Thursday 19 July 2018

Dangerous Wallabies are still force to be reckoned with

A solid scrum gives Michael Cheika's men reason to be confident

Quade Cooper in action against New Zealand in Auckland yesterday
Quade Cooper in action against New Zealand in Auckland yesterday

Ian McGeechan

As the World Cup looms, and despite yesterday's result, Australia are still a huge threat. Both England and Wales will be feeling a lot less comfortable about their pool alongside Australia now than they were three months ago.

On the surface, the scoreline of 41-13 might look like a real thumping for Australia against New Zealand, but I still think they will be reasonably happy with where they are now.

They can go into the RWC with genuine confidence, mainly because they know now that their scrummage is strong enough to be stable and that in turn has a knock-on effect on how their back-row and midfield can play.

A solid platform immediately takes the game towards their strengths. Had they not been able to get that right, they would have been compromising all the way down the line in what they could do to play the game they need to play. Yes, they made mistakes and started losing lineouts and coughing up ball, but they have real physicality up front and they have shown that they can cause anyone problems at the breakdowns. They did not start Michael Hooper and David Pocock together in Auckland, as they had done in Sydney, but I think they will use that combination at the RWC.

I think coach Michael Cheika wanted to find out more about his squad and that was why he gave No 8 Wycliff Palu a run-out. He also gave Quade Cooper a run at outhalf and now knows that he cannot afford to play Cooper in the big games. He just made too many errors and his yellow card for a high tackle on Aaron Smith, also leading to a penalty try, was the moment that killed off the game because New Zealand scored two further tries while he was absent.

I think Cheika will now play Matt Toomua at flyhalf in his strongest line-up, with Nic White, who I thought was outstanding again, and even the missed tackle for Ma'a Nonu's second try was not necessarily his fault as he was covering for Cooper, at scrumhalf and Matt Giteau at inside centre. The return of Giteau means you can play a slightly different flyhalf. It means they will have genuine choices of first receiver in phase play, which is when they are so dangerous.

If Cooper's yellow card was one turning point in the match, the other was when All Black lock Sam Whitelock turned the ball over in his own 22 after just 21 minutes. New Zealand had looked vulnerable up until then and were under pressure, and Australia were driving strongly.

If they had scored then it could have been a huge psychological boost to them, but Whitelock turned the ball over and New Zealand scored at the other end through a brilliant score from hooker Dane Coles after Dan Carter had made a sublime break with a lovely step. Carter converted, and the All Blacks were 10-3 ahead. The whole dynamic of the game had changed.

It was a sharp reminder of what New Zealand can do, particularly with turnover ball. The All Blacks just do not make the same mistake twice. They were chastened by defeat in Sydney and duly turned up at home determined to rectify the breakdown area, where they had definitely been second best in that game. They were clever in their play in the first half. It looked as if they were kicking too much but what they were doing in fact was trying to take the breakdown away from Australia, in giving them the chance to pile into such situations.

And then, in the second half, they kept the ball a lot more and went through phases, getting quicker and quicker ball at each one, which is so difficult to defend against.

Their defence was much more disciplined too. Last week in Sydney they were rushing up on the outside to try to cut off Israel Folau, but this week, though their line speed was still quick, they did not give Australia the opportunities to pick them off.

The first Nonu try was a magnificent example of how adept their forwards are at handling the ball. After a kick ahead, the ball was quickly transferred left and three forwards, Owen Franks, Coles and Whitelock, all took part in the movement. The quick offload from Coles was breathtaking.

And they have found a gem in winger Nehe Milner-Skudder. He looked exceptionally lively, with a darting break and wonderful offload that led to that penalty try. I thought Victor Vito had a fine match at blindside flanker too. He carried superbly and the back-row looked a lot more balanced with him there.

To me, Dan Carter looked close to his best. His kicking was excellent and it was obvious that his running and passing games were back in order. He made that break for Coles's try, but I thought his work for Nonu's second try was superb, going flat and then making the switch pass late to put into the gap where they knew Cooper was missing. Nonu and Conrad Smith were back to their best in centre. I think they will be New Zealand's midfield trio for the RWC.


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