Wallabies save the best until last
November 28, 2010
Berrick Barnes was a star performer against France in Paris © Getty Images
Move over Gits because Berrick is here to stay.
It seems incongruous that a world class player like Matt Giteau cannot find a place in the Wallabies' starting line-up but that is the harsh reality now facing the Brumbies' maestro. Berrick Barnes produced his best performance of the year to provide both the starch and awareness that helped trumpet a coming of age for this exciting young Australian backline.
Confidence is the key to Barnes' emergence on this tour and he dished it up in bountiful helpings whenever he entered the fray at Stade de France. Relishing the time and space provided by a fired-up forward pack, Barnes worked off Quade Cooper with direct running in attack and there was no better example than his inside ball to James O'Connor for Adam Ashley-Cooper's breathtaking opening try.
If the French game plan was built around running at Quade Cooper then Barnes also provided a timely impersonation of his former Reds' team-mate who was cleverly deployed to the last line in company with Kurtley Beale. Instead of busting flakey tackles, Les Bleus were stopped in their tracks and there was no Plan B. Along with Will Genia, Barnes cut down France's heavy artillery and was always on hand to plug any holes with his astute off-the-ball running in cover defence.
Giteau demonstrated his class in the lead up to O'Connor's match ending try and will be a genuine impact player from the bench. On that issue, Barnes' value as a drop-kick specialist also won't be lost on his coach with the World Cup just nine months away.
The Wallabies saved their best till last. The 59-16 dismantling of France in Paris ranks as their best team performance of the year. It was both ruthless and stylish and emphatically confirmed the side's number two world ranking behind New Zealand. Not only did the Aussies rise above the ongoing scrum deficiencies which again plagued them in the first half, they simply blew their opponents away in every other facet of play.
Coach Robbie Deans has been promising a breakout win and the volcano finally erupted in Paris. It was a genuine eighty minute effort as back and forward clicked seamlessly in an exhilarating display of speed, cohesion and power. Whereas the Wallabies out-thought their opponents and played with structure and precision, the hosts were often reduced to a rabble. Sadly it appears that Marc Lievremont's team has not only lost its way but also its identity.
A lack of intensity (or interest) at the breakdown, a passive, drifting defensive line and a backline that stood way too deep, all contributed to this embarrassing rout. I believe the catalyst for this malaise stems from last year's humiliation at the hands of the All Blacks in Marseilles. France fielded a small and physically ill-equipped backline that day and were steam-rollered out wide by New Zealand's counter-attack.
It seems that hangover still loomed large for the French coach because his decision to pick tall, less agile backs played into Wallaby hands. Barnes, Cooper, Beale and Ashley-Cooper all made very effective use of the grubber to turn these big men around.
To compound the problem, the Wallabies' line speed in defence was such that the more cumbersome French backs were stopped behind the gain line. Fly-half Damien Traille was clearly out of position and his reactions were out of kilter with the pace of the game.
The sin-bin of prop Ben Alexander before half-time proved a blessing. It was an unfortunate way to end his tour but the arrival off the bench of Ben Robinson signalled a change of perception from referee Bryce Lawrence who had caned the Wallaby scrum.
Just as the scrum was taken out of the equation early in the second half against Italy, James Slipper's move to tight-head prop provided more stability which was also assisted by the injury to France's tough hooker William Servat.
Alexander has been unable to recapture the scrummaging heights he attained against all-comers last year and one suspects the injury he suffered mid year prevented him from regaining the physical strength to effectively anchor the scrum.
With plenty of quick front foot ball, the Wallaby backs enjoyed a vintage outing, unleashing sublime running and passing laced with deception and the percentage options when necessary.
The backs ran straight and created plenty of room wider out where most of the damage was done. Beale and David Pocock underlined why they have been nominated for the IRB Player of the Year Award with classy all-action performances.
For me though, the winner should be Richie McCaw. He is the backbone of the All Blacks and is a truly great leader and immense gladiator. Despite the fact that he deserved the odd yellow card during the 2010 campaign, he is unquestionably the man of the hour.
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