Planet Rugby

Australia not yet convincing

28th June 2008 12:54

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Matt Giteau try v France

Gamebreaker! Matt Giteau dives for the opening try

Australia helped themselves to a 34-13 win over France's second team in Sydney on Saturday, notching four tries in the process, but the Deans revolution to Australian rugby is far from complete.

Bar a ten-minute purple patch just after half-time in which the Wallabies racked up 17 unanswered points, the teams were pretty evenly-matched. The French ought to have shaded the opening exchanges rather than just being level at 3-3 after half an hour.

Had they been possessed of a game-plan with which to attack the Wallabies, they would have been, but their superiority looked as though it surprised themselves more than anyone.

It was left to a moment of Matt Giteau genius to break the deadlock in the first half, and that ten minutes after half-time - in which the French missed an astonishing 13 tackles - sealed the win, but even thereafter the Wallabies made hard going of it.

The imprint of Robbie Deans on Australia is clear to see; in fact, the way in which the team went about - or rather, tried to go about - its business in the first 20 minutes meant the team could have been coached by very few others.

The emphasis was on quick ball at all costs, with frequent passes to exploit the width mixed with big, pacy, hitting runners up the 10-12 channel. As few players as possible were committed to attacking rucks in order to ensure plentiful and immediate forward support at all breakdowns, as well as a lack of obstructive cluttered flesh for the half-back player. The inside backs were encouraged to step inside and dummy and see if they couldn't make the defensive line crooked, and wingers encouraged to come off their wings to do the same. Once that chink was created, then the ball could go wide most effectively to exploit the space.

It is remarkably difficult to stop when it's done right, but there are two key elements: 1) that all players numbered 4-12 are possessed of the necessary ball-skill to produce quick, clean, and accurate scrum-half service so as to keep the forward momentum going and ensure the defence cannot re-align, and 2) that the ruckers both stay on their feet and do not drive over too enthusiastically and leave the ball exposed.

It's here that Australia are falling down in the way that, say, the Crusaders used not to. It is still probably a case of familiarity and match practice for most of the players, but the number of times the distribution from the back of a breakdown went awry - not just from Luke Burgess by any stretch of the imagination - in the first 20 minutes was alarming, as was the number of times the ball was exposed enough for the French to turn the ball over. Four turnovers alone in the first ten minutes tells its own story, and there were a number of penalties conceded for going off the feet (both teams were guilty here). The rucks did tighten up as a reaction, but the pace came off the Australian game as well.

Moreover, the set piece is not yet a finished article. The front row was twice penalised for being over-enthusiastic in its engagement timing early on, a couple of other times the props' driving angles were hideously upward, and some early line-outs were stolen with disturbing ease.

Perhaps it's unfair to compare a team Deans has coached for two matches to a team he coached for seven years, particularly given the irritating oscillation between the sets of laws, but the Australian media is unlikely to be thinking in terms of such clemency if the Wallabies' game stutters like this in the Tri-Nations. Deans has set his own bar at an extraordinary level, but the unforgiving urgency to deliver at national level is becoming more and more apparent to him.

France ought to have done more, plain and simple. They were sluggish and devoid of confidence during the first 20 minutes in which they were gifted some gems of turnover possession which just weren't used. Only after Dimitri Yachvili had levelled the scores at 3-3 did the spark come back into French play, in the form of an exhilarating series of offloads in tackles from the restart which could have yielded a try with better communication. Their start to the second half was soporific, and it let the game get far too far away to bother trying to catch up.

Tactically there isn't too much to analyse - the teams that contest the November internationals and next year's Six Nations will not feature many of these players - but Alexis Palisson is one to watch for the future (not many people step Lote Tuqiri in their first ten minutes of international rugby), François Trinh-Duc is not a centre, Imanol Harinordoquy is still immensely frustrating, and Louis Picamoles is set for great things. It also showed, as an aside, just how much needs to be invested at Biarritz to rejuvenate the club and players - all of the Basques in the French team played with the weight of the world on their shoulders

Giteau had missed a sitter from in front of the posts before he finally opened the scoring after 21 minutes when a French ball-carrier held on to the ball, but Yachvili equalised three minutes later when a Wallaby tackler refused to roll away. That was the scoring for most of the first half, but Giteau's opportunist spot of Chabal opposite him and burst of pace outside the 'caveman' gave Australia the try their superior possession and territory had earned.

The French had begun to slip off tackles a couple of minutes prior to that as Australia's runners kept up their assault, and Berrick Barnes would have scored had he not lost his footing under pressure from... erm... well, just lost his footing. Yachvili landed a penalty to make it 10-6 at the break.

Breaks by Burgess and Barnes, and then three well-controlled close-range rucks gave Nathan Sharpe a try jut after half-time, and French heads dropped. Elsom burst through what was little more than a swat from Damien Traille for the third try, and Stirling Mortlock picked off a pass that was more 20-80 than 50-50 from Trinh-Duc for the fourth.

It was better rugby from Australia, but it was not as fast as they wanted, and as a result, the French were able to fight their way back in. Palisson rounded off a superb debut with a try with fifteen minutes to go with Trinh-Duc converting, after which both teams seemed to think they had done their bit for the day.

Man of the match: For France, Alexis Palisson, Sebastian Bruno, and Lionel Nallet all played fine matches. In Australia's ranks, Peter Hynes, Cameron Shepherd, Rocky Elsom and George Smith all did well, but Berrick Barnes showed just how well he has converted from fly-half to centre by making several telling breaks and dummies and marking the novice François Trinh-Duc out of the game.

Moment of the match: Damien Traille's flap at Rocky Elsom. A moment of utter despondency and surrender.

Villain of the match: Nothing to report, despite some fun and frolics in the front row.

The scorers:

For Australia:

Tries: Giteau, Sharpe, Elsom, Mortlock

Cons: Giteau 4

Pens: Giteau 2

For France:

Try: Palisson

Con: Trinh-Duc

Pens: Yachvili 2

Australia: 15 Cameron Shepherd, 14 Peter Hynes, 13 Stirling Mortlock (c), 12 Berrick Barnes, 11 Lote Tuqiri, 10 Matt Giteau, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 George Smith, 6 Rocky Elsom, 5 Nathan Sharpe, 4 James Horwill, 3 Al Baxter, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Benn Robinson.

Replacements: 16 Adam Freier, 17 Ben Alexander, 18 Dean Mumm, 19 Phil Waugh, 20 Sam Cordingley, 21 Ryan Cross, 22 Adam Ashley-Cooper.

France: 15 Pepito Elhorga, 14 Alexis Palisson, 13 Damien Traille, 12 François Trinh-Duc, 11 Benjamin Thiéry, 10 Benjamin Boyet, 9 Dimitri Yachvili, 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, 7 Louis Picamoles, 6 Fulgence Ouedraogo, 5 Sébastien Chabal, 4 Lionel Nallet (c), 3 Benoît Lecouls, 2 Sébastien Bruno, 1 Lionel Faure.

Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Renaud Boyoud, 18 David Couzinet, 19 Mathieu Lièvremont, 20 Sébastien Tillous-Borde, 21 Thibault Lacroix, 22 David Janin.

Referee: Marius Jonker (South Africa)

Touch judges: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa), Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)

Television match official: Johann Meuwesen (South Africa)

Assessor: Wayne Erickson (Australia)

By Danny Stephens

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