The Wallabies know exactly what they must fix up if they’re to claim victory in Bledisloe III this weekend in Sydney and extend the series into a deciding fourth game a week later in Brisbane.
The Australians have based themselves up in the Hunter Valley but haven’t escaped the downpour saturating the eastern half of New South Wales, with similar conditions expected for much of the week and through to Saturday night’s kick-off.
That will likely mean producing a similar style of game to the one where they went so close to victory in Game 1 in Wellington, but with several major lessons from the 27-7 defeat they suffered in Auckland a week later.
At the top of the list? Maybe don’t kick so poorly to All Blacks winger Caleb Clarke. “That might be a good opportunity, yeah,” Wallabies No. 10 James O’Connor said when asked whether Australia should give the winger a wide berth or at least only kick into his channel when they could guarantee a firm defensive line.
One of new coach Dave Rennie’s key messages throughout his first few weeks in charge has been for the Wallabies to kick on their own terms, an idea O’Connor elaborated on Monday.
“Kicking on our own terms I guess, what he’s saying, without giving away our game plan, is there is more than one kicker on the field; your 9, your 10, 12, 15 and both wingers, and there’s different creative kicks you can use,” O’Connor said.
“So if you’re on your own terms, when we’re on the front foot we’re not waiting [until] they’ve put a dominant hit on [to then kick]. [Conversely] if we’re not going anywhere [don’t] put a kick up [on the back foot], which a few times last week we didn’t quite get that balance.”
“So in terms of that, it’s literally sticking with your kicking strategy and getting buy-in from everyone; you can manipulate the backfield, you can find grass, you can find space and you can put contestable [kicks] on their back-three men.”
While the Wallabies didn’t kick well to Clarke in Auckland, their attempts to tackle the two-Test rookie were even less effective.
Clarke was able to shed an incredible 12 tackles himself as the Wallabies missed 42 in total, a statistic they know if repeated will condemn the trophy to a 19th straight year across the Tasman.
“You’re never going to win a Test match when you make that many missed tackles,” O’Connor said. “We created a lot of opportunities in attack but we threw the ball away and also just the balance of the kick-pass-run ratio, it wasn’t quite as balanced as well as I would have liked. But there was a lot of positives and we’ve taken quite a bit out of that game to be fair.”
As well as the 42 missed tackles in Auckland, the Wallabies also conceded 20 handovers through a mixture of poor ball control, a lack of numbers to the breakdown and pushed passes.
O’Connor says it’s about finding the balance in Australia’s attack, but also not stifling the attacking intentions of some the team’s younger players who are just starting out on their Test careers.
“You can always feel when the offload’s on; there’s a difference between pushing it and sighting the man and playing with the momentum,” he said.
“The big difference between Test footy and Super Rugby is, in Test footy the margins are so small. Everyone is better at defending one-on-one, the game’s quicker and you want to play on top of the opposition.
“So sometimes when you break the line it’s a better play to just recover the ball, play back on top of them and wait for your opportunity there and get the scoreboard ticking, which I feel we didn’t do quite as well as I would have liked. But in saying that you don’t want to take that out of the guys’ games, you saw in Game 1 guys were offloading and it worked well.
“And you saw the All Blacks, what they didn’t in that game as well, up the middle of the field as well quite a few times. So it’s not a matter of telling them don’t offload, or don’t offload in this channel or what not, it’s about sighting the target and feeling the moment.”
A challenge the Wallabies won’t be stepping down from is that presented by All Blacks hooker Dane Coles. The veteran New Zealand No. 2 returned to the starting team in Auckland and immediately set about getting under the skin of the Australians.
“I personally enjoy it; I have a good little chat with him out there on the field,” Wallabies scrum-half Nic White said of Coles’ niggle. “That’s what you want when these two nations come up against each other; there’s a bit of feeling out there and that’s how it should be.
“I probably shouldn’t be the one throwing my weight in there, all 79kgs, but he’s good and it’s not something that we’re going to shy away from. And we wouldn’t expect anything different from him, he’s a fierce competitor.”
With Matt To’omua ruled out of Saturday’s game with a groin injury, Brumbies centre Irae Simone is tipped to make his Test debut in the No. 12 jersey. Jordan Petaia is also thought to have put pressure on Hunter Paisami at outside centre following his strong efforts off the bench in Auckland.