Connolly: Pocock must earn back Wallabies jumper

John Connolly Profile
by John Connolly

He might be among the top handful of players in the world, but David Pocock has got some work to do to get his Test jersey back for The Rugby Championship.

Pocock missed the final two Tests against England after fracturing his eye socket in the opening game in Brisbane, which many thought would have a huge impact on the Wallabies.

While it did eventuate that we lost the series 3-0 without Pocock, his absence had very little do with the outcome.

Sean McMahon made seven tackle busts against England in the third Test. Photo: Getty Images

Sean McMahon was given the number eight jersey for the second and third Tests, and while I am a big fan of the young Melbourne Rebels backrower, he wasn’t my first choice to fill the role vacated by the Brumbies veteran.

In his absence though, McMahon and Michael Hooper more than stepped up to the task and proved to be, along with world-class fullback Israel Folau, Australia’s standout players in the series.

In all my years of being involved in Rugby, I struggle to recall a more courageous performance than what McMahon and Hooper delivered in the third Test in Sydney.

I had some question marks over the size of our back row and how they would stand up to England, but I thought all three were incredibly efficient and the ball-carrying and work rate, in particular from Hooper and McMahon, was phenomenal.

I’m not sure how long the careers of both players will be if they continue to go about their work like they did in this series, but there’s no doubt if you’re a player and you’re heading down the race to play a Test match, you want these two blokes alongside you.

Following the England Series it’s time for a bit of a review before we look ahead to the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship.

We lost 3-0 to England, but it’s hard to get a gauge on where that puts the Wallabies in the World Rugby pecking order at the moment. It proved, if anything, that the top four or five sides in the world can beat each other on any given day.

Michael Hooper stepped up in David Pocock's absense. Photo: Getty Images

The real positive is the Wallabies didn’t lose the series on a lack of effort. We were in a position to win every Test until late in the contest but there were a few areas that let us down.

The major issue was a failure to control the breakdown on each side of the ball. I led my last column by saying to win the battle you need to go forward before you go wide, or go through the opposition before you go around them.

The scrumhalf plays a vital role in this, and I don’t believe Nick Phipps proved to be any kind of threat to England in the so-called transition zone – the area ten metres either side of the breakdown. In contrast, his opposite number Ben Youngs repeatedly challenged the defensive line by squaring up his shoulders and drawing defenders to him before finding his runners. In recent history, there was no one better at managing this area than George Gregan.

In both rugby codes, league or union, the principle is the same - control the ruck or transition area and more often than not, you’ll win the game. Teams employ several different methods to combat this area, which I won’t go into too much detail on the technical side, but it was our failure to do so which ultimately cost us.

Another noticeable slide was with our lineout. Of course, our locks changed for each Test, but the deterioration of the Wallabies lineout has been happening over the past few years. As I have mentioned previously, I worked with England’s lineout Coach Steve Borthwick at Bath and there was a lot of evidence of his influence on the England lineout both technically and tactically during the series. Even when England went to their reserves, the lineout performed seamlessly.

England kept the same lock pairing throughout the series. Photo: Getty Images

Our tactical kicking game, or lack thereof, was another issue. This is an area where there was a lot of pressure on Bernard Foley, as we didn’t have another solid kicking option. Kicking is seen as a negative tactic at times but a strong attacking kicking game is a major weapon.

The All Blacks and the Crusaders are the masters of attacking kicking, turning defenders on their heels and putting immense pressure on the opposition back three. With Foley as the lone ranger in the kicking department, the opposition can target him and minimise the threat, which England managed well.

All in all, I thought there was still a lot of positives for the Wallabies to take out of the series. The emergence of Dane Haylett-Petty and the performance of the back row, particularly seeing Sean McMahon repeatedly get through the contact and the amazing workrate of Michael Hooper, were the best of them.