Australia must address slow starts before Rugby World Cup quarter-finals begin

Bret Harris
The Guardian

What can the Wallabies take out of a game they were expected to win by a cricket score?

The Wallabies’ 45-10 win against minnows Uruguay at Oita Stadium looked impressive enough on paper, but this game was never going to be anything more than a glorified opposed training session. Uruguay were never going to beat the Wallabies. The only question was by how much they would lose.

In the corresponding game at the 2015 World Cup in England the Wallabies thrashed Uruguay 65-3. On that comparison this was a sub-par performance. While the Wallabies out-scored Uruguay seven tries to one, if they played with the same lack of intensity and skill execution in a quarter-final, they would be in trouble.

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The Wallabies tried to play a more direct style, but the game followed a similar, and disturbing, pattern to their first two matches against Fiji and Wales where they started slowly and finished strongly.

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika joked after the game that he had to improve his pre-match pep talks. Well, Cheika will have to find an answer to this problem before the knock-out stage if Australia is to go deep into the tournament. The Wallabies got away with poor starts against Fiji and Uruguay, but their 29-25 loss to Wales showed they cannot afford to give head-starts to the big teams.

It may not be the personnel that is the Wallabies’ problem at the start of games, but their mental state. Perhaps they are over-excited or anxious, leading to errors. In the first half it looked as if the Wallabies had learnt nothing from their ill-discipline in relation to attacks to the head in their previous games.

In the space of 15 minutes two Wallabies forwards – second rower Adam Coleman and blindside flanker Lukhan Salakaia-Loto – received yellow cards for high tackles, while fullback Kurtley Beale was penalised for a high shot just a minute before Salakaia-Loto was sent to the sin bin.

The Wallabies got away with being down to 14 players for 20 minutes of the game against Uruguay. It would not be so easy to play one down against any of the major sides. But it was encouraging to see that the Wallabies did not incur any penalties for high tackles in the second half. Maybe it’s starting to sink in.

<span class="element-image__caption">Adam Ashley-Cooper breaks away from Felipe Berchesi.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images</span>
Adam Ashley-Cooper breaks away from Felipe Berchesi. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

It is worth keeping in mind that this was not the Wallabies’ first-choice team. Cheika made 12 changes to the team that lost to Wales to give some players much-needed game-time and perhaps to audition others for a place in the team to play the quarter-final.

The Wallabies entered the game with question marks over several positions, including the halves and back-row combinations. The re-instated halves combination of Nic White and Christian Leallifano was reasonably competent without being brilliant, but they did not have to cope with the kind of physical and mental pressure that a stronger team would put on them.

After playing well off the bench at five-eighth against Fiji and Wales, Matt Toomua produced a solid performance at inside-centre against Uruguay and remains an option at number 10. Toomua occasionally slipped into first receiver in phase play, but did not play at five-eighth in the set-pieces, which may indicate the selectors are not seriously considering him for the chief playmaker role for the quarter-final - unless they are keeping him under wraps.

Even though outside-centre Tevita Kuridrani won the player of the match award with two tries against Uruguay, Samu Kerevi is set to reclaim the gold number 12 jersey, which means Toomua is likely to resume his role as a finisher.

Cheika split the “Pooper” back-row combination of David Pocock and Michael Hooper against Uruguay, bringing Pocock off the bench to give him a rest. This gave Salakaia-Loto and number eight Jack Dempsey an opportunity to press their claims for selection for the quarter-final.

Despite his size and strength, Salakaia-Loto did not do enough to force his way into the Wallabies’ starting back-row, but Dempsey would have given Cheika and his co-selectors Scott Johnson and Michael O’Connor food for thought. While Dempsey is not as big as Salakaia-Loto, he has the kind of footwork that Cheika salivates over and is very physical and abrasive. It would not surprise to see him find his way onto the bench for the quarter-final.

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If there was one really positive aspect of the Uruguay game, it was the highly anticipated debut of boom teenage outside back Jordan Petaia, who showed he is a Test player with a polished performance on the left wing.

It took the 19-year-old Petaia 23 minutes to receive his first touch of the ball, but 30 seconds later he was over for his first Test try after coming off his wing to take an inside-ball from Beale and beat three defenders.

It was the first of many tries I suspect for a young player with a big future, but whether Petaia will have a role to play in the quarter-final remains to be seen. He only played the first half, sitting out the second icing his hamstring.

The Wallabies have one more pool match with Georgia on Friday before Cheika has to settle on the team for the quarter-final, but whoever is selected, the Australians should look to bring the kind of game that will be required in the knockout stage.

Those games will not be won by cricket scores.

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