A step in the right direction
July 23, 2011
Australia's Kurtley Beale puts his foot down in Sydney © Getty Images
Perhaps they can call last weekend's loss to Samoa a pit-stop, or false start, because the Wallabies appear to be picking up speed on the road to the Rugby World Cup.
Their performance in a comfortable victory over South Africa in the Tri-Nations opener on Saturday had all the hallmarks of Robbie Deans' recent successes - the abundant attacking options were back and the playmaking axis of Quade Cooper and Will Genia caught on in a big way - but their crowd-pleasing antics were on this occasion married to added snap in defence and greater cohesion at the set-piece.
Against Samoa the Wallabies were out-muscled across the park, dominated at the breakdown and generally beaten into submission, but there was little chance of the same happening this weekend. From the opening whistle there was a palpable lift in intensity from the hosts.
Australia spread the ball away from contact quickly and utilised their rapier-like backline against a Springbok outfit that looked one-paced on paper, and proved to be in execution.
The recent heroics of the Queensland Reds in Super Rugby have been built in part on their ability to hold the fort in defence for long enough to give their deadly strike runners a sniff and the Wallabies employed the same tactic to good effect early on, when they played a lot of rugby in their own half before capitalising for a brace of long-range tries.
Pre-game questions over the balance of the second-row and form of skipper Rocky Elsom were answered satisfactorily, while Pat McCabe continues to blossom as a midfielder after taking the path between the back-three and inside-centre previously trodden to good effect by former British & Irish Lion Jamie Roberts.
Despite the positives, Deans will have been irritated by certain rash decisions - a couple of loose kicks from Cooper and a few miracle passes from his wide men in the second-half - and also the Wallabies' failure to pass the half-century, giving him fuel to draw more from his men in the next two weeks. His aim is a first Tri-Nations title in 10 years and a winning run against the All Blacks - it's a big ask but one that is becoming less fanciful.
Whether there is such improvement to come from South Africa remains to be seen. Danie Rossouw - their best player on the night - bristled at suggestions earlier in the week that this was a second-string side, but the truth hurts. With over 20 players either injured or rested this was a shadow of the finest South African side, but there were enough hints in their gameplan to suggest that a personnel overhaul wouldn't have the radical effect some may hope for.
Early on their familiar bombs rained down on the Australian back-three to little effect, while there was a damaging lack of cohesion between Morne Steyn and his centres, Wynand Olivier and Juan de Jongh. Steyn has never been the most expressive of outside-halves and his centres were defensively at fault on a number of occasions as well as being a non-issue in attack.
A straight swap of Pat Lambie for Olivier could give South Africa added playmaking edge for next weekend's meeting with the All Blacks, but there remains a sense that any success will come through grunt rather than guile, as their two tries in Sydney showed.
On this evidence, Graham Henry's New Zealand will make short work of the Springboks, who also looked like complete strangers at the lineout and scrum. Debutant props Werner Kruger and Dean Greyling were on the wrong side of the scrum battle against a much-maligned Wallabies front-row and will need to up their game considerably when the Franks brothers, Tony Woodcock and Co. pack down next weekend.
Shorn of their set-piece it's hard to see where the Springboks will find an edge in New Zealand. The All Blacks, like every other side, are vulnerable to the Wallabies' unpredictability - they are not likely to be scared by the opposite.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September