With the Wallabies now in Japan and final preparations underway for their opening match against Fiji on September 21 at the Sapporo Dome, the question begs, ‘How far can these Wallabies go in this Rugby World Cup’?
To answer this question, I think it needs to be broken into several points of consideration; the pool stage, game plans and selections to defeat Fiji and Wales and other results to arrive at a conclusion.
The Wallabies are drawn in Pool D along with Fiji, Georgia, Wales, and Uruguay. Hardly the ‘Pool of Death’ of the 2015 World Cup where the Wallabies had to overcome hosts England, the might of Wales and the improving Fijian’s to qualify for the finals stage which they did admirably.
With respect to Uruguay and the ever-improving Georgians, the Wallabies should only be genuinely troubled by both Fiji and Wales in the pool stage of this tournament. Winning pool D is vital to the Wallabies going longer into the tournament as if they stumble and finish second, it’s likely the Wallabies will face Eddie Jones’ England at the quarter-finals stage. That would likely see Australia bowing out as England under Jones have not been troubled by Michael Cheika’s Wallabies in the last six encounters.
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Looking at the pool, the Fijians under the guidance of their vastly underrated coach New Zealander John Mckee will be competitive given their squad does boast European based professionals including a strike, X- factor weapon in former NRL winger Semi Radradra and the Edinburgh based Number 8 Viliame Mata who was one of the nominated candidates for the 2019 European Player of the year.
The talent within the playing roster coupled with a more disciplined approach to the game including attention towards fitness levels has borne fruit evident by the defeat of Tier 1 nation France on French soil in 2018.
One would expect the Fijians to bring their natural running rugby on the back of a more professional approach to set-piece and defensive patterns that ultimately makes them an adversary the Wallabies will need to respect but should have the class to overcome.
The Welsh side, on the other hand, is a different beast. Recently rated the number one world-ranked side, albeit briefly, the Welsh are a side that knows it can compete with the very best and are expected to finish on top of Pool D. Their preparation has been hampered by the loss of the formidable backrower Taulupe Faletau and playmaker Gareth Anscombe, yet I expect coach Warren Gatland would continue his plan of playing possession rugby as much as possible and giving the Wallabies nothing and little opportunity to counter-attack.
The Wallabies take on Wales on 29 September at Tokyo Stadium, a week after the Fijian clash.
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The Wallabies have dominated Wales at World Cups and will meet in the pool stages for the fourth time in Japan. Just one game has been a knockout fixture between the two, with two third-fourth playoff matches. #wallabies #walesrugby #aussierugby #rwc #rugby #rugbyworldcup #welshrugby #rwcjapan2019
In preparation for both crucial matches, the Wallabies should be looking to select essentially the same matchday 23. One that has a greater ability to disturb the oppositions set-piece, compete at the recycle, defend the gain line and furthermore the ability to defend at width. The latter being vital as the width is where the Welsh have been attacking, utilising the likes of George North and Leigh Halfpenny and also their pacey back row of Josh Navidi and British Lion Justin Tipuric.
I would expect the Fijians to do the same as they have the pace at their disposal in the likes of Radradra and the Wallabies only possess one outside back with genuine pace being their own Fijian in Marieke Koroibete. Unless their defensive structures are communicating and remain connected the Wallabies could be exposed on the fringes by such pace.
To combat this, I suggest that the Wallabies must revisit the selections of their back row. Whilst the selection of Michael Hooper, Isa Naisarani and Lukhan Salakia-Loto may appear attractive, is Michael Hooper a significant enough influence at the recycle? In comparison to David Pocock, absolutely not.
Yet Hooper is a formidable defender who can operate out wide and has the pace to do so. David Pocock has the fitness to get to the recycle, but the pace to make the initial covering tackles if required? Perhaps not.
No doubt the Wallaby selectors have a challenge ahead of them when considering the Hooper, Pocock selection.
If I had the ear of the selectors I’d suggest selecting David Pocock as the veteran would not only draw the likes of Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric into the recycle to defuse his prowess in that facet of play it would reduce Wales ability to play at width thus making it easier for the Wallabies to defend those channels and hinder the preferred Welsh attacking system.
Furthermore, Isa Naisarani is a done deal at Number 8. He has impressed greatly since making his debut earlier in the year and will only benefit by longer periods in the starting team. The Wallabies should not flirt with the ‘Pooper’ selection as it does impede their lineout.
It is the blindside flanker role that success could hinge on. Whilst the incumbent Lukhan Salakia-Loto is the bigger frame and can be a devastating ball runner and an effective lineout forward, he tends to get caught upright in the contact at times and is a poor defender in the wider channels. The Welsh will identify when he is caught in such a channel and target him accordingly with pace and multiple running options. I think he is a defensive nightmare waiting to happen, especially if the opposition can get numbers wide.
This is where the speed of Jack Dempsey may become a better option for the Wallabies. Equally as effective as Salakia-Loto in the lineout, Dempsey may not possess the direct bullocking charge of a Salakia-Loto, yet he is a ball runner who possesses footwork that would be the envy of any matador.
Dempsey’s ability to shift his point of attack whilst under pressure and in possession makes him a difficult attacking option to defend. Furthermore, his speed and impressive reading of the game allows him to defend more astutely in the wider channels than the incumbent Lukhan Salakia-Loto who is slower in pace and in reaction.
The selection of a Pocock, Naisarani, Dempsey back row, in my opinion, affords the Wallabies the greater chance of thwarting the genesis of any Fijian or Welsh attack from the set-piece and the recycle thus making it more difficult to have numbers surging at width. However what impact would that have on the Wallaby attack and on-field leadership?
I don’t think the Wallabies attack would weaken with the selection of Dempsey and Pocock and not that of Salakia-Loto and Hooper in the starting 23.
Both Salakia-Loto and Hooper are strong runners of the ball, so where does the gain line running come from if they are not selected? I suggest the Wallabies should be consistently exposing the 10-12-13 channel of the Fijians and Welsh with the likes of Samu Kerevi, Tevita Kurindrani or Jordan Petaia.
Neither of Fiji’s flyhalf Ben Volavola or Wales’ inside centre Hadleigh Parkes are great defenders, despite the latter improving in recent times. When the Wallabies were defeated by the Welsh last November in Cardiff the Wallabies attack was abysmal. Seldom did they look to take on Hadleigh Parkes who just a week prior was exposed by a lacklustre Scottish side missing four tackles.
Parkes defended the centre of the field, yet the Wallabies persisted in out the back-rubbish plays and width at all costs without really ever putting the Kiwi journeyman in two minds. That must change.
Under the Shaun Berne-led, revitalised, flatter Wallaby attack, coupled with the selectors finally acknowledging that Samu Kerevi is best suited as an inside centre, first phase attacking options off Kerevi flooding Parks’ defensive channel will cause the Welsh defensive structures plenty of gain line issues and that is where the Wallabies should look to tear the fabric of the Welsh defence and likewise for Ben Volavola if he defends in the front line for Fiji.
In conclusion, I think the Wallabies could make the semi-finals of this tournament if they get their selections and tactics right for the Fijian and Welsh tests.
Furthermore, if the Wallabies can avoid England at the quarter-final stages by winning their pool and the English not faltering against France or Argentina in theirs then I think the Wallabies could progress as they have the team to defeat France or Argentina in a quarter-final.
If the Wallabies make the semi-finals then anything could happen! It’s a Rugby World Cup after all.
My Wallaby side to take on Fiji and Wales
(1) James Slipper
(2) Tolo Latu
(3) Alan Alaalatoa
(4) Rory Arnold
(5) Izack Rodda
(6) Jack Dempsey
(7) David Pocock (VC)
(8) Isa Naisarani
(9) Nic White
(10) Christina Lealiifano
(11) Marike Koroibete
(12) Samu Kerevi
(13) Tevita Kurindrani
(14) Reece Hodge
(15) Kurtley Beale
(16) Folau Fainga’a
(17) Scott Sio
(18) Taniela Toupo
(19) Adam Coleman
(20) Michael Hooper (C)
(21) Will Genia
(22) Matt Toomua
(23) James O’Connor
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