Reflecting back on last year’s series, halfback Will Genia highlighted a lack of trust in the Wallabies new defence system for the implosion in the first Bledisloe last year in Sydney.
“When we reviewed this game we went back and that was certainly the case, guys weren’t sticking their roles and because guys were hesitant in terms of trusting the system, we were all over the shop, guys were sitting back, guys were double defending, guys not chasing on the inside, just defending out of the system because of the lack of trust,” he told Rugby.com.au.
“It certainly showed and it was a very poor performance.”
The Wallabies found themselves down 54-6 before a spirited second-half performance saw a 54-34 final scoreline. The backs, in particular, had a poor defensive outing, with 17 missed tackles between Curtis Rona, Kurtley Beale, Samu Kerevi and Henry Speight alone.
The second test saw a much-improved performance with a backline re-jig, before a win at home in the third test with only Beale from the aforementioned in the lineup.
Looking back at the lessons from games two and three, what can the Wallabies take into the opening Bledisloe encounter this weekend, and how can they beat the All Blacks?
Simply making the right selections will increase the Wallabies chances of winning, by valuing defensive stability over attacking firepower.
The Wallabies competitiveness immediately improved last year after bringing in veteran centre Tevita Kuridrani, fullback/wing Dane Haylett-Petty and Reece Hodge at the expense of Henry Speight, Samu Kerevi and Curtis Rona.
It seems that Cheika is learning from last year, by cutting Rona and Naivalu from the final squad, looking for more defensive capabilities. Although keeping Billy Meakes around might have been a good option – he was one of the best defensive midfielders in Australia this year.
The biggest problem they have is who will play 13, with first choice centres Kerevi and Kuridrani out injured. That might be a blessing in disguise as Beale, Kerevi and Kuridrani filled three of the top four rankings in missed tackles for centres in Super Rugby this year.
Beale is integral to the Wallabies attacking plans, so despite defensive frailties, he will always be picked when available. Which means he needs a solid defender outside him to cover.
There is no current answer that will solve the centre problem with great confidence, so whoever they pick will be targeted.
Hodge looms as a makeshift experiment. Dane Haylett-Petty needs to be picked on one wing, but Marika Koroibete is a questionable defender on the other side. In an ideal world, Hodge would be picked on the left wing.
Another reason why the Wallabies need defensively strong wingers instead of speedy finishers is the All Blacks pack possesses more dynamic athletes who roam the flanks. The pack is purpose-built for phase patterns where edge forwards get mismatches. Codie Taylor and Liam Squire will present danger on the edge, and faced with one-on-one matchups with Koroibete, will be one area the All Blacks go to frequently.
If the Wallabies want as little disruption as possible, Matt Toomua is really the only straight swap option at centre without putting other guys out of position. However, handling defensive duties one position wider is harder than it seems. With Goodhue set to start, this presents a more containable matchup for Toomua, who has less speed than a player like Rieko Ioane.
They could also move Folau to centre, Beale to fullback so Toomua can start at 12 in a three-player switch, but this will risk disrupting much of the attacking pattern and Folau’s experience at centre is very limited.
Cheika will probably go with Hodge at centre and Koroibete on the left wing, but Toomua directly into 13 with no other disruptions could be the best answer.
Possession vs. Territorial Strategy
The Wallabies win in the third test last year was built on the back of defence – they missed just nine tackles in the match, and heaped pressure on the All Blacks with nearly 60% possession. The lower defensive workload kept their system stable and it took a mammoth weight of possession to finally break down the All Blacks.
Sam Cane was forced to make 27 tackles, and missed four others. The Wallabies were relatively fresh, making just 90 tackles in the match to the All Blacks 152.
Ball control is probably the best method of play against the All Blacks, the longer they are without it the longer it is before they score. It isn’t a foolproof method – they don’t need loads of possession to win – but it will go a long way to keeping the game close.
Outside of exit situations deep inside the 22, the Wallabies can’t afford to aimlessly kick possession away from their own half, which they have done in the past. They kick too much from their own 40, often ending up with minimal net gains and handing over possession.
Foley and Beale can be guilty of kicking too many ‘settlers’ when the pattern becomes disorganised. Genia should handle most of the kicking duties, and these have to be contestable with aerial specialists Folau and Haylett-Petty available to chase.
The third test was a blueprint for the Wallabies, especially the second half. Control the clock and maintain possession for as long as possible, building pressure for the likes of Beale and Folau to work on the back of.
One area where the All Blacks are light years ahead of the Wallabies is set-piece attack, especially inside the 5, where mismatches are identified, created and exploited by the backs. Often you don’t need to break a tackle completely, just win the ‘contact’ being so close to the try line. This could be through brute force or using shifty footwork to get through an ineffective tackle.
The All Blacks get a high number of attacking opportunities inside this area of the field often by turning down penalty kicks in favour of scrums or kicking to the corner. New Zealand Super Rugby sides, in particular, have come accustomed to playing for seven points rather than three and it has ultimately paid dividends.
Australian sides still follow a three points-first approach, which has repeatedly failed them over the last two years. Kicking for nearly every available three, especially long-range shots, hasn’t been enough when your opposition are continually playing for seven at the other end.
There has to be a paradigm shift in thinking to play for more tries, especially early in games. You need to score 30-40 points to beat the All Blacks on a regular basis. They scored an average of 35.8 per game last year. You can’t rely solely on the odd occasion they have an off night.
Changing this approach will give the Wallabies more opportunities inside the All Blacks 22, where they could adopt some of the same principles.
The All Blacks exploit mismatches they want to target, with a higher percentage of back plays. The pushover or trapping at eight’s feet for a scrum penalty is a tactic used too much by Australian sides, wasting the extra space backs have to use.
In the second test last year, the All Blacks erased a 17-point deficit, scoring three of their tries from set-piece five metres out. The smallest defender, Will Genia, was isolated one-on-one against a much bigger man twice, and Aaron Smith was too elusive for Michael Hooper one-on-one.
Genia didn’t shy away from the assignment, he was just physically overpowered by Rieko Ioane and Beauden Barrett. Last year with the diminutive Damian McKenzie as a fullback, how many times did the Wallabies isolate him one-on-one with their best weapon Folau? Not enough, if at all.
The simple yet effective ability to create mismatches in small or wider spaces separates the All Blacks attacking prowess from others.
The Wallabies have to show more attacking intent and use the set-piece platform to create isolation mismatches with their best athlete – Israel Folau.
The Big Three – Pocock, Genia and Folau
The three most important men in this test are Pocock, Genia and Folau. Their defensive trump card, their playmaker and their strike weapon.
Pocock will take away about 10 points off the opposition score if he continues to do what he did against Ireland.
Will Genia has been the best playmaker of any of the Australian sides in Super Rugby this year, and must be given a high number of plays from set-piece as the primary creator. Any play designs that include Genia as the decision maker and Folau as one of the options have to be deployed with efficiency.
Israel Folau finished the third test last year with 17 carries, the most he had all year in a man-of-the-match performance. He is the best-attacking weapon the Wallabies have, so getting him as many touches as possible will go along way to winning this match. There could be too much of a focus of giving Folau aerial contests when he is just as effective as a damaging ball runner.
Can they do it?
Can they win? Yes. Will they? Unlikely.
The Wallabies are capable of winning as they proved in Brisbane. But in order for them to regularly push the All Blacks, they need to get a lot smarter about how they play the game. Playing conservative and under-utilising their best players will end up failing them again.
Clinical and innovative play hasn’t been a hallmark of this side under Cheika, and he hasn’t produced any meaningful results in three years. They will be up against it but need to start taking strategic steps in the right direction, which might not be possible with current management.
A large portion of the rugby world will be hoping they can prove otherwise to make this a meaningful fixture (for at least the Australian public) once again.
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