Connolly: Technical perfection required to topple All Blacks

John Connolly Profile
by John Connolly

The Wallabies had their critics during the recent England Series, but the parts of their performance that you couldn’t fault were their enthusiasm, drive and commitment to the jersey.

The team which ran out in each of the three Tests against England left absolutely nothing in the tank as far as effort was concerned. As fans, that’s all we can ask for, but there were, no doubt, some technical deficiencies in those performances in June which will need to be addressed if we are to have any hope of ending our Bledisloe Cup drought.

I’m expecting another close battle on Saturday night at ANZ Stadium, where the Wallabies have a good record against the All Blacks. There will be nothing between the sides physically and our best fifteen is always capable of beating their best fifteen in a Test match.

To win the game, the Wallabies have to get two things right - they have to have the right strategy, and importantly, they need to get selections right to match their strategy.

The technical areas that require the biggest improvement are the lineout, scrum and kicking game.

Wallabies lineout can be one of the big improvers this test. Photo: Getty ImagesIf you think back to the golden era of Australian Rugby in the 90’s, those teams built their success on being superior in those key areas, as well as controlling the breakdown and collision area.

It’s almost sad to say, but England swept the June series by playing very little Rugby at all. They won on back of their defence and tactical kicking game, with a strong set piece providing the platform.
As Kenny Rodgers sang in his classic ‘The Gambler’: You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em. Know when to walk away, know when to run’.

The same principles apply to Test footy. You have to play Rugby in the right parts of the field. Kicking should be used as an attacking weapon, not a defensive ploy. We don’t want to see endless kicking, but tactical kicking which turns the defence on their heels can open up genuine attacking avenues.

On the flip side, poor kicking can create endless opportunities for the opposition. The approach should be to kick for distance or kick to regain the ball. If it doesn’t tick either of these boxes, it’s a poor kick.

With the ball, we need to vary our attack. The Wallabies constantly threw the ball off the base of the ruck against England and tried to attack them through the midfield. They didn’t challenge their defensive line with any real variation.

Looking at the selection options for the Wallabies this weekend, the back row is where Michael Cheika will have the most angst. In a strange twist of fate, his biggest question mark is what he does with David Pocock.

Pocock is a wonderful player but one of the deficiencies of his game is his ability as a ball carrier. If Simmons and Douglas are selected at lock, as expected, then Cheika will need three effective ball carriers in the back row.

Simmons is there as the lineout general, which is important, and while Douglas gets through a mountain of work, I’m sure Cheika would like to get more from him carrying the ball.

Sean McMahon and Michael Hooper are outstanding ball carriers and the incumbent number six Scott Fardy is important for the lineout.

For mine, starting Pocock on the bench probably gives you the right balance. His big advantage is his effectiveness over the ball, but against New Zealand you’ll only get one or two turnovers a game.

Halfback is another key selection. I am a huge Will Genia fan, but it concerns me that he’s played so little Rugby this year. Still, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t start in the number nine with Phipps dropping back to the bench to add some energy at the back end of the game. Genia was the best halfback in the world in 2011 and the challenge for him is to get back to his best.

Bernard Foley should get the nod at flyhalf and will spark up his Rugby World Cup combination with Matt Giteau. I also like the thought of Drew Mitchell and Adam Ashley-Cooper in the wing positions. They could be the oldest wing combination the Wallabies have ever had, but their experience and the support they offer their fullback is so important.

Israel Folau is almost certain to stay at fullback, although I’m not against the idea of him coming up to play at 13 and having Dane Haylett-Petty at the back. You would then have the safety valve of Tevita Kuridrani on the bench.

Back on Giteau, briefly, I think he can be counted among Australia’s all-time greats. With everything that has happened in his career, he has proven to be a class act with the way he has handled himself.

It is a travesty that he was dumped from the Wallabies in 2011 and Australian Rugby missed out on some of the best years of his career. He has every right to be dirty about his treatment, but you never hear it from him.

He is one of our finest ever players and we should cherish the opportunity we have to see him play his final matches in the Wallabies jersey.

There is always extra pressure that comes with the occasion of playing the All Blacks. The experience of Giteau, and others, is going to be crucial.

John 'Knuckles' Connolly, was a former Wallabies and Queensland Reds Head Coach, and has in the past worked with the Stade Français, Swansea RFC as well as Bath Rugby.

The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the ARU.