THE dust has now settled on a magnificent three days to kick start the seventh edition of Rugby World Cup. Generally all matches were fast and passionate, the grounds were colorful and buzzing and wonderfully all combatants were competitive for good periods of the match. A great start and long may it continue.
The pundits have been putting the slide rule under the five or six big guns. And it appears a general consensus was that the Wallabies performance against the Italians was the standout. So let me now maybe put things in perspective and poor some cold water on that seemingly comfortable victory.
My rough notes tell me the Wallabies dominated possession and field position in the first 40 minutes and yet rarely looked dangerous. They struggled to contain the Azzuri rolling maul having often to resort to illegally collapsing the advancing blue mass.
As predicted the Italians were messy at the breakdown but this is where we were ineffective in comparison to the dynamic up front performance against the All Blacks in Brisbane a few weeks prior. There we crossed the gain line regularly and the clean out was fast, furious and effective. Scrum half Will Genia was left to break directly and No 10 Quade Cooper was afforded what he desperately craves - the critical time and space to play in.
On Sunday the first half lack of space found Genia uncharacteristically running more laterally and Cooper, somewhat like Eden Park a month before, imploding with his decision making and execution.
But the second 40 minutes brought some structure up front. Players drove beyond the gain line, the clean out quickened and Genia and then substitute Luke Burgess started to enjoy space which enabled Cooper to build in confidence, to re gain his lateral vision and execute as we know he has done and can do. The razzle dazzle of the more than capable backline fell into place and the scoreboard looked after itself.
Another aspect of the post-mortems I have digested that has surprised me is that it seems there is a consensus that the Wallaby scrum managed well against a supposed world class Italian machine. Opposition coach and the highly respected Nick Mallett seemed to laud the gold scrum and indeed Aussie hooker Stephen Moore was quoted post match thus "I was pretty proud how the boys dug in there and gave it everything at the scrum".
I have no doubt they did give it their all but I can assure you, as the Irish and perhaps the Welsh and English review the Wallaby scrum, they will be salivating at the prospect of crushing us in this all too crucial place where desperately important psychological battles can be won or lost which quickly reverberate right through the team. How else can you justify that the only reason the Italians did not score a push over try from 5 meters was that their scrum was moving so fast the Italian no 8 could not effectively control possession under his feet?
And before readers of this piece who will no doubt question how an old washed up scrum half can speak sensibly about the deep dark places forwards call scrums let me just counter by stating the obvious that over a long period of time I introduced the ball into a million of them. I get it that if your scrum wobbles especially early in the combat then it will turn into a very tough day at the office for players right across the park. This up front combat like the breakdown is where space is either created or denied and our world class backline individually and collectively seem only to thrive in time and space.
Anyone who was present at Marseilles 4 years ago at the fateful quarter final against the Poms will say to a person it began and finished in the first scrum. As said it is where the psychological battles are played out. Where players get on the front foot. When underdogs become true believers.
The above said, there is no doubt the Wallabies fully appreciate the importance of scrum time and have improved in recent years. Looking forward there is every likelihood we could lock horns with the competition hosts on 23 October. If that happens there is no doubt the Wallabies will have a mountain to climb made a little steeper by what I perceive as a lack of respect.
Again forget the fact I only played in the amateur era and things are now different. I know enough about international sport to know that respect of an opposition is fundamental. It was one of the reasons why we first stood up to the Haka back in 1987 in the one off Bledisloe Cup match in Sydney played after the inaugural rugby world cup.
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