Three Points
Welsh and French lessons for Wallabies in Paris
Brett McKay
November 13, 2014
More to come from Wallabies - Cheika

A win's a win. With the up-and-down season the Wallabies have had in 2014, it was important to start the end-of-year Tests with a win, and Michael Cheika's team have done that. The Wallabies' performance against Wales at the Millennium Stadium was a long way from perfect, however, as Greg Growden outlined so well on Monday, and you like to think there were at least some elements of relief among the players intertwined with all the jubilation when referee Craig Joubert finally blew full-time in Cardiff. Nevertheless, the unbeaten streak again Wales has now cracked double figures and the Wallabies have arrived in the City of Love, where they will take on the and spectacularly mercurial Les Bleus at Stade de France on Saturday.

Here are a few lessons I'd like to think they took in on the flight over the English Channel.

Rhys Webb breaks through to give Wales a third-minute lead, Wales v Australia, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, November 8, 2014
Rhys Webb gave Wales a third-minute lead © Getty Images

Physicality isn't a defence-only thing

One of the hallmarks of the Cheika Waratahs in 2014 was their 'power carry' game, whereby the forwards would charge into defensive lines with gusto bettered only by team-mates following for the cleanout. The image of Jacques Potgieter's locks flailing back on impact provided no better illustration of the newfound physicality that drove the Waratahs to the Super Rugby title this year; maybe he keeps the hair longer for dramatic effect.

But the thing about the Waratahs physicality was that it was just as important in defence as in attack. They achieved great success in dominating the tackle, effecting the turnover, and transitioning quickly from defence into attack. This is obviously easier to do in Super Rugby, with defences not quite as rigid and structured as in Test rugby; and this is an important point to remember.

My observation of the initial outings of the Cheika Wallabies is that physicality has lifted but it's not consistent. That's not unexpected; a team learning the methods of a new coach needs time to adapt. Indeed, it took the Waratahs a full season before they started benefiting fully.

The Wallabies' forwards in Cardiff looked like they were really trying to impose themselves in the tackle area, and at the breakdown to a lesser extent, but less so again in attack. ESPN match stats tend to back this up. Overall, the numbers have Wales conceding 12 turnovers to the Wallabies' 14. Reads like a pretty even contest, right?

Well, sort of, until you look who was conceding the turnovers. For Wales, the starting backline conceded nine of their 12 total turnovers, with every jersey from 9 to 15 recording at least one, and scrum-half Rhys Webb three. Hooker Richard Hibbard and No.8 Toby Faletau were the only Welsh forwards - starting or from the bench - to concede a turnover in the entire match. By contrast, Australia's forwards conceded nine of the Wallabies' 14 turnovers, with debutant flanker Sean McMahon, prop James Slipper, and lock Sam Carter the main offenders.

Cheika plays down psychological advantage

Now the stats don't say whether these turnovers were poor carries, or ruck turnovers, or what they were, but the point is that the Wallabies forwards' tackle numbers all look pretty healthy but it is fair to draw the conclusion that the same physical impact wasn't being felt when they were tucking the ball under the arm.

The other conclusion to draw is that even though the tackle numbers do look good, that defensive pressure didn't draw any ruck turnovers in the tight stuff. It's all fine and good to isolate an outside back and effect the pilfer, but the best breakdown teams in the world don't pick and choose their victims. They just pilfer at any given opportunity. And this again raises the question of whether Australia's back-row selection sacrifices are being made because of evident weaknesses within some players. It's a question I've been pondering all year.

Head down, bum down, Will!

A lot of angry words have been punched through a lot of Australian keyboards about the 66th-minute penalty try; I honestly think too much blame has been apportioned unfairly to the front-row at the time, props Slipper and Sekope Kepu, and replacement hooker James Hanson.

The image below is pretty damning for mine. After Wales fed the ball, their pack almost immediately pushed through their loose-head side, directly against Kepu, Australia's tight-head. In this image, the scrum has already gone 45°, and the ball is at Faletau's feet. But look at Australia's back five.

Look at the Wallabies' back five in the scrum as they conceded a penalty try in Cardiff © Image Supplied: Sky Sports / Fox Sports

Lock Rob Simmons remains down, but Michael Hooper is already looking up and elsewhere and providing minimal support for Slipper. No.8 Ben McCalman is essentially detached from the scrum; he's certainly not pushing. But the worst offender here for mine is replacement lock Will Skelton on the tight-head side; he has his head far too high, has a terrible bind on Simmons, and his backside is significantly higher than it should be.

Kepu is getting towelled in front of him and Skelton, despite 140kg of bulk, is offering nothing. Wales smashed further through Kepu, who ended up underneath the Welsh front-row as Australia's back five detached completely and Joubert took the couple of steps backward toward the posts to award the penalty try.

I don't claim to be a scrummaging guru by any stretch; but if I can see an obviously bad technique, I have to wonder why the Wallabies coaches aren't seeing the same thing.

The Wallabies attended a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the base of the Arc de Triomphe © Getty Images

Playing smarter is a welcome concept

Nick Phipps, at a press conference earlier in the week, put forward his nomination for the Captain Obvious Award when he said about their decision making in the final minutes, "... that's not what we're going to be doing from now on." Well, thank God for that.

Plenty has been said about Bernard Foley's decision to kick the ball away with 27 seconds left on the clock, but perhaps not until Greg Growden, in The Growden Report on Monday, had analysed the final phases of the match. And Foley's decision couldn't have been more ironic after former Wales star Jonathan Davies had just given his Man of the Match to the fly-half for "orchestrating this Australian team" and knowing among other things, "when to kick".

Better sides than Wales most likely would have punished the Wallabies in the gift last play © Image Supplied: Sky Sports / Fox Sports

You'd like to think the Wallabies won't repeat this mistake again, but I think we've all seen them enough to know that probably won't be the case - be that against France this weekend, or any time in the future.

Twenty-seven seconds were left on the clock when Foley kicked the ball from inside his 22 down Welsh winger Liam Williams' throat, allowing the home time one last chance. Except that it wasn't one last chance; it was a free-kick, a full-arm penalty, nearly 50 metres of territory, and just about two-and-a-half minutes before Joubert finally blew time after a Welsh mistake.

Play smarter, indeed. Better counter-attacking teams than Wales will welcome an extra two-and-a-half minutes of attack against a Wallabies side well known for attempting to shut down early. And one such team may well be opposing them in two days time.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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