Dave Rennie has cause to be optimistic about how his future Wallabies side may take shape later in the season based on how the Australian Super Rugby sides performed in the opening round of the 2020 season.
Despite only one of the four franchises being victorious, collectively the Australian performances indicate the Wallabies could field a side that is strong at the set-piece, competitive at the breakdown, has pace on the flank and an ability to work through the middle of the park.
Worryingly, however, the Australian sides are overall lacking in defensive skill, counter-attack, mental application and overall game management.
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Pleasingly, this encounter was not a ‘snore-fest’ that could aptly describe Australian local derbies of recent times. Instead, both sides bought attacking intent and starch into the contact area.
As expected, Wallabies scrumhalf Joe Powell orchestrated much of the Brumbies attack, yet they have a talented Super Rugby debutant Noah Lolesio, who performed admirably in the flyhalf role and did not look out of his depth at this level.
While the Brumbies were pressured by the Reds, they were able to maintain their attacking shape at crucial moments during the match.
Lolesio featured in Tom Wright’s try by chiming into a second receiver role and throwing a well-timed cut out pass to Tevita Kuridrani, putting the Brumbies into space that eventuated with the five-pointer.
Lolesio was not the only debutant who excelled. Reds No. 8 Harry Wilson was a handful for the Brumbies all match, carrying the ball 14 times, offloading, beating defenders and scoring a late try.
Wilson is the most exciting back row talent this country has seen since the great flanker George Smith debuted 20-odd years ago.
If the Gunnedah-born Wilson continues on this trajectory and realises his full potential, he can join Mark Loane, Tim Gavin and Toutai Kefu as a great Australian No. 8s.
How the Reds would replace the power of Samu Kerevi to create attacking opportunities has been answered by their ability use other powerful ball runners such as Wilson and tighthead prop Taniela Tupou, coupled with a willingness to offload pre and post-contact and also move the ball into space.
The try by former Brumbies wing Henry Speight is evidence of such. Winning a lineout deep into Brumbies territory, the Reds of yesteryear would often use that to set up a driving maul and look to power over the line.
The Reds have already illustrated they will bring a greater variance to their attack in 2020.
Both sides looked to play directly and were not lured by the width early. It’s a shame the Waratahs did not adopt the same attacking principle more often as their decision-making while in possession was, at times, appalling.
They were often too spaced in the attack, isolating themselves to become easy targets for the Crusaders’ defence. Sadly, the remedy was often to look to pass to another isolated attacker.
This was not lost on veteran New Zealand broadcaster Grant Nisbett, who on more than one occasion commented on how the Waratahs were guilty of passing to a player in a worse position than the passer himself.
Debutant flyhalf Will Harrison had a courageous debut, but his job was not made easy by such tactics, and as his six tackles from 11 attempts indicates, he does have defensive frailties.
When the Waratahs did look to play closer and flatter through the midfield, they did trouble the Crusaders, with tries to winger Alex Newsome and 19-year-old sensation Mark Nawaqanitawase originating from such efforts.
If Rob Penney’s side are to realise the full potential of Nawaqanitawase, they should look to allow him to attack both sides of his opposing winger, not just the outside with a sideline to contend with.
With that much space, they should attack the middle channel with greater intent drawing defenders away from him.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 3, 2020
The Waratahs’ game management, however, was dreadful.
They kicked from the midfield when they should have passed, and insisted on doing so late in the game when they had a bench that was providing energy in the collision, yet they surprisingly appeared determined to give the Crusaders possession.
Not a wise decision as the Crusaders are the most adept side in counter-attack and one would have thought Penney would have been more tactically attuned.
It is no easy task to travel to New Zealand and take on the Crusaders in round one but the scoreline of 43-25 flattered the Waratahs who were disjointed and woeful in defence at times.
Consider that in the Brumbies vs Reds encounter, collectively both sides missed 43 tackles. The Waratahs missed 36 all by themselves and that is telling if the defence is an attitude barometer.
There were some very good individual performances, though. Michael Hooper, in particular, was tireless as ever and eased the pressure of his side, securing no less than four turnovers at the breakdown.
However, individual efforts were not enough and the Waratahs should look be more cohesive next round and play with a greater focus and directness with efforts around the fringes as opposed to all-out width too often.
The Rebels were deservedly defeated by a determined Sunwolves in Fukuoka. Although a late surge by Dave Wessels’ men put them within striking distance of an unlikely victory, the greatest concern is that the Rebels lacked mental application from the start, conceding two early tires.
The last Australian side to play in Japan were the Wallabies themselves in last year’s World Cup where a concerning facet of their play was their lethargic starts, and this is an area that must be addressed by the Rebels if they are to have any chance of defeating better sides than the Sunwolves.
If they don’t, they can expect a similar fate to the 2019 Wallabies.
If the early form is an indicator, and given Rennie’s indication Super Rugby form will determine national selection, it would appear the Brumbies and Reds will make up the majority of the 2020 Wallabies.
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