It has always been said France’s chances of winning depend on what version of the team arrives at the ground. The ‘Les Bleus’ that were supposed to be at Suncorp Stadium didn’t show up until the last 10 minutes of Saturday night’s Test against Australia.
The Wallabies’ awesome 50-23 victory was overshadowed by the dreaded ‘captain’s curse’, with new skipper Stephen Moore limping off in the fifth minute with a knee injury that was later confirmed to be season-ending. Moore will go under the knife to repair the ACL and MCL of his left knee. He won’t be alone in rehab, with David Pocock suffering similar injuries in the last two years. There isn’t much debate as to who will be Moore’s successor. Michael Hooper took the reins during the Test and will surely be the skipper for the remainder of the season.
Compounding Moore’s blowwas the ankle injury to Brumbies teammate Sam Carter. Sustained in the seventh minute, Carter battled through the entire match but has been ruled out for the rest of the series. Although he played with a serious injury, Carter is sure to remain a go-to man – his debut was stunning. The only option McKenzie has now is to reinstate James Horwill to the starting XV and have Luke Jones on the bench.
The Australians were brilliant, but the extent of their brilliance is up for debate, which I’ll address throughout this write-up. They scored seven magnificent tries, with arguably the best five-pointer coming from Nick Cummins. It may not have been a textbook try, but it attracted the loudest roar from the 33,000-strong Brisbane crowd. The bookies may have lost a stack after Israel Folau crossed the line in the 18th minute for the first try of the match. After that, the floodgates opened and France couldn’t do anything to stop the Wallabies. The score gives some credit to the visitors, but wasn’t a true reflection of the match.
McKenzie has prepared his troops well and they came out ready to play. The hosts looked a little rusty in the first five minutes, but that is to be expected in the first Test of the season. They soon clicked into gear and gave the ball some air to send their men out wide over the line.
As said before, the Wallabies were brilliant – but they were brilliant against a really poor French team that was weak in defence and couldn’t keep up with the pace of the stampeding Aussies. Each time France did threaten with the ball, they made simple errors and stuttered, only showing some semblance of quality attacking rugby inside the final 10 minutes by posting two late tries.
Comparing the performances of Australia’s main international rivals, New Zealand was poor against a depleted England side, who pushed the All Blacks to the brink. A 78th-minute try was required for the home side to secure a scratchy 20-15 result-minute. South Africa was in a tight match against a World XV combination until the second half, when the Springboks opened up and found gaps in the defence. They ultimately posted a 47-13 scoreline after scoring 29 unanswered points after the break. The Wallabies played well, undoubtedly, and they showed their intent of getting the Bledisloe Cup back for the first time since 2002 and winning their first Rugby Championship in three years, but the All Blacks and Springboks are a different beast altogether to the weakened French side they dominated on Saturday.
The ground game of the Wallabies was excellent, but the French didn’t challenge well enough in the rucks, so it is difficult to accurately rate how good their performance was in the trenches. The Wallabies will have to be properly tested before they can claim bragging rights in the rucks. France appeared to hold back and allowed Australia quick ball, which put flyhalf Bernard Foley into all sorts of space to dictate the flow the of the game.
This week will pose a whole new set of questions for both teams. The Wallabies will have their tails up after a convincing victory, but France will be prepared to make amends and should arrive in Melbourne with enough fire in their bellies to take the game to the hosts. There have been reports of internal disagreement in the French camp, but this may only ignite the flame that traditionally separate the unpredictable ‘Les Bleus’ from the rest of world rugby.
McKenzie will again have to prepare his team for the unexpected as the French flair could belatedly be unleashed. ‘Les Bleus’ will be happy with their finish to the first Test and will look to continue that momentum into the next match, but it is unclear which players will be axed so there could be a whole different game plan on the cards.
Australia is on a five-Test winning streak and will look to extend it in Melbourne. Although there has been a seven-month interval since the northern hemisphere tour, the Wallabies seemed to pick up where they left off and even added a new dimension to their game. The backline looks like it could be considered the best in the world and there are many factors to back up this claim. Folau has been a star since his debut last year against the Lions and his strike-rate is impressive. The fullback is able to create line breaks and beat defenders with some magic, putting himself or a teammate into space. His opening try came from a James Slipper offload before he broke the tackle of a defender by spinning around the man and then gathered up enough speed to beat the cover defence – all this inside France’s 22-metre area.
Folau’s magic may inspire his cohorts to lift their game to his level. There is also an exciting mixture of youth and experience with the scrum-base pairing Foley and Nic White early in their promising careers, and big runners in Tevita Kuridrani and Matt Toomua always probing for a line break. The ever-present Cummins tracks the ball well and found himself in position for a number of supporting runs, eventually resulting in his popular try. Cummins’ wing partner Adam Ashley-Cooper has 92 caps and is a fantastic defender, boasting the ability to scramble and make the tackle count – and he can score tries, bagging his 27th in Tests on Saturday.
The forward pack wasn’t tested enough to claim such high accolades, even though the stats show an almost 100 per cent effective rate with 14-from-14 line outs and two from two scrum wins. This is abnormal for the oft-maligned Australian pack, but the French barely challenged for the ball and didn’t create the slow ball that South Africa and New Zealand are capable of doing. The stats also indicate Australia missed 29 tackles despite having the majority of possession, which is something that McKenzie needs to work on. The discipline factor is also a glaring problem with nine penalties given away, two more than France. These penalties were mainly conceded in the French half, so points weren’t on offer, but it did annoy the referee enough that he called both captains together to give them a blanket warning.
If the tourists were to look at the numbers, they will realise that Rob Simmons is the target man in the line out and should try to neutralise his dominance in the air by challenging in the front of the line out. Australia have to find other options in the air and will have the services of Horwill, but need to get Scott Fardy more involved and try variations in the line out.
The Wallabies need to be truly tested before they can claim any performance as certifiably brilliant, and I don’t think that the current French outfit is the team to give them the challenge they need. There are positive signs that the Wallabies may be the team to beat this year, but the international season is in its infancy and the world’s best haven’t fired just yet.
This international rugby calendar looks to be a cracker and I can’t wait for the Rugby Championship.
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