Only one Aussie team won on the weekend and they defeated another Aussie team. The Rebels lost narrowly to the Bulls but picked up two bonus points; the Force lost by four points to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein – not that easy a result; the Tahs were well beaten by the conference leaders, the Brumbies; and the Reds lost, but picked up a losing bonus point to the in-form Crusaders in Christchurch. In total, not a great weekend for the Aussies on the score-board, but, for my money, some consolation from improved performances.
The Rebels showed that there is a better life after Cipriani with Kurtley Beale leading his team in the most positive of displays. Stirling Mortlock made his long awaited return off the bench and his presence was both effective and inspirational. Cooper Vuna made a welcome return to form and Luke Jones was most effective on the side of the scrum – this may be a better position for him over the next year or two. He shows great promise.
On the downside, Nick Phipps was poor. Accuracy in the pass is an essential quality for a scrum-half and, unfortunately, he was both slow and inaccurate. Richard Kingi needs work – over to the coaches – but could be a match winner at #9. Four tries plus the losing bonus point, from the lowest ranked Aussie team, against the Bulls is not to be sneezed at. Add James O’Connor to the backs, plus the return of a genuine fetcher in the forwards, and this is not looking too bad.
The Cheetahs have been in excellent form and the Force ran them close. Not bad either – but even better when you think that they could very easily have won. Their captain, David Pocock, does not much wrong on the rugby pitch, but his decision not to kick for goal from dead in front of the posts, when trailing by only four points and nearly 20 mins left on the clock, was a howler. They could easily have won! I thought that Nick Cummins and Nathan Charles both enhanced their growing reputations.
Our one winner, the Brumbies, were much the better team in their home game against the Waratahs. The game is, broadly speaking, about getting into position with urgency and executing accurately. The Brumbies did and the Waratahs didn’t. Full marks to the Tahs for their intent – they started with ambition and commitment – but very low marks for execution. I made at note a half-time that “the Tahs had been the better team”, but they trailed 13-6 at the break, courtesy of an excellent effort by the impressive Henry Speight. This should always be a warning sign; if you’ve fired lots of shots but not hit too many targets.
And so it was – once again the Waratahs began to dawdle and positional urgency fell out the window. In the 62nd, 65th and 68th minutes, they conceded three consecutive penalties because they had NO SUPPORT for the ball-carrier at the tackle. Many will say that the Tahs made themselves numerous chances “but just couldn’t finish off”. My summary was – woeful accuracy in passing, no urgency in realignment, total lack of understanding off support play. All of these can be readily addressed at practice.
For the winners, the rising reputations of Palmer, Fardy, Hooper, Mowen, Auelua, White, Lealiifano and Tomane were further enhanced. To them you can add, Sam Carter, Andrew Smith and Henry Speight. Mogg had a quiet game, with the Waratahs offering him no counter-attacking opportunities – but he did nothing wrong. The serious injury to Christian Lealiifano is gut- wrenching for all Aussie rugby supporters. He must have been seriously in line for the starting fly-half spot against the Scots next month and we are all with him in his disappointment. But, “when the going gets tough, …..”.
The Reds played much better. They had a shape to their game that I like. Their forwards were in behind the ball-carrier and kept pressure on the Crusaders defence – their stats showed 30 pick-and-goes! In the new-found tightness of the pack, Horwill and Higginbotham both now made significant contributions. Justin Marshall commented on the fact that the Reds were able to consistently make space out wide and this concentration of forward power with quick recycle was just how they did it.
Unfortunately their scrum struggled – although Albert Anae looked very strong and promising, off the bench – and this cost them dearly, with the lottery of referees’ decisions at this phase. If the Reds could ever play with Slipper on the loose-head side, they could have an excellent scrum – perhaps Anae will give them that opportunity. It’s hard to win in Christchurch with a 17 -7 penalty count against, but with a number of their quality players back at last, they are looking good again. Digby Ioane made a massive difference and, of the “lesser lights”, Gill, Anae, Lucas and Shipperly all played well. Rob Simmons continues to rise in my estimation . He could develop into an important lock for the Wallabies for many years. The Reds looked much better to me.
Disappointed as I was with the Waratahs, I’m feeling a little more optimistic for the Wallabies.