2019 has already proven to be a dramatic year in Australian rugby with Wallaby attack coach Stephen Larkham being relieved of his duties with the national team for reasons that still remain under speculation by some.
What ramifications will Larkham’s removal have on how the Wallabies attack later in the year is yet to be known but what is abundantly clear is that the Wallabies must make a philosophical shift on how they play the game if they wish a return to being one of the top four rugby sides in the world.
I have been quite critical of the Wallabies lust for width over playing for the advantage line in 2018. This attacking shape, if you can actually call it attacking, has promised the World but delivered an Atlas. 2018 was the worst year in attack for Wallabies since 1958! Watching Wallabies run sideways and behind their support runners simply must end. It is as effective as running at machine guns armed with bayonets and a cheery-oh! This coupled with the outdated dual playmaker system and the continued selection of two openside flankers in both Wallaby skipper Michael Hooper and David Pocock have compounded Wallaby woes and must be consigned to antiquity and I suggest into a non-descript cupboard out the back of Rugby Australia HQ marked ‘Bad Ideas’. Yet I fear that cupboard is near full…..
2019 is the year Wallaby Coach Michael Cheika and his staff must play for the advantage line with greater ferocity and forget about trying to stretch sides with their perceived pace over the ground.
To achieve such the Wallabies must fix their set piece, in particular, the lineout to ensure their backs are getting the maximum benefit a solid set piece gives the attacking side. Too often talented Wallaby backlines have failed to deliver to their full potential and that can be attributed to the quality of possession they receive from their forwards in part.
In achieving this goal, selection must now be made that provides the greatest opportunity for this to occur. Clearly, the Wallaby hooking role must be clarified and maintained. What is required is the strongest scrummager and most accurate line-out thrower, any running game or breakdown game that a hooker may provide is secondary to those core skills if the Wallabies are to achieve success. This position remains hotly contested and I tend to lean towards Brumby Folau Fainga’a and Rebel Jordan Uelese with unfancied Waratah Damien Fitzpatrick as suitors.
Furthermore, the Wallabies must re-design their back row and therefore by default remove Michael Hooper as Captain.
Whilst Hooper is a superb player, firstly and foremost he is not the best openside flanker in Australia nor is he the best skipper. The continued dual openside selection weakens the Wallaby lineout options and continues to deliver today’s problems by maintaining yesterday’s solutions.
The Wallabies must have two taller back row forwards that not only provide further lineout options, but they also provide stiff gain line defence and genuine ball running options. Players such as Lochie McCaffrey, Isa Naisarani, Jed Holloway, and Jack Dempsey all performed admirably for their respective franchises in the opening round of Super Rugby and should feature in selection discussions if such form is maintained throughout the season.
Finally, the inside centre position must be occupied by a gain line ‘meter-eater’ who can also distribute and defend thus removing the need for unnecessarily complex defensive systems. Whilst this may shorten Kurtley Beale’s Wallaby career it opens the door for Karmichael Hunt and Samu Kerevi to play in the position that suits them best.
The Wallabies simply must be flatter and harder to stop in attack, and as stout in defence if they wish to start defeating higher-ranked sides. Now that I have briefly articulated what I suggest is the direction the Wallabies should be taking in 2019, how did the Australian sides truly perform in the opening round of Super Rugby 2019?
With three of the four Australian franchises in action over the weekend, there is hope for long-suffering Wallaby fans. In a World Cup year, there isn’t really much need for extra motivation to perform, yet the sub-plots to the Rebels-Brumbies encounter intrigued even before the first whistle.
The return of Tevita Kurindrani should not be underestimated as the Wallabies clearly missed the veteran Wallaby centre in the Rugby Championship and Northern Tour of 2018. If the Wallabies are to challenge for the William Webb Ellis Trophy Kurindrani must be in the mix. The big Fijian returned fit and was a handful for the Melbourne Rebels from the start nearly scoring in the opening phases after bursting through the Rebel’s line in a flat, direct yet eloquent backline play and was only denied a try after an effective Quade Cooper tackle.
Additionally, a last-ditch ankle tap on the try-line bound Tom English later in the second half illustrated Kuridrani’s willingness to say in the fight in defence and saved his team from a certain try. Despite being on the losing side Tevita Kurindrani did his Wallaby selection chances no harm at all.
Seeing Quade Cooper playing rugby with a smile on his face was a welcoming sign. After being essentially banished to club rugby in 2018 by Reds Coach Brad Thorn, Cooper looked at ease with himself and his new environment as he plotted and dissected the Brumbies defence through direct running and deft passing.
Cooper was, as he always has been, superb in attack operating with delicate skill in a physical environment, yet at other times was paper-like in defence, in particular, a most feeble effort on the strong running Henry Speight coming off his blind wing ‘missileing’ in on Cooper’s inside shoulder. He pretty much opened the gate and wished Henry well on his way deep into the Rebels half.
If Quade Cooper is to feature in Wallaby gold, he simply must be better in the tackle and his defensive effort in this match was not enough to convince me he should be relied upon against top four sides.
Another notable return was that of Reds veteran and new Brumby James Slipper. Whilst unspectacular around the park, Slipper dominated his opponent Jermain Ainsley at scrum time. Whilst one would expect a prop of Slipper’s experience to dominate, the fact he had been out of rugby since 2017 due to injury and personal issues reveals the 86-test match veteran is still a formidable front row forward and could actually add a few more test caps to the collection if he maintains such form.
The most encouraging aspect of this all-Australian affair was the intensity in which the match was played. I’ve not seen any Australian side in recent history open the season with such intent. It was a willing encounter with both sets of forwards holding nothing back. Brumbies 8 man, Lochie McCaffrey was in everything in the first half showing prowess in both attack and defence.
Rebels back-row recruit and Wallaby-in-waiting, Isi Naisarani, was found guilty early in the match of being caught too high in both attack and defence but as the match progressed the impressive Fijian started to control the tempo of the game and his urgency and accuracy troubled his former Brumbies teammates who struggled to play with Naisarani’s intensity. Those two performances aside, the quiet achiever and my man-of-the-match was Rebels lock Matt Phillip.
Scoring a try himself, Philip is the hard workhorse style of a lock that you would expect to find in a Crusaders or Highlanders jumper. He does his job and he does it well without fuss or fanfare. Yet Phillip is a rugby player of intelligence often working off the ball to ensure he is always contributing to the effort by plugging a defensive gap, reading the opponents lineout and motivating his fellow Rebels.
I suggest that under the guidance of former England & British & Irish Lions lock Geoff Parling, Phillip will take his already impressive game to the next level this season and is a player Michael Cheika should be looking at closely.
it was such a disappointing performance by the Waratahs, as they had every opportunity to win this match by plenty yet somehow they found a way to take pressure off the Hurricanes and heap pressure onto themselves in the moments that mattered.
Here is just one example; in the second half, the Waratahs are in possession just in the Hurricanes half, passing left to right. Despite looking lateral with nothing really on, right winger Alex Newsome straightened the attack, attacked the space and set off on what appeared to be a try-scoring opportunity for all money. Despite being hunted by several would be defenders ushering him towards the sideline, Newsome looked towards his marked outside support in Israel Folau, yet at no time looked to his left where he would have found Johnson-Holmes, Hanigan, and Gordon on the inside support who were not marked up on. A try and probably 7 points go begging.
Newsome is tackled and the Waratah’s wrap and keep going down the short side but the vastly experienced Bernard Foley elects to grubber for touch thus taking away any sustained pressure and giving the Hurricanes time to catch their breath and the all-important lineout throw.
It’s just poor rugby that such an experienced player like Foley should not be found guilty of, and that pressure relieving rugby was the order of the day for the Waratahs. Foley was not the only experienced Waratah to be found wanting. Sekope Kepu was off his game, giving away penalties and dropped possession on multiple occasions stifling the attack and letting off any pressure that was starting to build.
Michael Hooper was relentless but he could not bring the experience to bind this Waratah side together to play intelligent rugby. He was outplayed by Hurricanes 7 Ardie Savea hands down. The sole Waratah try was a beauty, however. The Waratahs looked to go wide on the left-hand side and put Israel Folau into space who drew the defence and offloaded to Curtis Rona who just did enough to get over the line with Ardie Savea tackling him.
Yet it was seldom we saw the Waratahs attack the left edge in the game, instead choosing the right edge with Newsome, who seems to have not yet gelled with Israel Folau and vice-versa. Both were guilty of either poor passing and positioning on at least two other attacking raids down the right flank that were thwarted by unforced errors shared between Newsome and Folau.
It was an unintelligent display by the men in sky-blue. Despite the negatives, there are always positives, and for Australian fans, they should be heartened by the performance of the next generation of Waratahs.
Young Newcastle product Harry Johnson-Holmes out of the famous Wanderer’s club was impressive in his first run on start. He carried the ball well, albeit he looked like an apprentice carrying a bag of cement when doing so, he made yards and tackled well. His run-down tackle on All Black TJ Perenara and then capturing the scrum-half on the ground with the ball attracting a penalty was rugby beyond his years. He is one for the future indeed.
Waratah back rower-come-lock Jed Holloway was dominant in the air stealing three Hurricanes lineouts and furthermore the big forward carried well in attack and made ten tackles and missing none. Holloway gave away no penalties whilst some of his teammates did so with ease.
2019 could be a defining year for the Yamba product who has the ability but has to prove he has the mentality to start dominating consistently at this level before higher honors can be considered.
Finally, Jake Gordon, the Waratah scrum-half had a mixed day out. Gordon is a genuine threat and usually is a good support player however it is his passing at times that throws out the attacking shape of the Waratahs, limiting their time and space with the ball.
There were times when Gordon would pick the ball up and then pass, instead of passing from the ground. It appeared his runners were overrunning his pass slightly, not allowing them to hit the gain line at speed an in the best body position. His passing did appear to improve in parts but its an aspect of Gordon’s game I’d like to see fully rectified.
My Waratah of the match was Jed Holloway with notable mentions to Harry Johnson-Holmes and Karmichael Hunt who was hard and direct in attack.
Australian Super Rugby Team of Round 1
1. Harry Johnson-Holmes (Waratahs) 2. Folau Fainga’a (Brumbies) 3. Alan Alaalatoa (Brumbies) 4. Jed Holloway (Waratahs) 5. Matt Phillip (Rebels) 6. Isa Naisarani (Rebels) 7. Pete Samu (Brumbies) 8. Lochie McCaffrey (Brumbies) 9. Will Genia (Rebels) 10. Christian Lealiifano (Brumbies) 11. Curtis Rona (Waratahs) 12. Karmichael Hunt (Waratahs) 13. Tevita Kurindrani (Brumbies) 14. Jack Maddocks (Rebels) 15. Dane Haylett-Petty (Rebels) *note Queensland Reds had the bye.
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