Connolly: Wallabies have mountain to climb

The Rugby Championship
John Connolly Profile
by John Connolly

Most Australian Rugby fans will be approaching this weekend’s return Bledisloe Cup bout with a feeling of doom and gloom.

The Wallabies produced one of their worst performances in recent years in the opening Test in Sydney and now have an incredible mountain to climb to stay in the mix for the both the Bledisloe and Rugby Championship.

Still, when the national anthem is played before the do-or-die Test in Wellington on Saturday night, we’ll all be standing, full of hope that the boys can turn it around. To give themselves a chance, they’ll need to do a number of things right.

Last week we were tactically and technically beaten. Unfortunately, one of Australia’s traditional strengths, the lineout, has now become one of its biggest liabilities.

The answer to solving the lineout is not just changing the calls. The issue isn’t that New Zealand have somehow managed to crack the code.

The lineout was a major issue on Saturday for the Wallabies. Photo: ARU Media/Stu Walmsley

The lineout problem is an organisational issue, a technical one. If you’re technique is correct, you’ll win your lineouts. At present Australia doesn’t have a specific coach for the lineout and this is one of the key supporting roles that Michael Cheika is lacking.

Our defence was also poor last weekend and a big part of the issues stems from the numbers we are committing to the breakdown. The Wallabies were exposed for throwing too many troops into the ruck and it comes down to the players on the field making better choices about when to commit and when not to.

Another huge concern for Australia is the lack of effective ball runners. As much as I like David Pocock at number 8, he offers very little in this regard. It appears Michael Cheika will continue with the Pocock-Hooper combination at the back but it seems New Zealand will be comfortable with that.

Adding to the issue is that our locks aren’t great ball carriers either, which gives us very limited punch through the middle.

But the forwards aren’t the only group that needs work.

The Wallabies kicking game was not up to scratch in the opening Bledilsoe. Photo: ARU Media/Stu Walmsley

I’m a huge fan of Will Genia and I still believe he is among the best halfbacks in the world. He hasn’t played a lot this year, and you can forgive him for taking some time to get back on his feet at Test level, but my one criticism of his performance last weekend was that he too often drifted across field and didn’t square his shoulders to the defence. When you don’t ask questions of the defence as a scrumhalf, your runners become easy pickings.

Taking this a step further, we also need to vary the way we play dependent of the speed of the ball at the ruck. There are three types you need to deal with – slow, medium and fast ball – and you need to understand how you want to play off each.

Finally, but certainly not least important, is our kicking game. I won’t go into it again this week, but it was clear that the All Blacks fed off our poor kicking in Sydney and it’s clear that new skills coach Mick Byrne has a lot of work to do in this department. Bernard Foley is a charge-down candidate on every kick and he in particular has got some technical issues to address.

So Michael Cheika has some massive challenges and a lot will come down to his selections moving forward.

It appears as though he’ll roll the dice on Samu Kerevi after his inside centre stocks were depleted by injury last weekend. Kerevi has a lot to prove as a 12, but Cheika has so few options outside of the powerful Queenslander.

Israel Folau will stay at fullback for the Wellington Test but I’d love to see him get an opportunity at some stage to work closer to the action at outside centre. That’s not to say Tevita Kuridrani should be dropped, I don’t think he’s playing badly and some of the problems in the backline are happening on the inside of him.

If Cheika decides after this Test to bring Folau up to 13, then Dane Haylett-Petty should drop back to his specialist role of fullback. There is an element of risk in this as he has shown some defensive deficiencies, but Haylett-Petty does have a decent kick and can roost the ball over 50 metres if required.

Quade Cooper is in the mix for the second Bledisloe. Photo: Getty Images

Quade Cooper will be given an opportunity this weekend but he is another player who hasn’t played a lot of Test footy in recent years. Cheika will be hoping to see a much more mature approach and performance from him on Saturday night.

Do I think Australia can win the Test? It’s very, very unlikely, but they can help their cause by playing a style that will keep them in the game until the 70th minute.

In my experience, you can frustrate New Zealand if you can show patience and build pressure. The All Blacks want to play all the time and this can be to their detriment on occasions. To beat them you have to take them out of their comfort zone through pressure, accurate and technically correct Rugby.

It’s an enormous challenge for the Wallabies, but anything is possible in our game.

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.