Three Points
Wallabies everything but calm, calculated at death
Brett McKay
November 27, 2014
Simon Zebo's try was but one illustration of Ireland's precise kicking game © Getty Images

The Wallabies suffered their second Test defeat of the end-of-year tour, 26-23 to Ireland in Dublin but won plenty of praise for the way they played in what was certainly their best performance to date in November.

Up against the Six Nations Champions, and maybe the best defence they've faced on tour, the Wallabies looked a whole lot more threatening as the short passes and offloads started to stick. The set-piece also saw improvements, with the lineout very good and even stealing a bit of ball from Ireland throw-ins. The scrum held its ground well for the first hour before it degraded as the replacements went on late in the game. Back-row engagement height - a bugbear of this column in recent weeks - looked much better, too.

But for all the improvement, there were still a few things to highlight; and so here are this week's lessons as the Wallabies prepare to play, in London, their final match of 2014.

Offload and short passing game starting to click

Nick Phipps runs clear to score a try, Ireland v Australia, Autumn International, Aviva Stadium, Dublin, November 22, 2014
Nick Phipps capped a wonderful handling move with five points © Getty Images

After seeing many offloads and short passes miss the mark against France in Paris, it was great to see the Wallabies having some early success in this department in Dublin. It's fair to say the stats also show just how good the French defence was: the Wallabies threw 198 passes in each of the Wales and Ireland Tests, with 54-55% possession; yet with 62% possession against France, they threw just 176 passes to prompt the post-match suggestion from French journalists that the Wallabies were just a 'truck it up' team.

The Wallabies also got six more offloads away in Dublin, and there was also a marked difference between the number of passes and offloads executed by the forwards from Paris to Dublin.

The other major difference was the point of attack.

In Paris, Bernard Foley threw upwards of 30 passes to fewer than 10 from inside centre Christian Lealiifano; in Dublin, Foley threw just 14 passes to new centre Matt Toomua's 30. Greg Growden suggested this week that he'd like to see Toomua wear the No.10 jumper at Test level, and that's an idea worth plenty of thought, but the stats in Dublin showed the Wallabies were looking to attack from wider out, and also that Toomua took plenty of pressure off Foley at first receiver; no wonder the Kiwis have always preferred to call an inside centre a second five-eighth.

With the passes sticking in Dublin, the Wallabies found they were able to get back into the game quickly after they suddenly found themselves 17-0 down. Nick Phipps' first try certainly involved luck, but the two scored that followed involved nice passages of passing. Can the Wallabies turn this improvement in Dublin into something more substantial at Twickenham?

Back three positioning and general kicking game needs some adjustment

Ireland had plenty of success with their precise kicking game - both the contested midfield bomb and also the shorter chip kick, such as Jonathan Sexton's beauty for Simon Zebo to score the first try of the match. But a lot of this success came about because of the generous depth of the Australian back three. For reasons I'm still not really sure about, Israel Folau seemed to position himself incredibly deep for most of the game - thus leaving open acres of space in behind the Wallabies defence.

Here's an example from the eighth minute of the game; it was one of the first contested bombs Ireland launched. Their fullback, Rob Kearney, took a pass from winger Tommy Bowe back on his own 22, ran forward to the 40m line and put up a towering bomb.

You don't want isolated props trying to contest a midfield bomb © Image Supplied: Sky Sports / Fox Sports

You can see in the image that Kearney has had to come through a good deal of traffic to contest the catch, but look at the Wallabies he's contesting against: prop James Slipper and No.8 Ben McCalman. Slipper found himself in the secondary line of defence and he actually had a look to the back as he tracked toward where the ball was going to come down, expecting to see one of the back three coming forward. When he realised it was on him to make the contest, he did his best to be there as Kearney caught the kick over McCalman; Slipper was lucky not to be penalised for tackling Kearney in the air, which he most certainly did. But look at where Folau is at the point of the kick reception: only just outside his own 22m line, and a good 15 metres from the contest.

Below is another example from the second half, where Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw put through the chip kick into a vast amount of open space, forcing Wallabies front-rowers Sekope Kepu and Saia Fainga'a to track backwards. Fainga'a did complete the catch, and wheeled around to take the ball in to a ruck.

Where's Izzy? © Image Supplied: Sky Sports / Fox Sports

Again, Folau was stationed deep at the back, at least near his own 22 and out of shot in the image above. If we note the grass is mown in different directions at five-metre intervals, we can quickly work out that Folau is again at least 15 metres from where this ball came down.

The Wallabies will certainly need to wary of this next weekend at Twickenham, where England will all too keen to take advantage of such vast open space in behind the Australian defence. No wonder Bernard Foley has spoken already about bracing for an aerial assault by England.

These two examples also highlight one other difference between the Ireland and Australia in Dublin.

Ireland seemed to find open space with their kicks at will, while the Wallabies' kickers invariably put the pill straight down the throat of an Irish catcher - allowing them to run back at pace and either find ground through a staggered defence, or, indeed, launch yet another midfield bomb and create a contest.

This might be a value-add two lessons in one for the Wallabies.

The last 10 minutes are not for panicking

Michael Cheika was talking about the game in general, but he could easily have been talking about the last 10 minutes, when he said in the post-match press conference: "We drew in a lot of their players and created overlaps out wide but we just didn't execute the final pass well enough. We need to be able to finish those opportunities when we get into those positions. We just lack that clinical edge."

Richard Kelly, elsewhere on ESPN, has noted in his excellent stats analysis of the Wallabies' second-half stumbles how they are creating but not taking half-chances, and the last 10 minutes in Dublin provides a perfect snapshot: the Wallabies, chasing a match-winning try, lost all their attacking shape. I counted three knock-ons, a number of other passes going to ground, players over-running passes, and way too much overplaying of hands in that final portion of the game.

Just as calm heads and clear thinking was needed, the Wallabies showed anything but. Their final play of the match, when Adam Ashley-Cooper took the ball to ground in front of two Irish defenders with only Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale available for a clean-out, was perfectly illustrative. Ashley-Cooper was pinged for not releasing, and that was the match.

If the Wallabies do have designs on being at the pointy end of the Rugby World Cup next year, their decision-making and execution in similar situations must become a whole lot better than it was in Dublin.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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