Firstly, my thanks to Ken Parish for the offer to post rugby reviews here. As someone with a more than middling interest in the game, I am delighted to try my hand. In case I might lack any incentive, I have the luck to be starting at a really crucial and fascinating period for Australian Rugby.
Sunday night’s game against England represented the real start of Australia’s 2007 Rugby World campaign. It is extremely safe to say that the eventual winners of the World Cup in France in 2007 will have a strong pack, and painfully obvious (especially to poor Eddie Jones!) that Australia last year had a weak and disorganised pack. The real interest in last night’s match was always going to be in the forwards generally and the scrum specifically, and the elements conspired to set up a real test.
Unfortunately, there is not a great deal to write about this game! If there was a one big thing one could take away from it was that the laws of nature still hold: once-capped front rows will never have an easy time against one-hundred-capped front rows, wet and mucky conditions make for slippery and mucky rugby, unfamiliar combinations don’t gel perfectly, scrums are about second-rows as well, etc.
Happily, Australia passed. Although their front row’s collective experience was painfully evident (does anyone really believe that the test debutants were deliberately unbalancing the scrum?!?), we generally held our own, and that alone would have made this game a good one for Australia. But, we also had the edge in the line-outs and were much stronger around the field, especially in defence, as we consistently pushed back their attacking line and consistently made ground in our attacks. That all combined to make it a not just a good game but a pretty thumping win.
What really told the story was the substitutions towards the end of game. Firstly, the change from never-capped newbie McIsaac to 60 capped Paul did make an immediate difference to the scrums, as one would have expected. But most importantly, our fresh legs came just as we were starting to find a little more fluency and thus injected some real sharpness into our game, whilst the English game stayed just as disjointed as it started and their replacements made very little difference.
Some highlights were the aggressive defence, Gregan’s several great tackles, including of course his trysaver (fwiw, I thought Balshaw had grounded it, but looking at the replays, I changed my mind), Latham’s try and Rodzilla having enough legs to run 20 yards at the 75 minute mark!
So much for the positives. On the less-bright side:
- Our backs should have been more fluent, although the return of Giteau, which will restore the Brumbies line from 6-8-9-10-12-13-14 (!) will help, as will just another few weeks on the paddock and a couple more games.
- Our backs drift defence could have been more convincing. On the whole it worked, and certainly the players know it backwards having done it for years, but England made a couple big breaks on us all the same, and we looked bad being turned around by short kicks (which they didn’t have the sense to use more often) and when they went wide (ditto). The conditions were partly to blame, since no-one could turn, but (hopefully) it was just a bit of unfamiliarity. Since they chose to play it in tight, one can hardly fault the Aussies for concentrating their defence in tight, and on the whole we monstered them.
- Our pack still has some work to do in both the line-outs and scrum. Once again a few more weeks should tell us if there are real problems or it is just a matter of co-ordination.
- Our new backrow, sans specialist number eight, worked pretty well. But their number eight, Pat Sanderson, was the pick of the forwards ball-in-hand (although George Smith had a lot of great ‘steadying’ hit-ups, and was held back when Sanderson made his big up the centre bust!!).
- Josh Valentine needs more game time, since at the moment we are really dependant on Gregan. That said, Gregan had a great game, particularly in defence where he was brilliant. He didn’t look as snappy as he could have passing, but I’ll let conditions excuse (yet again).
- It won’t be until the Tri-Nations that we get a real feel for how this team is going. We will, however, get a real feel for it then!
SO: Our World Cup campaign has started, in muddy, unspectacular and slightly cob-webby style, against less-than-convincing opposition in far-from-ideal conditions, but with a win and a lot of positives. For those who want more details on the actual play, I recommend PlanetRugby, and Mark Ella’s commentary which will (normally) be in tomorrow’s Australian. Otherwise, the teams will be back next week, and so will I. Thanks to the wonder of closing roofs, the game should be much more visually appealing, and Australia should get a much better idea of how much and what work they have to do.
PS: For a quick word on the Tri-Nations, I wonder if it isn’t history repeating itself with the Kiwis. Australia’s golden period around the ’99 RWC came just as they lost Frank Bunce, Sean Fitzpatrick and Zinzan Brooke all at once. Bunce, a right cheat and dirty dog if ever there was one, was also the linch-pin of their backline, and they didn’t really look right again until they finally settled on one Tana Umaga to replace him. Umaga, of course, developed into one of the finest centres ever. But, he has just retired, and there is no obvious replacement. Ireland’s first try came from a very classy centre, Brian O’Driscoll, running right past Umaga’s replacement!
I could really be making it up as I go here, but I do wonder if that isn’t a harbinger of things to come for New Zealand. After all, their quadrennial slump is approaching”¦:)