Wallabies in credit after tour thrills
December 6, 2010
The re-emergence of Berrick Barnes will make for an intriguing Super Rugby campaign © Getty Images
It's never dull following the Wallabies. One minute they are absolutely sublime, the next diabolical. You can only imagine the emotional rollercoaster coach Robbie Deans straps himself into every time they run out and the latest northern hemisphere tour was no exception.
Despite the 'snakes and ladders' nature of the progress, the tour can only be measured as a success. Four Test wins from five on the road is excellent form, especially so when the world's benchmark - the All Blacks - could only manage the same winning ratio. The tour could not have begun in more spectacular fashion either, with James O'Connor's conversion in Hong Kong ending a run of 10 horrible All Blacks defeats over the past couple of years. The win not only gave the Wallabies a confidence boost for the tour ahead but also a handy psychological edge over the World Cup hosts going into 2011.
With a follow up win against Wales, the Wallabies looked to be flying high. But then came the team with an innate ability to expose our soft underbelly. While all the fanfare was about England's tries, the real story of the game was the Wallabies' scrum and yet another non-event in terms of a contest up front. Yet again, we had no answer. Wales, Italy and France (in the first-half) also knew our Achilles heel and exploited it mercilessly.
Of the 48 penalties the Wallabies conceded on tour, 24 were at scrum time, including a penalty try against the French. In Australian rugby the critics are never far away and former Test prop Bill Young, now a coach at the Brumbies, broke ranks and criticised the continued use of Ben Alexander at tight-head, when he plays on the opposite side of the scrum at provincial level.
Young's argument is interesting given Alexander, at loose-head, is part of a powerful Brumbies front-row and is, in prop terms, a prolific try scorer in Super Rugby. Yet, this hasn't translated at international level. Can it be expected for a prop to play on one side of the scrum provincially and the other in the cauldron of Test rugby?
Deans' defence has been to accuse the opposition of "manipulation", "trickery" and of "play[ing] the referee constantly" at scrum time. That may well be the case and the frequent dialogue Richie McCaw has with the referee supports that view, but if that's the reality why are Australia not adopting the same tactics? Regardless, the Wallabies coaching staff need to find the answers to their scrum woes quickly or the World Cup campaign may end much like the last in Marseille - with a mauling.
While the pressure remains on the forwards, the backline made an emphatic statement on tour, especially in Paris. With the Wallabies down by three in the second-half, I found myself thinking that the next 30 minutes would define the spring tour as a success or failure. But no one could have predicted what would happen next as the Wallabies ran in five magnificent tries, albeit against a defence that resembled a profiterole tower on a hot summer's afternoon.
Kurtley Beale underlined his breakthrough international season and nomination for IRB Player of the Year with yet another dynamic performance, while Adam Ashley-Cooper benefited from the more direct attack led by Quade Cooper and Berrick Barnes. It was refreshing to see both pivots running at the line and asking serious questions of a defence that in the end had no answers. When they get it right, the Wallabies are the best attacking team going and with a strong stable of speed-demons now available, Deans has an arsenal the envy of the rugby world.
With Barnes producing a dominant performance at inside-centre, combined with his more accurate goalkicking, the blow-torch will be well and truly on Matt Giteau in next year's Super Rugby campaign to prove he can still produce to the levels that made him a genuine world star for most of the past decade. With the revamped Super Rugby competition seeing the local provinces play each other home and away, we will have a box seat as Giteau, Cooper and Barnes go head-to-head. With it all to play for and a likely World Cup starting berth up for grabs, who will be last man left standing?
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