Opinion: Wallabies impressively clear the first hurdle but tougher questions loom

Geoff Parkes
Carter Gordon and Ben Donaldson for Wallabies.

Carter Gordon and Ben Donaldson for Wallabies.

Australia’s opening 35-15 Pool C win over Georgia was impressive in many respects. The best way to approach a tricky opponent, intent upon dragging you into a type of game the polar opposite of how you wish to play, is to seize the initiative from the opening whistle. To show everyone who actually is boss.

The Wallabies did exactly this, dominating territory through effective long kicking and forcing the Georgians into conceding penalties. And where Australian Super Rugby sides and the Wallabies themselves, have favoured kicking to the corner in recent years, here was a pleasing acknowledgment that tournament rugby is more about accumulating points when they are offered.

As such, a 21-3 half-time lead had effectively killed the contest, and allowed Australia’s numerous sceptics and unbelievers to at least relax a little, and enjoy the second half.

Comfortable opening victory

Which is, as it happened, where things started to turn a little south, with some of the Wallabies’ familiar, nagging concerns resurfacing, albeit the comfortable final score of 35-15.

Chief among those concerns? Lack of impact off the bench for one, with four second-half lineouts being lost. More worrying though was the sight of Georgia’s fleet-footed back three making huge inroads in and around Australia’s porous outer defence.

This is a particular problem that has been evident in all six Test matches this year, under Eddie Jones and defensive coach, Brett Hodgson. Wingers Marika Koroibete, Mark Nawaqanitawase and Suliasi Vunivalu have all positioned themselves more centrally than what is conventional, providing a tempting amount of space for any side wishing to identify and exploit it.

That’s partly a function of a new side and new coaches needing time to bed in a fresh defensive system, but time is fast running out; both Fiji and Wales aren’t likely to be as accommodating as Georgia, with respect to their inability to finish off the try-scoring opportunities created.

After his ill-judged attempt at a tackle, vice-captain Tate McDermott will be missing for the Fiji match, and potentially the Lyon game against Wales as well, but that’s about where the bad news ended for the Wallabies.

Any thoughts of a pack of hairy, Georgian beasts dragging the Wallabies forwards into a grinding, mauling, scrumming slog, were smartly dispatched by a Wallabies scrum that operated as efficiently as any seen on opening weekend.

In Angus Bell and Taniela Tupou – approaching something near full fitness – the Wallabies have a pair of multi-dimensional props capable of smashing, open field running as much as they are dominating the scrum contest.

What a sight it was to see Tupou rediscover his love for eating up metres and showing off his prodigious ball skills. His right-handed hook pass for Ben Donaldson‘s first try grabbed most of the headlines, but it was Tupou dashing into half-back and ripping a left-hand pass off the ground in the first half, that took my breath away.

For as long as Bell and Tupou stay fit, and the rest of the pack builds off that solid foundation, the Wallabies will remain contenders.

Also impressive was new skipper Will Skelton, lugging his frame around the Stade de France sweatbox for 70 minutes, winning a rare lineout in the process, then putting a stop to a potentially dangerous Georgian driving maul in a stunning solo effort.

His demeanour at the post-match press conference showed all the signs of a man growing into the leadership role; trademark humility still evident, but now accompanied by a discernible growth in assuredness, and an understanding of what his status entails.

Jones’ selection of Donaldson at full-back drew criticism, and sympathy for the well-performed Andrew Kellaway, but Donaldson fully justified his boss’ faith in him, enjoying a fine match.

The notion that rookie fly-half Carter Gordon needs protecting is too simplistic. But it was evident that with Donaldson able to bring a kicking game that Kellaway doesn’t have, the two players complemented each other nicely, and taking some of the onus off Gordon is a sensible strategy.

It wasn’t all about the boot either; Gordon choosing his moment nicely and hitting Donaldson with a ripping pass of his left hand, to finish off a promising day’s work for both.

World Cups are all about the ability of nations to quickly set aside what has gone before – good and bad – and build into the next challenge. And with Fiji having fallen short against Wales, now thrust into virtual sudden-death elimination mode, what a challenge it will be, in St Etienne, on Sunday.

Following Wales’ thrilling 32-26 win, social media quickly became a lightning rod for conspiracy theorists lamenting the raw deal handed to Pacific nations, the overreach extending well beyond valid questions around referee Matthew Carley’s reluctance to be stricter on Wales for their repeated red zone infringements.

Having spent many hours in the coaching box alongside Michael Cheika, I expect Fiji coach Simon Raiwalui to understand how playing the victim – justified or not – is a forlorn pursuit. His side left plenty of points on the pitch in Bordeaux of their own accord, and it is their ability to fix the things that are under their own control, that will determine their fate against Australia.

There is no doubt that the Fijian Drua’s entry into Super Rugby has helped draw the two nations closer. A deeper talent pool has emerged, and the experience of playing from week to week, in a professional environment, with all of the rugby and non-rugby challenges that exist for young men from the islands, has gradually been absorbed and learned.

Goal-kicking worry for Fiji

Perhaps Fiji’s biggest concern is around goal-kicking, with the untimely loss of Caleb Muntz throwing too much pressure back on to Teti Tela; a talented player, but by some distance, Super Rugby’s worst goal-kicker.

That’s even more motivation for the Wallabies to keep accumulating points and keep Fiji under check on the scoreboard, forcing them to keep up in multiples of five.

That increased level of familiarity also works to the Wallabies’ advantage. It doesn’t make the crunching hits to the body any less painful, but Australian Super Rugby sides have developed a template that draws Fiji away from their preferred areas, and attempts to negate their power-running threats.

That’s the theory anyway. And we all know what happens to many of the best laid theories.

The Wallabies have impressively put one tricky opponent to bed, but have a far more imposing challenge on their hands, in Fiji. Pool C may not end up delivering the winner of the World Cup, but it did give us the match of the first round, and may well end up doing the same in round two.

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