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FEATURE Wallabies far from perfect but ‘stressful’ Schmidt era starts on winning note

Wallabies far from perfect but ‘stressful’ Schmidt era starts on winning note
2 weeks ago

If a win is a win, as they say, then Joe Schmidt’s reign as Wallabies head coach has begun well.

The 25-16 victory over Wales at Sydney’s Allianz Stadium did the two things it needed to do above all else.

It delivered a win, first and foremost, and it delivered a win in Sydney for the first time since a Rugby World Cup warm-up Test against Samoa in 2019. Saturday night’s victory was just the Wallabies’ second in their last 13 starts in Sydney going back to 2016.

Secondly, it got rid of expected amounts of rust from a group of players who mostly hadn’t played a lot of rugby in the last month or so.

Joe Schmidt
Schmidt admitted he had endured a stressful first Test in charge (Photo Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

And make no mistake, there was rust. There was always going to be in the first Test of the year, with a squad bearing little resemblance to that which slinked away from the RWC in France.

Schmidt was quick to acknowledge as much post-match.

“We have a few things that we’ve been working on that are maybe a little bit different to how (Australian) teams have played in Super Rugby, so the adjustment time for that to become second nature is inevitably going to take time,” he said, adding that he hoped that adjustment time is only this week, ahead of the second Test against Wales at AAMI Park in Melbourne.

We went through the team warm-up yesterday at the captain’s run, didn’t do a great job of it, and funnily enough we didn’t do a great job of it today, either.

The rust extended to Schmidt’s own coaching team, too, the Sydney contest giving the support staff their first chance to test processes, practices and procedures leading into and following on from their first match-day of the season.

“It was stressful there today,” Schmidt laughed sheepishly. “I would be pretty candid about how I just like to work with motivated people – trying to manage a staff, a lot of them I only met last week, so everything’s been new.

“We went through the team warm-up yesterday at the captain’s run, didn’t do a great job of it, and funnily enough we didn’t do a great job of it today, either. But they’re the sort of things that take a bit of rhythm and a bit of ironing out.”

Australia warm-up
The Wallabies’ warm-up featured five extra players in addition to the match-day 23 (Photo Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Watching the Wallabies warm up from the northern end of Allianz Stadium was illuminating, not just for the way it was all very deliberately structured, but for the sheer number of people involved.

For one thing, I counted 28 players kitted up. The match-day 23, along with five deliberately selected extra players to cover all manner of late curve-balsl. Kiwi-Aussie prop Alex Hodgeman was out there, alongside hooker and Queensland team-mate Josh Nasser, and tighthead Zane Nonggorr completing the spare Reds front row.

Brumbies lock and flanker Tom Hooper was out there too, as was Western Force midfielder Hamish Stewart.

The spare tight five, back row and midfield coverage meant that contingencies for nine or 10 of the 15 starting positions were in place and actively involved, with the five standby players going through the team warm-up as if they were playing – to the point that once the starting 23 were confirmed to have got through unscathed, the five additional players then went through a formal warm-down process, ensuring that they recover properly themselves to be ready for another week of preparations.

By midway through the first half, Wales were forced to feed and extract clean channel-one ball as fast as they could to negate any possibility of losing the contest on subsequent Australian shoves.

In fairness, having extra players for the warm-up isn’t new and makes obvious amounts of sense. But with 17 forwards on hand, it allowed assistant coach Geoff Parling to run drills for two full lineout formations. Before that, Parling was himself perched atop a step ladder, crouching and them rising to take lineout throws from hookers Matt Faessler and Billy Pollard, with Nasser also pitching in. All throws hit Parling – the target – at a height he may not have experienced himself in games as a player.

After that, Mike Cron kept an eye over two full front rows packing down against triangular back-row formations filling the inside gaps. And even those formations saw players sub in and out to make sure all 17 players had their scrummaging eyes in and were ready.

Taniela Tupou
Tighthead Taniela Tupou scored a try as well as enjoying a dominant scrummaging display (Photo Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

This all translated onto the field. The Wallabies won all four of their scrums, with Taniela Tupou a one-man Welsh pack-wrecker in as dominant a display of Test match scrummaging as I can remember from him. By midway through the first half, Wales were forced to feed and extract clean channel-one ball as fast as they could to negate any possibility of losing the contest on subsequent Australian shoves.

The Wallabies similarly won 14 of their 15 lineouts, while also taking four more on the Welsh throw.

A concerning hallmark of the 2023 Wallabies was a preference to play without the ball, which in turn saw them racking up 200-plus tackle attempt tallies in those early heavy Rugby Championship losses to South Africa and Argentina. They offered nothing in attack on those occasions because the tank was emptied in defence.

In Sydney it was the Welsh who cracked the double hundred, as the Wallabies maintained 53% possession throughout the game, and a first-half figure of 62% as they forced the Welsh into long periods of defence, holding onto the ball in ways totally consistent with Joe Schmidt teams.

Liam Wright
Wales were forced to make more than 200 tackles as Australia enjoyed plenty of possession (Photo Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

“Laurie’s doing a great job with the defence,” Schmidt said of his renowned senior assistant coach, Fisher. “He’s getting the players to own their space and connect really well, and then own their efforts really well, too.

“I felt guys like Jeremy Williams and Fraser McReight, there was some real effort in the middle of the field to keep connecting with the edges and then in the end, I think (Andrew Kellaway) put them into touch one time, another time we counter-rucked and got through them and forced a couple of other lost balls or turnovers.

In their initial conversations before taking the role on, Fisher told Schmidt outright: ‘If you’re looking for pure rush defence, then I’m not your guy.’

“So yeah, there were some nice defensive highlights and there were some work-ons there as well.”

Indeed, connection has long been a hallmark of the Fisher methodology, much more so than all-out defensive line speed. In their initial phone conversations before taking the role on, Fisher told Schmidt outright: ‘If you’re looking for pure rush defence, then I’m not your guy.’

On first viewing, the approach is working well. The Wallabies maintained a 90-plus per cent tackle success rate and forced 18 turnovers from the Welsh attack.

Thirteen penalties conceded will be one of those work-ons this week, and Schmidt chuckled that he’ll never, ever be satisfied with a penalties conceded tally. He specifically mentioned three successive penalties leading to the Welsh penalty try and McReight’s yellow card for collapsing a maul, and it’s fair to assume maul defence will be a priority for at least the remainder of these July internationals.

Tom Wright
Full-back Tom Wright seized on a gap in the Wales defensive line to score the clinching try (Photo Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

But he was pleased that players took the chance to play to opportunities in front of them, singling out Tom Wright’s superb solo effort out of a surprising tackle bust 60 metres out. It was notable how much space the players in the backfield – and Wright and Kellaway in particular – were giving themselves, which in turn meant Wales had to spread their defensive line further across the field.

Wright found a slight weakness in the Welsh line and was running in the kind of long-range try he’s been producing in a Brumbies jersey all year before they realised what had happened.

But curiously, in that last 10 minutes when they might have fancied their chances to score more points with all the momentum from Wright’s try, Australia barely saw the ball again. Warren Gatland belatedly injected fly-half Sam Costelow into the game, and he proved far more dangerous in attack.

If the coach can have a chuckle about his stress levels ahead of his first Test in charge of a new group… then Australian rugby types should avoid the need to over-criticise and take this early result for what it was.

Wales had 86% of possession through the last 10 minutes as Costelow asked way more questions of the Wallabies defence than they were required to answer in the previous 70. Closing out games can be added to the July to-do list.

But it was a strong performance and a far better way to start the international year than what Australian fans have chosen to forget about 2023.

It was still a good way from perfect, but if the coach can have a chuckle about his stress levels ahead of his first Test in charge of a new group, and the amount of rust that he clearly expected, then Australian rugby types should avoid the need to over-criticise and take this early result for what it was.

A win really is a win, in this case. Especially for this rebuilding Wallabies squad, especially in Sydney, and especially in the first Test of the year with a new coach.

Now we watch on with interest, as they move forward from this solid benchmark for 2024.

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Comments

17 Comments
B
Broken Shoulder 10 days ago

Cheers, Brett. Certainly an air of early 2020 to the wallabies right now. Rennie picked a lot of newcomers who are staples now but I feel we’re lacking some skill in certain areas. Lock in particular. His comments this weekend support that, he’s certainly not mincing his words and realises how far away we are right now from those top teams.

I know Joe has resisted but, would it not be prudent to have a Rodda, Skelton, Sio, Arnold, Kerevi and Koroibete in the squad for the RC?

Watching the Boks v Ireland just makes me realise how far back we are right now. The bones are there, we just need to stop resisting the meat that’s overseas.

F
Francisco 12 days ago

Hi Brett, good to read you today. I was able to watch the AUSvWAL at the start of the week. Your appreciation of the 'rust' is consistent with the gestures we could observe on the field. Undoubtedly, Wallabies are orchestrating their own dance of reconnaissances and set-ups. With only 5 experienced players (+50 caps), 2 intermediates (-50 and +30 caps) and 31 men with -30 caps, Schmidt's bet takes on another meaning, another color and is shaping up to be the youngest team in SH (followed by Argentina). The sensation of an even match, for its 'regular' nature, accentuated much more the perception of what happened on the field of indiscipline (11 penalties conceded) where any figure containing 2 digits turns on warning lights. It is true that RSA also conceded 11 penalties vs WAL, but then corrected them downwards vs IRE. The breakdown is a kind of "eye of the storm," and Fisher knows it. That is, for the moment, one of WAL's Achilles heels. "A win is a win" - that's right. But it would be a better victory if it succeeds in inaugurating a more sustainable gaming model for Wallabies.

L
Lloyd 14 days ago

Good to read mature/perceptive analysis. Thank you sir. Look forward to watching the game to game improvements. Like this game brought out: clean ball presentation, organised pods, well structured rucks, constant scanning, positional accuracy, threat presentations, connectivity, spatial awareness, clean/simple/fast set pieces…above all minimised chaos.

Like to add my 2cents: The Tom Wright try was manufactured over time. By constantly returning kicks wth kicks to lay a foundation of predictability. This caused the mother of all assumptions by the opposition who basically switched off and started jogging back/sideways for a probable line-out. Nek minit, our man senses the lack of urgency and took full advantage.

M
Mitch 14 days ago

It wasn't pretty. There were some positive signs. There are some ‘learnings’ as they like to say nowadays, but most importantly, it was job done.

N
Nick 14 days ago

Nice piece brett and good summation. Its amazing how negative much of the aussie commentary has been on this win given how poorly our recent form was (40-6 vs wales!), how short the lead in time was, and how few games this crop of players had together (zero!). What I wanted to see was the fundamentals done right - set piece, kicking, defence. And to me all three of those were done reasonably well (except the maul and discipline). We played at the right end of the park more often than not, had the ball more often than not, won our scrums/mauls, and scored 3-1 tries. I’d be happy with that everyday of the week from the wallabies and twice on saturdays! I also wanted to see those players that were in/out during rennies tenure and have ~15 caps or so stand up and own their jerseys and I think they mostly did that to - t wright, kellaway, tupou, l wright, gordon etc. Lastly and something thats a (small) bugbear of mine - Tupou CAN start games and have impact. Not to say he can’t do it off the bench but he has repeatedly put the wallabies on the front foot with performances like this in the past but many pigeon hole him to a bench impact player only. He was pivotal in those wins against SA in 2021 also and started those games.

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