Wales 29 v 29 Australia, Cardiff, 4 November 2006

What a start! For a while one might have been nearly 10 years ago when Australia v Wales was just a question of how many points Australia would score. And then Wales, fortunately for their world cup hopes, came flying back, and what an anticlimatic finish.
First though, I would like to say that Chris Latham really ought to be bottled and his genes spliced into young players. What would we do without him? He is perhaps the only player in our team whom one would unhesitatingly select in a World XV. He singlehandedly cost us a Bledisloe Cup in his first year while Matt Burke inexplicably warmed the bench, but I’ll admit now that he was the right player to replace Matty Burke.
The backs  

The good  

Giteau had an excellent outing. He was theoretically playing against the best halfback in the world, but he really showed a classy hand of options, and most importantly classy hands full stop. I’ve never really doubted Gregan but he’ll have his work cut out on the training track to displace Giteau if he can keep that up. With him, Rogers and Larkham, we have three world-class passers of the ball, and with Mortlock (when he returns) Tuquiri, Latham and Rathbone there’s no doubt we have the firepower to pass to. Josh Valentine, who played well enough under pressure, looked gun-shy by comparison, albeit he had the much tougher task of coming on with Larkham off.
Larkham, for his part, started a really good game at 12. It is a tough position but he and Rogers made great   work, I thought, of playing off Larkham’s experience, right in Wales’ faces, and passing right in their faces too.   The contrast with one or two (or six) Welsh passes which went five yards backwards and pinned a dangerous strike-runner like Shane Marty Williams flat on the spot.

The bad

I have sung his praises and he deserved them, but Matt Giteau also deserves the bulk of the blame for Australia’s two cardinal offences in the first half – twice ignoring huge openside overlaps in attack!! Sure we scored one of them anyone, but Welsh pride be dashed, our real opposition for the world cup won’t let us get away with that. The whole team gets the blame, but the lion’s sharefallls on his shoulders.
Cam Shepherd may have scored a try, but frankly he did nothing (unlike say Giteau) to suggest that he is contending for run-on spots in the world cup, and frankly I doubt he’ll even make the bench for the big matches until the 58th minute when I struck out that line because he scored a perfectly taken second try just when Australia needed it! But then he did get pushed into touch right at the end when we needed more than anything to keep it alive.
Mat Rogers, bearing in mind what I said above, wasn’t up to the same standard at all without Larkham there. Maybe I would be writing something else if he had been given the chance to take the drop-kick he wanted near the end, and don’t I wish he had been, but without Larkham Rogers didn’t look the goods to run the backline – maybe having Mortlock back would help?
The forwards  

The good

Perhaps the most important point to come out of this was that we recovered our own ball and contested theirs in the loose. Clearly, they aren’t New Zealand, but there is no point being good if you can’t show it against weaker teams and I think our loose support was a highlight for the forwards and a real positive for the team.

Unsurprisingly then I thought Rocky Elsom and Phil Waugh were fantastic in their respective positions, and the line-out was pretty competent, especially with Jeremy Paul on – albeit against unimposing opposition.

Sharpe and Vickerman were great in the loose, and clearly a notch or two above their Welsh counterparts in probably every area of the game, with just a question mark over the scrumming…

The bad

A bit more to write here unfortunately! Rodney Blake’s blindside flanker game was quite impressive, but unfortunately he’s a prop, and that part of his game was pretty poor – and not good enough for Australia’s world cup hopes. If you bum is a meter high before you engage, and the guy in front of you has his 80 cm high, you are heading face-first into the ground. Exactly where Blake went several times.

I thought the scrum as a whole looked better when Paul came on (as seems to be invariably the case) but then it clearly still wasn’t good enough, and not by any stretch of the imagination. I think we need to replace Blake, at least to see what someone else can do. Robinson for example could have been given a run, at least for ten minutes!

On the almost-bright side; I did think Baxter coped pretty well on the whole – but the fact that I have qualified that twice shows how tentatively bright a side that is.

In all

A lot better than perhaps some feared, and the known stars shone bright enough, but apart some very good signs out of the Giteau – Roger – Larkham combination, how much has changed in a year? Not enough in the scrum at all, I fear, except the sacking of the woeful Matt Dunning.   We’ll see how New Zealand go against a much better (but still woefully depleted by injuries) English team than the one Australia destroyed. Odds on that the kiwis put five tries on them, but maybe not if the English scrum can get on the front foot. But in any case, both Wales and Australia have to lift their games if they are to be in the hunt in France next year.
PS James Cook’s performance coming on to replace Stephen Jones was, for a beginner at this level, brilliant. He may not be replacing Stephen Jones for much longer! He looked to have his head screwed on perfectly, with mainly excellent composure and execution.

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