Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Waratahs

Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Waratahs

As the Premiership prepared to kick off it’s return to play following the COVID-19 lockdown, Super Rugby AU entered Round 7 with the Western Force hosting the NSW Waratahs at “home” at the Cbus Super Stadium. The Waratahs were coming in off the back of a huge win over rivals the Reds, but after an early Will Harrison penalty, they found themselves behind to a try from Brynard Stander, who got on the end of a beautiful grubber kick by Richard Kahui. Harrison kicked a further 2 penalties to one from Force captain Ian Prior, before a break through the middle of the field saw Jake Gordan pulled down just short, only for Jack Maddocks to spread a wide pass from the back of the ruck to put Alex Newsome over in the corner, with Harrison converting to make it 8-16 at half time.

The ‘Tahs just missed out on another try before halftime after they were held up over the line with the final play of the half, but they scored soon after the break as Jack Maddocks intercepted a wide pass from Jono Lance on halfway and took it back to the house. With the Waratahs having a further 2 tries disallowed as the half went on (a second for Maddocks and one for Gordon) it looked like all the scoring may be done, but replacement prop Harry Johnson-Holmes burrowed over in the dying seconds to secure a 8-28 win.

Thrown away

New Wallabies head coach Dave Rennie must be having nightmares at the thought of selecting hookers right now and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him trying to beg Stephen Moore to come out of retirement. While so many roles in the game have gone from being position-specific to being performed by everyone, the role of throwing in at the lineout remains one of those key tasks that separates the hookers from the rest of the team.

The problem though, is that nobody in Australia seems able to throw a reliable lineout. Brandon Paenga-Amosa had a horror-show against the Waratahs last week, while the Brumbies have struggled to utilise their driving maul as much as they’d like due to issues with Folau Fainga’a and Connal McInerney throwing in. In this match, the Force managed to win only 10 out of 18 lineouts on their own throw, which was costly in this game. And while the ‘Tahs were a little more reliable, 77% (7/9) is still well below the percentages you would want and expect.

Lacking a reliable lineout massively impacts your game. The obvious downside is that it takes away a great attacking platform, but it is so much worse. It heavily limits your options with penalties in attacking positions if you know there is a good chance you will lose possession, prompting you to go for a scrum (always a gamble with the way they are refereed), a tap r settle for 3 points. At a defensive penalty, you may not want to clear your lines for touch if you think that the ball will be turned over and just ran back at you, leading to you playing from dangerously deep in an attempt to keep some possession.

With a number of experienced lineout operators leaving Australia (with Rob Simmons off to London Irish after the tournament, that will be all 4 of the Wallabies locks from the World Cup squad playing in Europe) there will be a lot of pressure on the Wallabies’ hookers at lineout time. Dave Rennie – and the Super Rugby franchises – desperately need an improvement from their hookers.

Competition or support?

The loss of international matches due to the COVID-19 pandemic and this being the start of a new World Cup cycle mean that Dave Rennie will have some big decisions to make when selecting his first Wallabies squad. One of the biggest being at a key position: fly half. With Bernard Foley and Christian Leali’ifano now out of the way, Rennie will have to decide whether he goes with an experienced head like Matt To’omua or James O’Connor, or look at a more long-term option in Will Harrison or Noah Lolesio – though Harrison would appear the more likely option given Lolesio is missing much of the competition with injury.

Harrison is looking a very good fly half and has been near-perfect off the tee so far in the competition. However he is not the most physical fly half by any means so would likely be seen as a target in defence, while he also often plays a little deeper for the Waratahs, picking his moments to come flat to the line. The solution to these issues may have been given however by the form of Karmichael Hunt. Having not started in the Waratahs XV at the beginning of the tournament, Hunt has made their 12 jersey his own. He provides a physical option at centre but also helps take the pressure off of Harrison with his ability to distribute the ball, often coming in at first receiver and taking the ball flatter to the line. The New Zealand squads have focused mainly on a 10/15 playmaker axis during Super Rugby Aotearoa, but it could easily work the same way with a 10/12 axis – providing the players around them do their job as runners – with one player coming flat to the line with runners, and the other hanging deeper to spread the ball if the defence bites in on the runners.

Hunt’s form has certainly put him in the picture to return to the Wallabies squad, but there would also be the opportunity to utilise the versatility of To’omua or O’Connor at 12. I feel confident that we will see this from Rennie, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see Harrison coming off the bench later in the game, with O’Connor or To’omua starting at 10 and shifting out a position when Harrison comes on. Personally, I would do that against the All Blacks, who I feel will be dominant in the upcoming Rugby Championship, but starting Harrison and one of the trio against South Africa and Argentina, with another of the trio on the bench who can either come on to replace either Harrison or the inside centre depending on how the match is going.

Wasteful Force

The Force will come away from this one disappointed, especially to have not scored a point in the second half. It would take a miracle for them to avoid finishing bottom of the table, and their focus needs to be on getting a win under their belts in these last 3 rounds. That’s certainly not impossible, but they need to cut out errors.

Obviously, improving the lineout will go a long way to help, but the team were also somewhat wasteful at times. While Stander’s try came from a great grubber by Richard Kahui (which maybe took a lucky last bounce), there were occasions where the Force were too quick to put boot to ball… and it cost them dearly.

A scrum in a good attacking position came to nothing as Kahui tried another grubber in behind, only to put too much on it and see the ball go dead, while Godwin made a great break and then wasted it by kicking on when he thought the defence were about to catch him. One of the big features of rugby union is that there is no 6 tackles like rugby league or 4 downs like american football. The Force do not have to score off the first phase and would benefit from going through the phases. You don’t have to look any further than Newsome’s try in this game, where Jake Gordon could have kicked as the defence approached, but instead chose to keep hold of the ball and recycle, leading tot he try being scored on the very next phase.

The Force have shown that they deserve to be in the competition, a little more composure could get them that elusive first win.

feat rugby Super Rugby AU logo

Super Rugby AU: Reds v Waratahs

Super Rugby AU: Reds v Waratahs

As Super Rugby Aotearoa prepares for its 4ᵗʰ week of action, Australia kicked off its own domestic tournament, Super Rugby AU, as they continue to get over the COVID-19 pandemic. The tournament sees the 4 Australian Super Rugby franchises (the Reds, Rebels, Brumbies and Waratahs) and axed Super Rugby franchise the Western Force combine for a 10-round, 5-team round-robin tournament similar to Super Rugby Aotearoa, but with a 2-week playoff at the end involving the top 3 teams in the standings.

The tournament kicked off at Suncorp Stadium with a match between North/South rivals the Queensland Reds and New South Wales Waratahs. After both packs traded early tries, the Reds took control with another 2 tries from Filipo Daugunu and Tate McDermott to take a 19-13 halftime lead. They were slow out of the blocks after halftime, however, and as their discipline disappeared, a great line from Jack Maddocks saw him cross for the the Waratahs’ second try and – though the Reds crossed again through Harry Wilson – the flawless kicking off the tee from fly half Will Harrison saw things all square with just 10 minutes late. The Reds ended the stronger, though, and 2 late penalties from James O’Connor saw them come away with a 32-26 victory, ending a run of 11 consecutive losses to the ‘Tahs.

 

No pushovers

Just last week, I wrote about the importance of a dominant pack at the set piece. While the lineout had issues (certainly not helped by the early loss of lock Angus Blyth) the scrum was an area of serious success for the Reds.

The Tahs chose to start with 19-year-old Angus Bell at loosehead and the poor kid was taken to school by Reds tighthead Taniela Tupou. He may be widely known as the “Tongan Thor” but at 5’9″ he is like a rhinoceros, and found it easy to get underneath 6’4″ Bell, allowing him to dominate the right hand side of the scrum. By the 30 minute mark, Bell had been penalised at the scrum 4 times and was finding himself sent to the sin bin.

The scrum is such a key component of the game and important weapon. While Tupou was certainly a big weapon at the scrum, it was a team effort, with a big second push from the pack often putting the ‘Tahs on the back foot. The Reds will be very happy with their performance here and hoping to repeat again in Melbourne next week. The Waratahs meanwhile, will have to decide whether to put Bell in again next week against the Western Force, or whether they take him out of the firing line for a week.

Kick out the new laws

Fans watching Super Rugby AU will notice some differences to how the game is usually played as the tournament is trialling a number of new laws. The 3 that I’m going to focus on right now are as follows:

  • Play will be restarted with goal line drop-outs following an attacking player being held up over the line (replacing 5m scrum)/the ball being grounded by the defending team over their own goal line, regardless of who took the ball over the line (replacing 2 drop-out/5m scrum)
  • If a player successfully kicks the ball from inside their own 22 to bounce into touch inside the opponents’ half, the kicking team will throw into the lineout
  • If a player successfully kicks the ball from inside their own half to bounce into touch inside the opponents’ 22, the kicking team will throw into the lineout

Now, I will start by admitting that I was not a fan of these law trials when they were initially announced and remain sceptical, but I am giving them a fair chance. One match in and I’m not convinced.

There was a moment in the second half when Michael Hooper found himself caught behind his own goal line after getting back to field a kick. Usually, this would have meant that a dominant Reds pack would have had a 5m scrum in the middle of the pitch, which feels like it would have ended in a try and perhaps even a numerical advantage. Instead, under the new law trial, the Waratahs were allowed to clear their lines and the Reds found themselves getting possession back over 40m from the line. How is that rewarding a good kick chase from the Reds?!

As for the 50/22 and 22/50 kicks, I was surprised that there weren’t more attempts from players to go for these, but the 2 that did pay off from the Reds – a 50/22 from Tate McDermott that got a lucky bounce to take it to 10m out from the Waratahs’ line, and a 22/50 from Bryce Hegarty – twice gave the Reds possession that did not feel earned at all.

I understand making changes to benefit the game, but these changes felt unnecessary when announced and one match in I can’t see how these are improving the game.

Golden future

The Wallabies have not been great for a while and with an ageing squad and Michael Cheika gone, it wouldn’t surprise me if new Head Coach Dave Rennie brings in a number of younger players early in this 4-year cycle with the intention of building for RWC2023. Judging by this game, the future could be bright for the Wallabies.

There were already a handful of young players in or around the national team, such as Jack Maddox and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto (23), Tupou (24), and Liam Wright (22), as well as 20-year-old Jordan Petaia, who was not involved in this match, but there were also a number of other young players putting their hands up for selection.

Will Genia will be hard to replace, but Tate McDermott (21) looked fantastic, keeping a good tempo to the attack, while showing his wheels when given space and also some quick thinking to take a quick-tap penalty after a series of scrum penalties, when everyone was just expecting another scrum. Flyhalf has been a bit of a mess for the national team for a while, but Will Harrison (20) looked composed taking the ball to the line and was flawless off the tee to keep the ‘Tahs in the game.

Elsewhere on the pitch, Fijian-born wing Filipo Daugunu (25) – who recently turned down a lucrative contract in Japan with a view to wearing the green and gold – showed some good moments in attack and took his try well. Waratahs flanker Lachlan Swinton may have conceded one of the winning penalties by straying offside in the dying minutes, but he put in an otherwise great performance, really filling the role of enforcer at blindside with some big tackles, while also making the pass that put Jack Maddocks through for a try.

If these players can carry on with performances of this level, international recognition can’t be far off – once international rugby returns!

feat rugby Super Rugby AU logo

The RWC2019 Debrief: Australia

The RWC2019 Debrief: Australia

Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.

I will be going through these debriefs alphabetically, so today I will be casting my eye over Australia.

RWC2019 Qualification

Australia qualified by finishing in the top 3 of their pool at RWC2015, where they went all the way to the final.

2019 Form

The build-up to this tournament was a mixed one for the Wallabies. Having to move on from Israel Folau following his dismissal for his homophobic social media posts, they finished 2nd in the Rugby Championship, coming back from a loss in South Africa to win at home against Argentina before a shock 47-26 victory over New Zealand in Perth, however they then fell to the All Blacks 36-0 in Auckland a week later. They finished off their preparations for the World Cup with a 34-15 win over Samoa.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (2nd in Pool D)
    • Australia 39-21 Fiji
    • Australia 25-29 Wales
    • Australia 45-10 Uruguay
    • Australia 27-8 Georgia
  • Quarterfinal
    • England 40-16 Australia

The mixed results from Australia continued into the World Cup. The early stages of their match against Fiji saw them struggling against the Islanders and they were lucky not to lose Reece Hodge in the first half for a high tackle on Peceli Yato. Yato’s failed HIA and a scrum dominance for the Wallabies helped them take control and a swap from Nic White to Will Genia at scrum half helped secure the victory, though they did lose Hodge for the rest of the pool stages due to a 3-match ban. They again struggled early against Wales, but a swap from Bernard Foley to Matt To’omua helped get the Wallabies back in the game – just too late to get the victory. Two victories in their last 2 games confirmed their place in the quarters, but against Georgia they were heavily penalised and 2 late tries helped tilt the scoreline in their favour. Going into the knockouts, 2 Jonny May tries gave England a lead in the first half and while Marika Koroibete scored soon after the break, Kyle Sinckler’s quick response took the wind out of their sails, while a series of penalties and unnecessary risks killed off the game.

While Michael Cheika did a wonderful job coming in ahead of the last World Cup and taking them from poor performances to finalists, the team for this tournament was nowhere near the level that they arguably should have been. Bernard Foley had been pretty mucht he only fly half used throughout the 4 year cycle, but was suddenly dropped at the last minute, leading to a revolving door at the position between him, To’omua and Christian Lealiifano, with none of them able to get enough time to build any modicum of stability. This wasn’t helped by a similar rotation at scrum half, where Nic White’s return suddenly saw him and Will Genia swapping regularly. The constant chopping and changing in the halfbacks meant that the Wallabies were always going to struggle against a competitive team.

The 2015 tournament is well remembered for the way that Michael Hooper and David Pocock combined in the back row, leading to a trend of teams playing two 7s in their back row. The pair struggled to replicate the performances in 2019 however, and I think that comes down to the selection of an attacking 8 in Isi Naisarani, who did a good job in the tournament but did not do the same job of relentlessly tackling everyone for “Pooper” to jackal over that Scott Fardy did in 2015. While the scrum was often a strength and physical backs like Samu Kerevi and Koroibete did a great job of helping to put the team on the front foot, there was not enough control around them to take advantage of it on a regular basis.

Looking Ahead

First things first is going to be finding a new head coach. It has already been announced that Michael Cheika will not be continuing in the role. I have felt for a while that the coaching has been holding the team back so it will be important to get the right person in that will give the squad stability and get them playing the right way.

It will be very interesting to see what happens with this squad, as the back line may be full of experience, but many of them will likely be past their prime come 2023. Of the backs in the World Cup squad, only Reece Hodge and Jordan Petaia will be under 30 by the time the next tournament comes around. The core of that back line has been together for a long time and with some players like Will Genia set to move on, this is an opportune moment to start cultivating a new young team that has not been heavily impacted by the ups and downs of the current regime.

Things are a little rosier in the pack, where there a plenty of younger talents coming through already despite players like David Pocock, James Slipper and Sekope Kepu reaching the end of their international careers. The scrum has been an area of the game that has vastly improved over the last 5 years and that will be a great weapon to build on over the next 2 years, while Tolu Latu, Jordan Uelese, Allan Alaalatoa, Taniela Tupou, Jack Dempsey, Naisarani and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto will be seasoned veterans by the time the next tournament comes around.

The next head coach has a big task on their hands, but there is plenty of talent available to create a strong team quickly.

Hodge/Yato: What A Mess

Hodge/Yato: What A Mess

As we reach the 3rd round of World Cup matches, we have been blessed with plenty of fantastic rugby, even if the heat and humidity has led to a high number of handling errors. However, all that rugby was overshadowed in the news for the best part of a week, focusing on just a couple of seconds on the pitch.

The second match of the tournament saw Australia take on Fiji in a match that I thought had the potential to be the big upset of the tournament. It certainly looked like it could go that way, as Fiji started strong and had control for much of the first half. With 25 minutes on the clock and the score at 7-11 to Fiji, the islanders released Peceli Yato – who to this point had been the best player on the pitch – down the 5m channel following a lineout. The back row made good ground, before eventually being felled by a combination of Nic White and Reece Hodge. While White’s tackle was fine, Hodge’s didn’t look right on first viewing and it looked even worse as the broadcasters replayed it. There was little (to none) attempt to wrap an arm and there was clearly contact with Yato’s head – so much so that Yato was forced off the field for a HIA, which he failed!

Now let’s take a moment here to remind ourselves of the new high tackle framework that was brought in at the end of last season:

rugby high tackle framework

Apply that to the Hodge tackle. Is there foul play? Yes. Is it a shoulder charge or high tackle? The framework describes a shoulder charge as the tackling arm being behind the body or in a sling position, so while there is no real attempt to wrap – High Tackle. Shoulder/arm? Shoulder. Direct to the head/neck? Yes. Degree of danger? Hodge is attempting a dominant tackle – High. Before looking for mitigating factors, are there any aggravating factors? Hodge has a clear line of sight in open space – Yes. As there are aggravating factors, mitigating factors do not come into consideration. Result: RED CARD

So what happened in the match? Well apparently nothing. Play appeared to continue without referee Ben O’Keeffe referring the challenge to TMO Rowan Kitt – O’Keeffe would have been largely unsighted as he was behind Yato – or Kitt intervening in the game. So Fiji lost one of their stars and Australia, who should have played over half the game a man down, kept 15 men on the field. Even more galling, Hodge went on to contribute 8 points in a 39-21 victory. It was later revealed that the challenge was referred to the TMO, but Kitt felt that it was acceptable. Given that the referral wasn’t clear to TV viewers, it must have been the most cursory look from Kitt and I struggle to see how he could have not felt that this deserved even a penalty according to the framework if he was doing his job properly.

Unsurprisingly, Hodge was cited following the match and ended up with a 3-week ban (cut down from 6 weeks).

feat rugby hodge yato

While this could have been everything and the end of a poor moment from the TMO, the story only continues as reactions came in to the citing and ban. Michael Cheika blasted the Fijian coaches for being nice to his face and going behind his back to report the tackle to the citing commissioners. This is such a pathetic argument as the coaches have no responsibility to tell Cheika they are referring the incident, while it is hard to imagine the citing commissioner would not have chosen to review the incident anyway. Cheika also refused to accept that the challenge was a red card – even when saying they will not appeal the ban. The framework clearly proves that it was a red card, but as Cheika said following a penalty against Samu Kerevi in Australia’s match against Wales “I honestly don’t know the rules anymore.” – Pretty embarrassing for the head coach of a Tier 1 international team.

Things only got worse as the report form the tribunal made note that Hodge was unaware of the high tackle framework. As I said to some of my friends who were keeping up with the tournament, if a fan like me can have a copy of the framework saved to their phone (yes, I need a life) then there is no excuse for a professional playing for a Tier 1 nation to not know the framework. I would have also thought that given the number of players who were given red cards during the World Rugby U20 Championship, teams would have made sure their players were aware of the framework. Poor from the player, poor from the coaches. But even without knowing the framework, a tackle that involves contact with a ball carrier’s head has not been legal for years… there was no excuse to tackle that high.

Sadly, it wasn’t just Michael Cheika questioning the merits of a red card. Commentating on the match, Ben Kay chose to praise Hodge for putting in a hit rather than comment on the illegality of it. Clive Woodward went even further following the ban to tweet that it was a yellow card at most. If even the officials, pundits and commentators can’t stick to World Rugby’s frameworks when looking at an incident, what hope has the general public got of understanding what is legal? With player safety such a big issue, things need to improve.

Sadly in this case, Yato’s failed HIA meant that he was unavailable for Fiji’s loss to Uruguay that has effectively ended their chances of making the quarterfinals. Reece Hodge will miss Australia’s remaining pool games but return for the knockouts. Looking at everyone involved in this affair, it’s hard to argue that anyone comes out a winner.

RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool D

RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool D

We are just days away from the start of the Rugby World Cup and we now know the players who will be on show. With the 31-man squads finalised, it’s time to start taking a look at the squads and looking at who will stand out during this tournament. In 2015, Nehe Milner-Skudder made his all Blacks debut in August, before going on to be a star of the tournament and make the tournament dream team, along with Japanese fullback Ayumu Goromaru, who definitely wasn’t known to the masses before the tournament.

With so many people who aren’t die-hard rugby fans set to watch the tournament, or many whose knowledge is maybe limited to their own nation’s players, I decided to do something similar to my Players to Watch in the Six Nations article, and expand that to each team of the World Cup. While I try to watch as much rugby as I can around the world, you’ll see that even I have blank spots as I select some players that may be bigger names in their teams, but they still may be lesser-known names to the wider public.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


Who are you looking out for during the tournament? And so we make it to Pool D:

Australia

Samu Kerevi may have 20+ caps to his name already, but I would argue that he has never really made a name for himself until this season. Though the Reds failed to make the playoffs this season, Kerevi finished in the top 10 for carries (220 – 1st), clean breaks (26 – 5th), defenders beaten (71 – 2nd) and offloads (26 – 2nd). He has carried that form into the Rugby Championship and has surely secured himself a spot in the Wallabies midfield.

Wales

The Wales squad has been relatively settled in recent years, allowing all the players to establish themselves, but for this I have gone for Josh Navidi. Having competed for minutes with Martyn Williams and Sam Warburton, he is a great openside flanker, who is at home anywhere in the back row – giving Warren Gatland more options with Taulupe Faletau out injured. Dangerous at the breakdown, he is also well accomplished at holding a player up to turn the ball over with a maul and his skills with ball in hand are massively underrated.

Georgia

Vasil Lobzhanidze was going to be my pick here, until I got the chance to watch Georgia’s warm-up matches against Scotland. While watching this, fly half Tedo Abzhandadze caught my eye and I was shocked to find that he was already a regular starter for the senior side despite being just 20 years old. Captain of the Georgian U20s team that beat Scotland and Fiji in the most recent World Rugby U20s Championship, the young 10 showed his range of skills at Murrayfield and controlled the game well. Now the question will be how he holds up in a major senior international tournament.

Fiji

I was going to write about rugby league convert Semi Radradra initially, but when push came to shove I couldn’t ignore Viliame Mata. The Edinburgh number 8 was named Players’ Player of the Year at the end of season Pro14 awards. Part of the Fiji 7s squad that won Gold at Rio 2016, he is an incredible danger in the loose with his strong running and ridiculous offloads. The thought of him, Semi Kunatani and Leone Nakarawa in the pack together is mouth-watering!

Uruguay

Probably one of the hardest to pick due to my own unfamiliarity with the Uruguayans. While I was tempted to go for Gastón Mieres, one of the Uruguayans making a name for themselves in Major League Rugby, I found myself instead picking Felipe Berchesi. Playing for Dax, who were just relegated from Pro D2, he is used to a decent level of rugby, while he has over 30 caps for Uruguay including 3 starts at RWC2015 and also featured at the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens.


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Will you be picking any of these players in your squad?

Eyes On: Australia v Samoa – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Australia v Samoa – RWC2019 Warm-ups

With their first World Cup match just weeks away, Australia finished off their series of warm-up games by taking on Samoa in Sydney. The Wallabies made a number of changes for this match but still took a 22-3 lead with tries from Adam Coleman, Marika Koroibete, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto. Samoa made a comeback after the break with a brace from Dwayne Polataivaia, before 2 late tries from Dwayne Haylett-Petty and Matt To’omua secured a 34-15 victory.

Australia

Despite making a number of changes, Australia’s attack was great to watch in this match, especially the first half. They kept a high tempo, which really caused the Samoan defence issues as it stopped them getting reset.

A big part of the way they kept the tempo high was by not waiting for the scrum half to reach the breakdown, instead trusting the forwards to assess the situation, realise that the ruck had been won and get the ball out to the backs themselves. Not only that, but 6 of the starting pack ran for 10+ metres in this game. This was a set of forwards who were comfortable on the ball and were trusted to do what is right.

Now it is just a matter of waiting to see if this approach continues in the World Cup. It’s one thing letting the team play freely against a team you are confident of beating; its something entirely different to take the risk of playing with less structure in a big game against a stingy defence.

Samoa

Watching the first half, I was shocked by how far Samoa had fallen. The team that was famous for hard runners and hard hitters like the Tuilagi Brothers and Brian Lima has fallen so far over the last couple of cycles, to the point that they only qualified for the World Cup via the repechage. I remember a team that were always going to be a physical challenge but also play great rugby and simply lack the organisation and discipline to regularly beat the Tier 1 nations. Watching this game, there was nobody putting in the hits, players were dropping off tackles everywhere (Koroibete’s try was embarrassing defence from Samoa) and there was very little to write home about in attack.

Things quickly changed in the second half, though, as Paul Alo-Emile and Logovi’i Mulipola came on for Michael Alaalatoa and Jordan Lay in the front row. The impact was immediate, as they began to take control of the scrum, which led to a try just a few minutes later as they forced a wheel that allowed them to break down the blind side for Polataivaia’s first try. That try really seemed to flip a switch and bring back a little of the old Samoa. They suddenly looked up for a fight and quickly scored again through Polataivaia, while Australia were forced to regroup in order to get back in control.

Pool A is one of the more open groups. Ireland and Scotland would be expected to qualify for the knockouts with Japan coming 3ʳᵈ, but if Samoa can regularly play like in the first 20 minutes of the second half, then they could definitely put themselves in the mix.


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RWC2019: Predicting the Australia Squad

RWC2019: Predicting the Australia Squad

With club rugby over for another season, the thoughts of many fans have been turning towards the upcoming World Cup and the squads that their teams will be selecting. However, for the teams of the Rugby Championship, their focus has had to be initially on a shortened version of their annual tournament.

Australia were not in a good place in the build-up to the 2015 World Cup, but Michael Cheika’s appointment a year before the tournament righted the ship and saw them make it out of a strong group to finish as losing finalists. Now, Australia are in a bad spot again with just 4 Test victories in 2018, while they have also lost one of their star players in Israel Folau after his social media outbursts. A huge win over New Zealand in the Rugby Championship suggested some light at the end of the tunnel, but questions remain after they were held scoreless at Eden Park a week later. In a pool containing Wales, Fiji and Georgia, they will need to get the selections right if they want to avoid embarrassment in the tournament.

As I have done with a number of other nations, I will be continuing my “Journey to RWC2019” series one final squad prediction: the Wallabies. With the Rugby Championship being so close to the World Cup, I am using the squads they have picked for this tournament as the basis for my squads, but I have also looked at some notable names who have not been selected to this point. To remind you, this is not the squad that I would pick, but instead the squad that I think Michael Cheika will take.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


So without further ado, I predict that Australia’s 31-man squad for the World Cup will be:

Hooker

Folau Fainga’a had a huge season for the Brumbies, finishing with 12 Super Rugby tries (3rd most in the tournament). Tolu Latu has been a regular of late, but off field issues may hamper him here. I think that he will still make the squad, especially following his performance against New Zealand, provided that there are no further issues, but I also expect them to take Tatafu Polota-Nau, who may not have had the best of seasons with Leicester but brings a lot of experience to the squad, making it in ahead of Jordan Uelese, who has had limited chances in the national team.

Prop

Scott Sio has been a regular starter for the Wallabies of late, so will make the plane, while the other 3 regulars in the 23 have been Sekope KepuAllan Alaalatoa and the “Tongan Thor” himself, Taniela Tupou. Though there is already plenty of caps in this group, I think that the Wallabies’ recent struggles will see them look to another experienced operator for the final spot, which will lead to a spot on the plane for James Slipper, who had a strong Rugby Championship.

Second Row

So to start with, let me make it very clear: If Will Skelton suddenly returns to Australia, then he makes the squad as he has probably been in the best form of his career this season with Saracens. However as a return has only been rumoured, I will be basing this on the idea that he is not eligible. Adam Coleman and Izack Rodda have been regular starters, while Rob Simmonds has also been a regular in the 23. Rory Arnold takes the final spot, but he needs to hope that Will Skelton doesn’t get himself a contract back in Australia.

Back Row

Ned Hanigan’s omission from the Rugby Championship squad appears to suggest that he has dropped down the pecking order, despite his ability to also cover at lock. As captain, Michael Hooper is an obvious pick, as is the best 7 in the world, David Pocock, provided he recovers from injury in time. Pete Samu had a strong season for the Brumbies and will surely make the squad if he can recover from the injury that saw him come off at halftime in their Super Rugby quarterfinal. Jack Dempsey appeared to be the incumbent in the 6 jersey but appears to have dropped down the pecking order. Instead, it looks like Isi Naisarani and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto will be on the flight to Japan as they have made a strong trio with Hooper in Pocock’s absence. Should Pocock or Samu fail to recover in time for the tournament, I think that Reds jackal Liam Wright and Luke Jones (who is listed among the locks but was a regular on the bench in the back row position during the Rugby Championship) will come in to replace their respective stars.

Scrum Half

Such has been the Wallabies’ reliance on Will Genia, there is no way he doesn’t travel if he is not fit. Given how little time on the pitch any other scrum halves have been given in the national team over recent years, I think that Cheika will only take one other specialist at the position. Nick Phipps has usually been the go-to backup of late, but his omission from the Rugby Championship squad suggests that he is out of the reckoning. Joe Powell has been the other Australian-based option and benefits from a strong season for the Brumbies, however I think that his kicking game is questionable and could lead to him missing out on the biggest stage this time around. Instead, I think that Nic White’s return to his homeland and regular appearances in the Rugby Championship have secured his place in the squad, as he has a strong tactical kicking game and has spent recent season playing in a very successful Exeter side.

Fly Half

After a strong start to the season, things went downhill for Quade Cooper and his omission from the Rugby Championship squad and the subsequent announcement of his upcoming move to Japan means that we have likely seen the end of his international career. Bernard Foley has been the go-to at 10 for much of the current World Cup cycle so is certain to travel, while it looks like he may have lost the starting spot at the eleventh hour to the Brumbies’ Christian Lealiifano, who has made a great return to the squad.

Centre

The Wallabies have usually taken 4 centres to recent tournaments, but due to the versatility of some players, I think that they will take 5 in this squad. Samu Kerevi was one of the stars of this season’s Super Rugby and has carried his form into the Test matches, while Tevita Kuridrani brings experience and will be a good backup to him. Kurtley Beale’s versatility (being able to cover 10, 12, 13 and 15) will see him in the squad, along with Matt To’omua, who again provides cover at fly half. James O’Connor has revitalised his career with Sale and has likely earned himself the 13 shirt following a great return to the Wallabies starting XV in their win over New Zealand, despite a quieter performance a week later.

Back 3

Dane Haylett-PettyMarika Koroibete and Reece Hodge have all been regulars in recent squads, so I expect them to all travel despite Haylett-Petty appearing to have dropped down the pecking order. Beyond that, Folau’s sacking makes things very interesting for the final positions. Adam Ashley-Cooper is highly experienced and versatile, and his inclusion at Eden Park makes me think that he will earn a spot in the squad alongside Tom Banks (2nd in Super Rugby this season for carries and metres carried, 9th for defenders beaten), meaning that Jack Maddocks, (10 tries was the joint-5th highest in this season of Super Rugby) just misses out.

Who do you think will make it to Japan?


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Eyes On: New Zealand v Australia – Bledisloe Cup Game 2

Eyes On: New Zealand v Australia – Bledisloe Cup Game 2

With the shorter Rugby Championship over for another season, we had the reverse of last weekend’s fixtures begin with Australia’s trip to Eden Park. Last week, the Wallabies dominated 14-man New Zealand, but the All Blacks had made some changes for this match and looked much more dangerous from the off, taking an early lead through the boot of Richie Mo’unga. While Australia worked their way into the game, an errant display off the tee from Christian Leali’ifano kept them scoreless, while New Zealand scored 2 quick tries through Mo’unga and Aaron Smith for a 17-0 halftime lead. It was more of the same after the break as New Zealand kept Australia scoreless while scoring a further 3 tries themselves on the way to a 36-0 victory.

 

New Zealand

Back when South Africa beat New Zealand in the 2018 Rugby Championship, I suggested that the All Blacks needed to become more pragmatic and be willing to kick the points. In this match, we saw a different side of the team, and they looked so much better for it. While they were willing to put points on the board by kicking penalties rather than going for the corner, Richie Mo’unga – who looked more comfortable at 10 this week – was happy to put the ball in behind the Wallabies defensive line, with some of his kicks to the corner causing Australia real problems. They even almost got a try off one of these kicks as it held up just metres from the line and forced Reece Hodge to play the ball under pressure. The kicking game did not give the Wallabies a chance to counter and did a great job of keeping the momentum with the men in black.

This is not to say that the All Blacks didn’t use their back line and still attack in the usual way. They did plenty of that too – to great effect – but the important thing was that between the forwards making hard yards (most notably Ardie Savea), the backs cutting through the defence and a strong kicking game, the All Blacks had the right balance that suddenly makes them look much more dangerous again with the World Cup just around the corner.

Australia

Last week, Australia were on fire, they looked like they were fighting for their lives and looked dominant. This week, it was not an awful performance, but the errors crept back in. Too many balls went to floor, most notably when an Australia attack was ended by a Reece Hodge drop that was picked up by Mo’unga and ran back for the opening try. While the pass dropped low to make it a difficult catch, Hodge was too flat and being just a couple of steps further back would have allowed him to take the ball and continue the attack, potentially changing the shape of the game. If Australia can cut out the errors and do the basics right, they look a very dangerous team.

More than that though, they also need to cut out the stupid penalties. Jaco Peyper was very kind to them today as he twice allowed them to get away with taking out New Zealand players well beyond the ruck, while he also gave just a scrum after Izack Rodda knocked on and a teammate picked the ball up from a clearly offside position. Despite this, they still gave away 9 penalties… too many for a side that wants to win the big matches. The Wallabies really need to sort out their discipline if they want to make it past the World Cup quarterfinals.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

Usually I try to stick to 2 players from each team in this section, but today I felt that I needed to take a moment to mention 4 All Blacks. Whether they were dropped or just rested as Steve Hansen looks at his options, Owen Franks, Ben Smith and Reiko Ioane will have been worried about their starting spots watching the great performances of Nepo LaulalaSevu Reece and George Bridge. In the absence of Scott Barrett and Brodie Retallick, Patrick Tuipulotu put in a strong performance – including muscling Kurtley Beale back over the All Blacks try line in the first half – and surely confirmed his spot as the fourth choice lock – assuming Retallick is fit. Moving over to the Wallabies, Tolu Latu had another strong performance that included a very smart kick downfield and I think he may be securing the starting hooking spot, while Taniela Tupou did a good job of helping solidify the scrum following Allan Alaalatoa’s injury.

Moving onto the players who will be a little more nervous, Ben Franks may be a risk of missing the cut following the performances of Laulala and replacement Angus Ta’avao, while Jack Maddocks looks like he has fallen behind Adam Ashley-Cooper in the pecking order. Of those who were actually involved in the match, Richie Mo’unga ha a strong game but will be hoping a shoulder injury is not too serious, while Kurtley Beale may find his spot in the staring XV at risk after a game where he struggled under the high ball, though I imagine he will still be in the squad due to his experience and versatility.


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Eyes On: Australia v New Zealand – Rugby Championship 2019

Eyes On: Australia v New Zealand – Rugby Championship 2019

The final round of this season’s shorter Rugby Championship began in Perth this weekend 2019’s first Bledisloe Cup match. The Wallabies took an early lead with a try from Reece Hodge and though Anton Lienert-Brown & Rieko Ioane both crossed in the next 10 minutes, Australia led 16-12 at the break, while New Zealand were left reeling after a red card for Scott Barrett just before halftime. The extra man had an impact after the break as Australia scored a further 5 tries to the All Blacks’ 2 on their way a 47-26 victory, their biggest scoreline against New Zealand. Coupled with South Africa’s win later in Argentina, Australia finished 2ⁿᵈ in the tournament and the All Blacks an unprecedented 3ʳᵈ, leaving themselves at risk of losing their World #1 ranking to Wales.

Australia

With James O’Connor returning to the starting lineup and starting at 13 for the fist time in his Wallabies career, this partnership with Samu Kerevi was the 13ᵗʰ centre pairing they have used since the end of the 2015 World Cup. If this match is anything to go by though, Michael Cheika has finally found what should be his first choice midfield combination. Christian Leali’ifano has helped bring more control to the team while he also does a good job of attacking the line. Kerevi is in the form of his life and makes the big metres to put the team on the front foot, while bringing in O’Connor at 13 gave the team a much better balance than they had with Tevita Kuridrani as he had the pace, vision and skills to play whatever situation he was in, resulting in multiple assists in this game.

This close to the World Cup, Cheika now needs to give this midfield time together, but I would be interested to see Tom Banks given another go at fullback as O’Connor’s inclusion provides another playmaker option that reduces the need for Kurtley Beale (who has had his moments but on the whole been rather quiet) at 15. With a return to New Zealand next week, it will be interesting to see the back line selected.

New Zealand

I all the years that I’ve been regularly watching rugby, I can’t remember a New Zealand team that had so many questions to answer this close to the World Cup. The 6 shirt is one that has not been sufficiently filled since Jerome Kaino left New Zealand and while Ardie Savea looked to be the best option given the depth at 7, this performance from the back row was largely disappointing – though Savea did finish with more metres made than any other player in black. Richie Mo’unga has not looked comfortable at 10 with Beauden Barrett at 15, but I can’t help feel that part of this was due to the forwards not putting the team on the front foot and the ever-changing cast at 12 and 13 (this week saw Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue start, with Ngani Laumape replacing Goodhue just 19 minutes in). Whether at wing or fullback, Ben Smith has been a star for the All Blacks for years, but he has looked far from comfortable during recent matches .

Now it may just be that the team are experimenting with different options and do in fact have all their plans settled ready for the World Cup. If so, they are playing a dangerous game as people will be looking at the draw against South Africa and this loss with confidence. The All Blacks are looking not just beatable, but ordinary. Momentum can be a great thing when you start winning, but when you’re struggling its the exact opposite. They need to put in a big performance and get a result at home next weekend.

RWC2019 Winners and Losers

Starting with a man who has already received praise in this article, James O’Connor has come in from the cold and shown that not only is he deserving of a place in the 31-man squad, but he should arguably be starting. Tolu Latu is another who has overcome off-field issues and earned another shot with the national team. Starting today and putting in a strong performance, he’s surely cemented his place in the squad and may have even beaten Folau Fainga’a to the starting spot. While there were not many great performances from the men in black, Dane Coles looked back to his best and will be pushing to cement the starting spot despite strong opposition from Codie Taylor. Atu Moli‘s selection on the bench for this match also seems to have brought an end to Karl Tu’inukuafe’s chances of going to Japan, and he will be hoping to make it onto the plane as one of the loosehead options.

Moving onto players who maybe getting nervous about their places, Ben Smith will need to hope that Steve Hansen goes on the idea that “form is temporary, class is permanent” and continue to select him. His versatility and experience will likely save him but there is the distinct possibility that he could be a high profile exclusion. His try aside, Anton Lienert-Brown again struggled to impose himself on a match from the outset. He does so well off the bench, but in a limited-numbers squad and with so many options at centre, could that limited impact as a starter prove costly? The rise of Tolu Latu has possibly brought an end to Jordan Uelese‘s chances of making the squad, having not featured since his injury-hit cameo against South Africa. Another player whose chances of making the squad look to be over is Nick Phipps, who has not been involved in the tournament at all, with all the minutes going to Will Genia and Nic White.


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Eyes On: Australia v Argentina – Rugby Championship 2019

Eyes On: Australia v Argentina – Rugby Championship 2019

Saturday saw us enter the second half of this season’s Rugby Championship with Argentina’s trip to Brisbane. Both teams were looking to get some momentum following losses in the opening round, but it was the Wallabies who took an early lead at the Suncorp Stadium through the boot of Christian Leali’ifano and a Reece Hodge try from a set move gave then a 10-3 halftime lead. The Pumas got a try back through Facundo Isa, but were unable to find another try in the final 5 minutes, falling to a 16-10 loss.

Australia

While last week they were depressingly poor, there were better signs from the Wallabies in this match. Argentina’s pack are not as strong as South Africa’s and it really showed in this match, as Australia quickly painted the picture that they were dominant at the scrums, while Izack Rodda (33m), Lukhan Salakaia-Loto (13m), Scott Sio (20m), Michael Hooper (30m) and Isi Naisarani (64m) all hit double figures for metres made, which along with 52m for Samu Kerevi did a great job of keeping the team on the front foot. Marika Koroibete also made good metres and did a great job of keeping Santiago Cordero quiet, while Leali’ifano looked at home on his return to international rugby following his comeback from leukaemia.

What will worry them, though is the sheer number of times Argentina managed to get in behind them defensively. If it wasn’t for some questionable decisions in contact, this result could have been very different. They may also be a little worried by the performance of Kurtley Beale, who was far less influential in attack compared to last week’s cameo off the bench and was lucky to get away with an awful kick that sat up nicely for the Argentina backs to counter.

Their upcoming Bledisloe Cup match will see the quality of opposition rise, if Australia aren’t careful, it could be a long 80 minutes for them.

Argentina

Last week I was disappointed with the amount of ball Argentina kicked away and wished that they would keep the ball in hand more. They certainly did that against the Wallabies, but I was still left disappointed with the style of play.

The backs are highly dangerous and they have great ball carriers in the pack, but too often they tried to offload the ball from contact when it wasn’t on, leading to many great chances ending prematurely. I can completely understand wanting to offload the ball as it stops the Australian defence from getting set and keeps them on the back foot, but so often it was leading to players getting isolated or handling errors that resulted in Australia either turning the ball over or regrouping. Even one time that they made it close to the try line, the ball was knocked on by a prop who couldn’t keep his eyes on the ball.

I think this team would really benefit from looking at the way Exeter play (Cordero could give them some tips), as Exeter get a great balance of quick, devastating attacks with offloads and also playing a more patient game, taking the tackle and setting up the breakdown, while when they reach to the line going through phases of pick-and-go drives to draw in the defence before spreading it wide to the open backs.

If Argentina can get the balance of play right in time for the World Cup, they will b extremely dangerous.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

Christian Leali’ifano looked comfortably at home in the 10 jersey and has looked the best alternative to Bernard Foley (potentially even enough to compete for the starting role), which would be a great continuation of a wonderful story. Likewise, Facundo Isa managed to fit in on his return to the squad after a change in eligibility criteria allowed him to feature despite playing in France. For the Aussies, James Slipper did a great job of dominating (or at least making it look to the referee like he was dominating) his opposite number at the scrum and that, combined with his experience, is going to be pushing him towards a seat on the plane to Japan. Felipe Ezcurra was once again only given a handful of minutes at the end of the game, but earned a penalty at the breakdown with his jackaling and also seemed to up the tempo, which will certainly help his case for selection in a strong scrum half corps.

While Leali’ifano had a strong game, his replacement at 10 Matt To’omua struggled to have any impact on the game and get the back line firing in the same way. With the positions he covers (fly half and centre) being well covered by other more versatile players, he needs to put in a big performance to guarantee a spot in the squad. Joaquín Tuculet has found his 15 shirt under pressure from Emiliano Boffelli, while winger/fullback Santiago Cordero could be deemed surplus to requirements due to playing his club rugby in Europe. With such depth in the back 3, both needed big games but were kept relatively quiet by the Australians. James O’Connor may also be feeling nervous about his chances of going to Japan, as his return to the Australian team was limited to just 10 minutes at the end in a back line that was no longer firing.


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