If you’d have offered the Wallabies average fan a three-point loss to the world number one before kick-off, even with a missed penalty attempt and at the cost of five more injured players, I reckon they’d have accepted your offer pretty quickly.
Dave Rennie might have as well.
Australia needed to better after the forgettable showing in Italy. And they were better, thankfully.
Not perfect, obviously, and not even brilliant. But better. Significantly better in fact.
I made some mental notes ahead of the Ireland Test of necessary areas of improvement. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in doing that.
So, here’s what that mental list looked like and the observations thereof. It wasn’t all rosy, but it was a lot easier to watch and take in because of the improvements in these areas.
Better attacking breakdown
As soon as the Wallabies found themselves deep in attack within the opening few minutes, their attacking breakdown presence, intent and most importantly accuracy just looked on.
The 4-5-6 contingent led the way here, with Nick Frost, Cadeyrn Neville and Jed Holloway all working hard to support ball carriers and clean out any early threat of ruck turnover. This created the quick ball that led to Nic White’s disallowed try in the fourth minute.
It was an important start, and it needed to be.
As the game went on, Ireland made some adjustments themselves, and both sides conceded ruck penalties through what was a surprisingly tight first half. But the tourists well and truly took it to the Irish at the breakdown in a marked improvement from the lacklustre showing the previous week in Florence.
Of course, it will need to better again in Cardiff this weekend coming against Welsh team that will be smarting every bit as much as Australia were last weekend.
And given the Wallabies’ recent record – three straight losses – underestimating Wales is not something they can afford to do.
Better shape in attack – despite the reshuffles
The reshuffling is the important consideration here.
Hunter Paisami went down with his tour-ending knee injury in the third minute, had it strapped but conceded he was done a minute later. The resultant introduction of Jordan Petaia onto the wing saw Len Ikitau move in one spot to inside centre, Andrew Kellaway come forward from fullback to 13 (where he played an absolute stormer), and Tom Wright shift to 15 and perform similarly admirably.
Kellaway then suffered his tour-ending foot injury with 20 minutes to play, moving Petaia to outside centre and with Jake Gordon coming onto the wing.
Remarkably, given all the shuffling, Noah Lolesio sat unused on the bench for the third time in his career.
Through it all, the Aussies didn’t look terrible in attack. All the backs bar Gordon (and Paisami) busted tackles or made line breaks. Most made good metres, and offloads featured widely across the stats sheet.
The back three players and Kellaway at 13 all looked a lot more connected, and more dangerous as a result.
Petaia played his best game in a good stretch of time, and meteoric doesn’t even begin to describe Mark Nawaqanitawase’s finish to the year. From not being picked in Waratah trial games to looking more and more the international winger 11 months later, it really is quite something the way he’s come on.
But there was a much better shape. A lot of came with White’s restoration to 9, but Bernard Foley ran to the line a lot more, and didn’t seem to be playing as deep as in previous games. Ikitau distributed to outside pretty well, and the back three injected themselves nicely.
Of course, the challenge now is going to replicating it in Cardiff with yet another backline combination.
Foley was always going to miss the Welsh game, and now White, Paisami and Kellaway are heading home. Lalakai Foketi departed after the France Test. By my count, there are 11 backs left in squad with ten needed for Wales, and I’m not sure where Tom Banks’ ankle injury is up to.
It’s a hell of an opportunity for all of them to push themselves forward under significant circumstances.
Better ball control and ground-making
Depending on your stats sheet of choice, the Wallabies made somewhere near 350 metres, or nearly 700. They’re obviously both not right, but my gut says it might be closer to the latter number than the former.
But the aforementioned shape in attack and the improved attacking breakdown work meant they did make good ground, and it came with a more control of the ball and more accuracy in the passing. I can’t recall too many attacking movements stuttering because of a misdirected pass, or a silly offload.
In saying this, it was a panicked pass and a knock-on after the siren that ended the game. But it certainly felt like Dave Rennie’s side asked more questions of the Irish defence than the other way around.
But, the discipline…
Yep, this old chestnut.
Dave Porecki, Neville and Ikitau were all pinged for neck-roll tackles by the 27th minute. Ireland had been pinged for high tackles by this point too. Ben O’Keeffe pulled James Slipper and Peter O’Mahoney aside and gave instruction around this point as well: next neck roll or high tackle goes to the bin.
The message can’t have been stronger. If anyone can tell me why Folau Fainga’a chose to call O’Keeffe’s bluff in the 37th minute, I’m all ears. If anyone wants to try and convince me it was anything other dumb, please do.
The Wallabies conceded 12 penalties, which is better than the week before against Italy, but still.
There was another high tackle late in the game and Gordon was pinged for tackling a man in the air as well.
Discipline is not a one-week fix, and Australia have got a hell of a lot of work to convince referees they’re not an undisciplined side. 14 cards, a citing, and two suspensions in 13 games is damning evidence.
But they have to start painting a better picture because it’s the only way to combat perception.
There is still a lot to improve this week, and especially next year, and the improvements do need to continue.
The importance of finishing the year strongly really can’t be understated.
It was great to see the ‘better’. It’s vital the ‘but’ is minimised, if it can’t be properly eradicated.