phipps struggled against the US Eagles in Chicago. Photo: SMH

Halfback Nick Phipps struggled against the US Eagles in Chicago. Photo: SMH

Now they are finally in England, the Wallabies can ready themselves for their dive into Pool A – Australia, England, Wales, Fiji and Uruguay – a shark-infested ocean of death for three of the teams.

In previous World Cup tournaments, a top side like the Wallabies, No.2 in the rankings, could ease through the pool rounds. They could hold back plays and sometimes players for the knockout stages. They could even lose a game, or two, as France did in New Zealand in 2011. But the terrible conjunction of four of the five teams in Pool A being in the top 10 of the World Rugby rankings means every Wallabies match from September 23 onwards, aside from the walk-over against Uruguay, has to be regarded as a knockout.

Perhaps this 2015 reality is why Stephen Larkham, the Wallabies backs coach, gave a somewhat tetchy media conference this week. He told reporters the media’s focus on the halves and five-eighths, often belligerent in the case of Quade Cooper, was not beneficial for the players or the team: “I don’t think it’s healthy. It’s a topic to talk about, but you guys know better than I would about what sells papers,” he said. Oh dear!

So, why did Wallabies coach Michael Cheika drop Nic White from his 31-man squad after a dismal performance in the Eden Park debacle against the All Blacks?  And why was Nick Phipps substituted by Will Genia after half-time in the Test against the USA Eagles at Soldier Field? Or are these sorts of questions out of bounds?

The USA Eagles hardly contested the breakdowns. As a consequence, with numbers in their defensive line, they were able to gang-tackle the Wallabies into mistakes right from the beginning of the Test. Phipps continued to move the ball wide, even though the spaces in the defence were clearly around the breakdown. When Genia came on, he exploited these inside spaces with his running and short-passing game.

The result was a blow-out in the Wallabies scoring.

The obvious conclusion from this is that who the Wallabies use as a their playmakers is less about the No.10s (Bernard Foley and Cooper) and more about the halves – Phipps and Genia. Against a side that does not commit players to the breakdown, say Fiji, the Wallabies should start with Genia. But against England, a side that sends two defenders into the breakdown to support the tackler leaving space out wide, Phipps – with his quicker and longer pass – needs to be the starter.

Backs coach Tabai Matson organises the backs training for Fiji in London. Photo: Fiji Rugby

Backs coach Tabai Matson organises the backs training for Fiji in London. Photo: Fiji Rugby

Over the weekend, England defeated Ireland at Twickenham. After a lacklustre loss against France at Paris, this victory confirmed how difficult England will be for the Wallabies on October 3. Wales beat Italy but lost halfback Rhys Webb and, more importantly, match-winner Leigh Halfpenny. Fiji thrashed Canada 48–17 with massive winger Nemani Nadolo, so powerful and brilliant for the Crusaders, leading the rampant backline charges.

What was noticeable in this victory, and all the other wins by Fiji this season against Samoa, Tonga and Japan, and even their close loss to the NZ Maori XV, was the quality of their structured play, especially in the lineouts.

Some credit for this improvement should go to Frans Ludeke, the former coach of the Bulls, who is Fiji’s assistant coach with a responsibility for lineouts and kick-offs. John McKee, Fiji’s coach, has had experience in Sydney and is highly regarded among rugby experts as a smart, thinking coach.

A smart Fiji, playing with strong set-pieces, has encouraged the great Wallabies flanker George Smith to make this fearless prediction: Australia and Fiji will emerge the winners from Pool A.

  • Rugby Heaven

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Filed under Pool A, Rugby World Cup

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