It isn’t pretty, is it?
I don’t think any Wallabies supporter can pretend we go into this match in a position that even has a far-off, partly obscured, view of ‘ideal’. What’s more, to many of the readers and commenters on this site, the how-we-got-here has been a car crash unfurling in slow motion.
But let’s put that to one side for a minute. Let’s just focus on what’s happening tomorrow, and what’s changed this week to accommodate it.
A biggie is no doubt the loss of Captain Bam-Man, David Pocock — the best scavenger in the world and leader by example. In comes rookie Michael Hooper, who was part of an analysis of the three Aussie opensides that we ran during the Super season.
What was clear from that analysis is that Hooper plays a different game to Pocock, offering far more of a running option. Is this a silver lining, that like McCaw in last week’s Test, Hooper could busting the gain line and creating those attacking opportunities? Turnovers certainly weren’t easy to come by against the New Zealand pack last weekend.
The second biggie is the return of Quade. Can he and Barnes provide that extra threat that confuses and stretches the All Blacks defence? On a good day, there’s no doubt — remember what this pair did to France when they were last together.
Another fascinating dimension Quade brings is the psychological one. A negative one for him from the RWC semi-final no doubt, but don’t forget for the Kiwis as well. The bizarre and ugly overreaction of the New Zealand public against him is an echo of his playing opponent’s psyche. It’s rooted in fear and has so far been comforted by his failure. What happens if that turns around?
Notwithstanding his performance, any level of mental distraction that Cooper can inflict on such a well-oiled machine can only be a bonus for the Wallabies.
On the topic of mind games, recent IRB player of the year nominee Kurtley Beale‘s recent lack of form at international level looks less like a blip, and more of a symptom of something deeper. Tales of boozy incidents not confined to the one dealt with in court are in circulation. With Cooper bringing his attacking X-factor and defensive frailties, solidifying the back three looks a good move at this time.
Assuming his fitness (who’s 100 per cent convinced?) Drew Mitchell’s 58 caps of experience, nose for the try-line and flexibility of position are welcome back. Rob Horne neither embarrassed himself nor set the world alight last weekend. As his cap tally creeps up the teens and he hasn’t been injured for the last five minutes, is there an imminent pay-off?
To the tight five
On balance, and with a bit of faith, I can see why Timani retains his place. With Dennis and Higgers as lineout targets with Sharpey, another technical lock isn’t sorely missed. What is needed is a bone-crushing defender and ball runner to make up for Palu. Big Sita’s got the chassis — has he got the motor? There were a few glimpses last week that the answer could be ‘yes’. No other lock option supplies this potential, except for maybe the elderly Samo in cameos.
But if I could stretch to positives for Timani, I’m not finding it so easy up front. Sure, the Wallabies lose nothing with Squeaky Moore coming in — we could argue in circles forever that it’s a gain. But it’s at prop that the palpitations begin. Not being able to bring Palmer in for Kepu at tighthead is a crying shame. Benny A has spent 40 per cent of his playing time at tighthead this year, but I can’t help wanting to curl into the foetal position when I think about this part of our game. Join me behind the sofa at scrum time on Saturday.
But to end on some ‘happy thoughts’
First, much of the dread ahead of tomorrow night’s game is that it was only uncharacteristic All Blacks turnovers that kept the score respectable last weekend, and that won’t happen twice. However, they may be uncharacteristic, but not for the All Blacks this year.
As pointed out in a previous post, New Zealand were only above Scotland in the speed with which they made handling errors (one every 122 seconds). On Saturday they made one every 99 seconds of possession. The question will be whether the Wallabies can keep the pressure on to take advantage, having made one every 89 seconds!
The other was Alain Rolland’s refereeing of the breakdown. Twice he pinged New Zealand for an ‘all fall down’ past the ball, and Romano was found out for ‘doing a Nonu’ (interfering with defenders past the ruck). We can but hope this wasn’t isolated and this team of officials are under the same instruction.
Together with refs having finally cottoned on to loitering players ‘taking the space’ this year, are some the favoured All Black
cheats pushing of the boundaries finally being closed? Nigel Owens has the highest percentage of breakdown penalties against the defending team of any international ref this year (69 per cent versus an average of 54).
Am I grasping at straws? Maybe. But no matter what happens, tomorrow will be fascinating. Let’s just pray it’s not for the wrong (Wallabies) reasons.
Stats courtesy of www.ruckingoodstats.com
New Zealand: 15. Israel Dagg, 14. Cory Jane, 13. Ma’a Nonu, 12. Sonny Bill Williams, 11. Hosea Gear, 10. Dan Carter, 9. Aaron Smith, 8. Kieran Read, 7. Richie McCaw (c), 6. Liam Messam, 5. Sam Whitelock, 4. Luke Romano, 3. Owen Franks, 2. Keven Mealamu, 1. Wyatt Crockett.
Res: 16. Andrew Hore, 17. Ben Franks, 18. Brodie Retallick, 19. Victor Vito, 20. Piri Weepu, 21. Aaron Cruden, 22. Ben Smith.
Australia: 15 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 14 Drew Mitchell, 13 Rob Horne, 12 Berrick Barnes, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia (c), 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Dave Dennis, 5 Nathan Sharpe, 4 Sitaleki Timani, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Tatafu Polota Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Date: Saturday, 25 August
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19.35 (17.35 AEST, 07.35 GMT, 09.35 RSA time)
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Alain Rolland (Ireland), Lourens van der Merwe (South Africa)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)