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FEATURE The problem areas Joe Schmidt must address for 'desperate' Wallabies

The problem areas Joe Schmidt must address for 'desperate' Wallabies
1 week ago

There is something very special about the build-up to the first Test Match of the year, and Wallabies fans find themselves in a familiar position with yet another new coach installed to take the team forward.

Joe Schmidt’s case is a curious one. Primarily, he needs to build momentum in a squad with their tail still between their legs after a disastrous 2023. Australian fans would be happy if he could just get them back to the level Dave Rennie had them at by the end of 2022.

On that front, Wales are both the perfect and the worst opponent for the Wallabies.

Wales v Australia
Wales dumped Australia out of the Rugby World Cup with a demolition job in Lyon (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

The Welsh have never won on Australian soil in the professional era, their last victory Down Under coming in 1969. So on one hand, this series marks a great opportunity for the Wallabies to build some conference. But on the other, it’s got alarm bells, red flags, and warning signs all over it.

While Australia enjoyed 13 straight wins from 2009 to 2017, Wales have since won four of the past five clashes – including two Rugby World Cup wins in 2019 and 2023.

But this Welsh squad will be just as desperate to start the July internationals well. After going winless through the Six Nations, they kicked off this international window with a heavy 41-13 loss to South Africa at Twickenham, and currently sit tenth in the World Rugby rankings, immediately below the Wallabies.

Warren Gatland’s rebuild job is every bit as big as Schmidt’s.

Schmidt admitted last week to never feeling so underprepared going into a series, and that might not be a bad thing if it keeps him sharp.

The last meeting between the two – Wales’ emphatic 40-6 win which dumped Australia out of the World Cup – won’t have much influence on this week, simply because the teams which met that day in Lyon bear very little resemblance to the squads picked for these Tests.

Of the Welsh matchday 23, only eight are part of the touring squad. A mere 10 of the chastened Wallabies remain in Schmidt’s first squad.

By way of comparison, South Africa still have 19 of the 23 world champions in their ranks for the visit of Ireland, who have called upon 17 of their matchday 23 who beat the Boks in pool B.

Schmidt admitted last week to never feeling so underprepared going into a series, and that might not be a bad thing if it keeps him sharp. The Wallabies squad reconvened in Sydney at a fan day on Sunday afternoon, and it was interesting to hear players speak of Schmidt’s focus on the fundamentals. ‘You can’t play without the ball’ being his basic message.

And that means Schmidt is already having a positive impact on this group. In bringing renowned breakdown and scrum gurus, Laurie Fisher and Mike Cron, respectively, into his coaching team, Schmidt has clearly identified these fundamental elements of the game as crucial areas for improvement.

You can bet he’s added general discipline to this, where the Wallabies were regularly on the wrong side of the penalty count through the World Cup and the Rugby Championship leading into it. They copped eight yellow cards in nine games in 2023, and it was 15 yellows and one red in 14 matches the year before too.

Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt is preparing for his first match as Australia head coach (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

There were familiar themes in the losses in those key games in France last year, en route to a first-ever pool stage knockout. Against both Fiji and Wales, the Wallabies trailed at half-time, but not by insurmountable margins. But they then conceded more points immediately after the break.

Against Fiji, the Wallabies conceded a converted try inside four minutes to blow the margin out to 11 points – just big enough to create panic in a team who can’t afford to lose a game. They made five substitutions over the next ten minutes as they desperately searched for the spark to get them in the game, but to no avail. They shipped a further penalty on 65 minutes, and the gap ballooned to two converted tries.

In the Welsh shellacking, it was a penalty and a converted try within the first nine minutes of the second half. And if the 20-point deficit wasn’t the final nail in the Australian coffin, one more penalty in the 52nd minute to shunt the arrears out beyond three converted tries certainly was.

So, with Schmidt telling his players already ‘you can’t play without the ball’, you wonder if the Wallabies are overhauling their blueprint again

In those specific must-win games, the Wallabies lost the second halves 10-7 and 24-0. Add composure to Schmidt’s to-do list.

The indiscipline, sadly, isn’t new. Australia have been the most penalised side among the so-called top tier of international teams for several years now, and seemingly getting worse every season. They have regularly operated at several penalties conceded above any yearly average.

But additionally, the Wallabies defensive effectiveness was terrible last year, when their tackle success rate was just 65% against Fiji and only 81% against Wales. It was down again to 76% in what became their final match of the World Cup against Portugal too.

Part of this drop-off in effectiveness was a gameplan built around playing without the ball, instead trying to build pressure through defence and force mistakes. But what actually happens when teams are being asked to make a lot of tackles – or create a gameplan that asks themselves to make a lot of tackles – is that they also end up conceding a lot of penalties.

So, with Schmidt telling his players already ‘you can’t play without the ball’, you wonder if the Wallabies are overhauling their blueprint again. Knowing his fastidiousness for detail, it’s hard to imagine he and his team haven’t devoted significant time to these problem areas which have plagued his new charges.

Schmidt’s nerves stem from his lack of interaction with the players before coming into camp. He’s been around all five Australian Super Rugby teams through the year, of course, and he’d have had numerous chats with players leading into his first selection, but relative to his time in Ireland and more recently in New Zealand, he’s not worked with any of those he has chosen.

Len Ikitau is among the Australian contingent to have won back their place in the squad under Schmidt (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

And that’s interesting in itself. Not only is Schmidt having to build confidence, cohesion and composure – elements evaporated from the squad by the end of the World Cup – in those who remain from France, he must prove to the 13 uncapped players named they belong at this level.

Then there’s the rebuild required for all of the players tried, discarded, or outright ignored in 2023. Among them, Brumbies trio Len Ikitau, Noah Lolesio and Tom Wright, NSW scrum-half Jake Gordon, and Queensland Reds midfielder Hunter Paisami. Reds number eight Harry Wilson is in this collection too, but he’s been sent home from camp to continue rehab on his broken arm. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and Liam Wright won recalls after lengthy absences from national squads, and both seem well and truly in the frame to play the first Test.

It’s a nervous start to the international season for fans and Australian rugby more broadly, with the general state of the game living and dying by Wallabies results.

On paper, they should win the series, but supporters know never to count Australian rugby chickens early.

We’ll know more come Saturday night. And we’ll know whether Schmidt’s nerves have given way to a welcome improvement in Wallabies performance.


Derek Murray 10 days ago

Nicely summarised, Brett. We should win but there are so many variables and so few guys who are experienced, strong test players in our 23, it’s highly likely we won’t.

I’ve had a lazy £50 each on Wales and England at 5.60 as an emotional hedge and because I think those odds are ludicrous.

Francisco 10 days ago

Hi Brett, you've given a very clear reading of AUS's on-court behaviour. During RWC2023, their final stint before the international tournament, they conceded penalties above their group average (48 vs 47) and in line with the RWC2023 average as a whole (48). I think the real problem with AUS' indiscipline was due to the instance in which penalties were conceded and the ease with which opponents were able to convert those concessions into points. Increasing the speed of the game, as Eddie Jones intended, required mental support to drive the game accurately and effectively. And that "mental composure" proved difficult to instil in a young team.

JD Kiwi 10 days ago

Top article again Brett. They should beat Wales and Georgia but 38% overall might be tough to beat with this squad.

Flankly 10 days ago

We saw what Wales have, against a rusty Bok team that was missing many first choice players. We have not seen what Australia have, but it’s easy to make educated guesses.

Schmidt is a smart and meticulous planner with a focus on precision execution. His team do not have tons of experience, nor have they had the opportunity to groove their systems and game plan. But Australia always has athletic players, with a very competitive mindset.

We should expect Australia to focus on doing the basics better than Wales, and layering on a keep-control attacking strategy that targets the Wales weaknesses. That probably translates into a “keep alive” approach, with a multi-phase running attack that creates mismatches, line-breaks and space out wide.

If Wales bring what they brought at Twickenham then we should expect Australia to win convincingly.

Mitch 10 days ago

I haven't been more nervous a mid year test in Australia since the 3rd Lions test in 2013. The journey towards the Wallabies getting credibility back in their own country must start with 3 wins from 3 in July.

Shaylen 10 days ago

I would say Wales are the ideal opponent to start again. Gatland is having to do a heavy rebuild and so even the Welsh dont have an identity yet. Starting against a settled team with a cemented identity would have been a nightmare. I think this series is a perfect opportunity for the Wallabies to build some confidence before the Rugby Championship but Wales will compete. I wonder what gameplan Gatland will use. In the Six Nations Wales seemed willing to change and mix it up keeping more ball in hand and building phases. In the game against the Springboks though they kicked alot more probably due to the Bok forward pack being so huge and powerful. I reckon they may try to move the Wallabies around. Wallabies need a decent win just to get some confidence going and I reckon they will do just that

Bill 10 days ago

Hey Brett kinda agree with you except I hope JS is aiming higher than DR ( 38% not a pass)

Secondly as the majority of the side will come from Reds & Brums hopefully the coaching team have closely analysed the Reds QF against the Chiefs and the SF between Brums & Ackl. Both Kiwi sides exploited the restarts and got themselves into winnable positions quite quickly

Enjoy the game, I will


MattJH 10 days ago

I am very excited to see how the Wallabies go under Schmidt.
It’s been an especially rough last year or so for Aussie rugby, but these players will be very, very motivated to turn things around and they have a great coaching team to work with.
I would not be surprised if they give Wales a hiding.

Barry 10 days ago

He's a likeable and wholesome guy but he has a legacy at stake. His gambit was in taking very good club/national teams to the next level. He's never had to start in the gutter though.

Do Aussies even watch union anymore? No idea why he's gone near the wallabies.

A world rugby governance job would have been his ticket.

john 10 days ago

Given Schmidt lives in NZ I guess it’s hard to get more time with the players……

And how come the Wallabies gave away so many penalties under Rennie’s coaching ? Wasn’t Rennie supposed to be an amazing kiwi coach too ?

Liam Wright is a very ordinary captain of the Reds and about the fourth best 6 in Australia.

The Reds crumble under pressure when Wright is captain. That’s why Thorn was forced to appoint James O’Connor as co-captain half way thru the season a couple of years ago and O’Connor essentially took over running the Reds and they improved immeasurably. The players looked up to him.

The Reds improved even more when Wright was injured

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