Friday, November 27

Bug-Prone Wallabies Struggle While Exposing the Flaws of the Cheika Era | Bret Harris | Sport

The loudest picture in the Wallabies ‘disappointing 15-15 draw with Argentina in Newcastle was not of something that happened on the field, but in the Pumas’ training area.

During Argentina’s historic 25-15 win over the All Blacks in Parramatta last week, former Wallabies coach and now Pumas coaching consultant Michael Cheika wore the South American team’s sky blue uniform. But on Saturday night, Cheika was wearing mufti, a dark-collared T-shirt, and jeans. Perhaps it was a show of respect from Cheika towards the team that he trained for just over five years.

With new coach Dave Rennie, the Wallabies have moved away from Cheika’s signature ball-in-hand style of play, but in many ways they continue to play as they did with their former coach. They fell to seventh place in the world with Cheika and Rennie so far has not been able to eradicate some of the flaws in her game. The most obvious is the inconsistency: Under Rennie, the Wallabies have recorded a draw, a loss, a loss, a win and a draw.

After the Wallabies’ surprise 24-22 win against the All Blacks in Brisbane two weeks ago, Rennie demanded consistency against the Cougars, but they still can’t chain two good performances together.

One of the other traits Rennie hasn’t been able to get rid of is the Wallabies’ high error rate. The Wallabies learned from the mistake the All Blacks made in trying to get through the middle of the Pumas. Instead, Australia played wide to try and surround the Argentines, but each time they looked promising in attack, the play was spoiled by a forced or unforced error.

The Wallabies’ tactical approach was fundamentally sound, but there is a question mark as to whether they had the personnel in the rear to execute the strategy. Having 61% possession and 62% territory and not scoring a try suggests that they didn’t.

Argentine coach Mario Ledesma speaks with Pumas coach advisor Michael Cheika and Matias Orlando.

Michael Cheika with Argentina coach Mario Ledesma in Newcastle. Photograph: Cameron Spencer / Getty Images

Utility back Reece Hodge is doing a very commendable job in the fifth-eighth, but he probably lacks the full set of skills to be the Wallabies’ usual No. 10. Compounding that problem is the fact that the Wallabies don’t have another backline player to support Hodge. Inside center Hunter Paisami goes up and down, while outside center Jordan Petaia relies too much on his strong leg-on-touch drive and fast passing.

For the ball to hit weapons, Marika Koroibete and Tom Wright on the wings, the Wallabies needed fullback Tom Banks to play a ball distributor role on the wide channels. Banks had a great opportunity to put Koroibete in the left corner just before the break, but his pass floated forward under defensive pressure.

This is not a new problem. The inability to execute skills under pressure has negatively affected the Wallabies for several years. Cheika brought in former All Blacks skills coach Mick Byrne to try and rectify it, but he did not survive the coaching restructuring after last year’s World Cup.

Despite their dominance of possession and territory, the Wallabies only led 9-6 at halftime. They bombed two attempts and should have been up front by 15 points or more, which may have broken the spirit of the Pumas, but they also rejected around three penalty shots in the first half to go for five-meter lineouts. In a tight test match, it is important to take advantage of all the points on offer to create pressure on the scoreboard, which is what the Pumas did with the All Blacks. Instead, the Wallabies kept the Pumas in the game. Interestingly, the Wallabies took advantage of all their penalty-scoring opportunities in the second half.

Another flaw in the Wallabies game that has survived the Cheika era is poor discipline. The penalty count was 11 total, but the Wallabies gave away three crucial penalties in the second half to allow the Pumas to get back on track. The Wallabies led 15-6 with 24 minutes to go. In the 62nd minute they collapsed a scrum; in the 65th minute, substitute full-back Filipo Daugunu grabbed the ball in a tackle; and on the 69th minute block Matt Philip picked up a ball that was pushed forward by replacement running back Jake Gordon.

Argentine shooter Nicolás Sánchez punished the Wallabies for these indiscretions and in the space of seven minutes the Pumas went from nine points to a tie. Despite all the hangovers from the Cheika era, this is Rennie’s team now and she has to take responsibility. The new coach contributed to the downfall of the Wallabies with some questionable substitutions.

One of the hallmarks of Cheika’s training was the injection of “finishers” into the game, but all the Wallabies’ substitutions on Saturday backfired, especially Daugunu for Tom Wright.

Rennie criticized the Wallabies for “getting bored” with their kicking strategy in the second half, but they continued to kick, perhaps too much and not accurately. With two minutes to go, the Wallabies returned the ball twice to the Pumas with high kicks when they should have caught it. Then, in the last minute, Petaia kicked Pumas’ 22 with two support players and Australia lost possession.

At least the Wallabies did better against the Pumas than the All Blacks. Before Argentina’s historic victory against the Kiwis, Cheika told the players: “They have everything they need. What are you waiting for? “Perhaps the same question should be asked of the Wallabies.

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