After such a promising start to the 2020 Bledisloe Cup series in Wellington just over a week ago, the Wallabies have come crashing back down to earth.
Securing an unlikely 16-all draw to open their international season in the New Zealand capital, the optimism brimming within Dave Rennie’s side came to a thudding halt at Eden Park on Sunday as the Wallabies were dealt a 27-7 defeat by the All Blacks.
Inspired by the almost unstoppable Caleb Clarke, the hosts’ attack was direct and free-flowing, something of which the Australians struggled to contain.
The Wallabies were so defensively poor that they missed a total of 42 tackles in an effort that was described as “diabolical” by Australian news agency AAP in the wake of the defeat.
Head coach Rennie highlighted his team’s wayward defence as a key reason behind the loss that leaves them needing victory in their next two matches against the All Blacks if they are to reclaim the Bledisloe Cup for the first time since 2002.
“Tackle percentage,” he said when asked where the match went so wrong for the visitors.
“Last week we tackled really well and made minimal mistakes. We always knew that was really important against the All Blacks. Today we turned the ball over a lot and then missed too many tackles.
“Individual tackling was poor and we got put under the heat from it.”
In addition to soft defence, poor option-taking and sloppy ball retention also allowed the likes of Clarke to flourish in sublime attacking conditions.
One bomb kick in particular from James O’Connor had no Australian chasers on the end of it as the ball sailed towards an All Blacks back three featuring both Clarke and star playmaker Beauden Barrett, who was in fine touch despite being the target of numerous off-the-ball hits from Wallabies No. 8 Harry Wilson.
Clarke, the 21-year-old wing playing in just his second test match, was subsequently given far too much space and was handed a free license to rip through the Australian defence, bursting through five tackle attempts to effectively assist Ardie Savea’s try.
It’s that lacklustre defensive effort that has forced Rennie into threatening selection changes less than a fortnight out from the third Bledisloe Cup clash and Rugby Championship opener against the All Blacks at ANZ Stadium in Sydney.
“Selection can sometimes fix that,” the former Chiefs and Glasgow Warriors boss said when asked if he can take solace in the fact that defensive amendments could save his side’s Bledisloe Cup ambitions on October 31.
But, if Australia’s defensive woes are to blame for this demoralising thumping, who exactly is in the firing line as they prepare for a Rugby Championship campaign on home soil?
A quick gaze over the Wallabies’ defensive statistics from Sunday’s defeat shows Marika Koroibete’s place in the starting lineup could well be under threat given he produced the worst tackle percentage of the afternoon.
Making just three tackles from eight attempts, the 2019 John Eales Medallist largely undid all the good work he produced with his first half try, which was reflected in yesterday’s RugbyPass player ratings from the match.
It was his shocking defensive read that allowed Patrick Tuipulotu to break free and set up All Blacks captain Sam Cane for his try in the second half.
Koroibete should have bagged a brace prior to that as well, but was somehow prevented from dotting down in the left-hand corner by Richie Mo’unga and Anton Lienert-Brown.
His error-filled performance could open the way for experienced operators Dane Haylett-Petty or Jack Maddocks to return to the side for the upcoming crunch match, although uncapped duo Tom Wright and James Ramm are other options.
Fellow wing Filipo Daugunu was similarly at fault for failing to bounce out and cover Jordie Barrett in the lead-up to his try, and was guilty of going far too high on Savea as he strolled over for an easy try.
Finishing the match with a tackle rate of 57 percent, Daugunu’s spot in the side may also be under threat, although the attacking danger he poses might be too valuable to lose.
Bledisloe Cup star Caleb Clarke revealed that Wallabies captain Michael Hooper grabbed his testicles, as Clarke went on one of his many tackle busting runs at Eden Park. #BledisloeCup #NZLvAUS https://t.co/h9kUxpwDlI
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 18, 2020
Energetic halfback Nic White, who was among the man-of-the-match contenders in Wellington eight days ago, jointly led the missed tackle count alongside Koroibete after falling off five attempts.
Unlike the Fijian-born wing, though, White did make more tackles than he missed, completing 10 of his own and was among the few Australian players who actually managed to bring Clarke down as he charged towards the line leading up to Savea’s try.
He was, however, far less convincing than he was at Sky Stadium, and it may be time for Rennie to answer the calls of many on the western side of the Tasman to throw impressive Reds rookie Tate McDermott into the cauldron next Saturday.
While Rennie did reserve some praise for young midfielder Hunter Paisami, the 22-year-old was the source of three turnovers and registered a tackle rate of just 50 percent, joining Koroibete and White in missing five tackles apiece.
That led the Wallabies coach to namedrop uncapped prospect Irae Simone as a possible contender to come into the side for the Sydney test.
“We do have some pretty good options who didn’t play today,” Rennie said.
“Irae Simone being one fella who’s spent a bit of time over here in New Zealand and [was] a big part of the Brumbies set-up, so we do have some options.”
Up front, tighthead prop Taniela Tupou missed two of his three tackle attempts before being pulled from the field at halftime, which bodes well for Allan Alaalatoa’s chances of starting in New South Wales.
Other options include three-test Highlanders recruit Jermaine Ainsley and uncapped Rebels star Pone Fa’amausili.
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