Slipper a good fit for Wallabies
November 21, 2010
Australia's James Slipper attracts the attention of the Italy defence during their clash in Florence © Getty Images
The pivotal moment of Australia's match against Italy in Florence loomed squarely on the shoulders of rookie prop James Slipper. Under the referee's nose, would he hold firm or buckle against scrum behemoth Martin Castrogiovanni?
In the sixth minute of the second half, Australian rugby fans held their collective breath. Another scrum penalty could help reduce Italy's deficit to one point. Would this be a re-run of the horror show against Scotland twelve months earlier? No sir. Penalty Australia! The Italian strongman eventually forced to 'bore in' as Slipper and his seven scrum pals withstood the eight man shove as though their lives were on the line.
Full marks to Nick Mallett and his committed but limited Azzurra outfit. Their only hope of staying in the contest against the free-running Aussies was to target Slipper through their world class tight-head scrummager. Although the first scrum was not set until the seventeenth minute, it signalled a momentum swing after the Wallabies had run the home team off their feet to build a handy 13-3 lead.
Italy had to slow the tempo and they did it via an injury parade just before scrums were due to be set. As an Italian player received attention, his forwards regrouped in a huddle for the next eight man assault on the young Slipper. Assisted by his awesome reputation as a powerhouse scrum technician, Castrogiovanni won over the referee's mind and as a result, a spate of penalties against Slipper for taking the scrum down, altered the course of the match.
This alleged practice only transpired on Italy's feed because they wanted to engage the Australian scrum in a prolonged wrestle. Curiously, there was no such collapse on the Wallaby scrum feed which was more solid than at any stage on tour.
Berrick Barnes erased memories of the flawed goal-kicking at Twickenham a week earlier with a command performance, nailing his first seven shots. Certainly a repeat of last week's kicking woes could have been catastrophic in this Florence dogfight. Despite their scrum problems before half-time, the Wallabies created several try-scoring moments but wasted all of them with either poor decisions or poor execution. Clinical, ruthless finishing appears to be the sole domain of the All Blacks.
This game against the passionate Italians was an exercise in jumping back in the saddle after setbacks against England and Munster, and then displaying the character and nous when the ride got a bit bumpy. For example, Rocky Elsom's young side showed they had stepped up from last year's wretched Murrayfield experience. This time in the second half, they sensibly opted to play for field position, backed it up with impressive defence and kicked their goals.
If the Wallabies were guilty of squandering vital attacking possession in the first half, they were much more patient and composed in the second. The Italians were pinned in their half for long periods and on the rare occasions they did threaten, shoddy execution let them down. However, there will be no such luxury in Paris this week against a French team that will certainly ask questions out wide.
Scrum-half Luke Burgess had a lively match with snappy service and good option taking. He was a sound general and worked well with Quade Cooper who was far more committed this week in his defensive duties.
Barnes' 22 point haul was manna from heaven in trying circumstances and his combination with Cooper will only get better. He just needs to back his impressive ability and make more composed decisions in pressure situations. Cooper ran the show well, varying his attacking options, but without his regular backline chums Giteau and Genia to flank him, he looked a little less assured. His task this week is to rise to the top, vary his repertoire and defy the video analysts.
The French are also coming off a 'trench warfare' contest against Argentina this past weekend and will be well prepared for the Aussies. Rest assured they will focus on Cooper in attack and defence. Although Italy have never beaten Australia, their spoiling style always creates problems for the men of gold. I vividly remember the first fixture in Rome in the mid seventies when the Wallabies escaped the noose. Down the years nothing's changed.
Coach Deans threw two young tyros into the Florence mosh pit. Lock Rob Simmons came through with flying colours and has been a big improver on tour. Then there was 21-year-old prop James Slipper.
Who knows? In twelve months' time he might just prove the perfect fit.
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