Pack mentality to determine Wallabies' fate
RUGBY UNION: The Wallabies' chance to put the All Blacks under pressure and give themselves a good chance in tomorrow night's first Bledisloe Cup Test goes back to the fundamentals of the game.
They won't win unless there is a significant improvement up front.
There is no doubt they have plenty of talent in the backline - Adam Ashley-Cooper, Israel Folau, Will Genia, Matt Giteau and Tevita Kuridrani (with Quade Cooper in the mix too) is a talented bunch. But I can't help but think back to what happened during the English series in June when their pack was beaten up - actually let's take it a step further and say "bullied”.
The All Blacks' coaches would have looked at that series and seen how emphatically the English pack dominated the Wallabies.
They have welcomed several players back from Europe, including Ashley-Cooper and Giteau, but none of them are forwards so they are stuck with the players who couldn't front in June. Even the loose forward trio of David Pocock, Michael Hooper and Scott Fardy, the cornerstone of the pack during the recent World Cup, were outplayed by James Haskell, Billy Vunipola and Chris Robshaw. Interestingly, Michael Cheika has dropped Fardy for this test at ANZ Stadium, with Ben McCalman preferred.
Cheika's loose forwards suffered at the hands of the English pack, even though that was a perceived strength. The tight five will have had to have made dramatic shifts in the scrum because England won penalty after penalty there, and Owen Farrell kicked goal after goal, which kept the scoreboard ticking over. The All Blacks' scrum is strong so the Wallabies will have to find an answer or they will leak points there.
The English pack was quite young in comparison to Australia's, and now the Wallabies are up against a world-class tight five, including locks Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, the latter a World Rugby player of the year.
Yes, the All Blacks have a new hooker in Nathan Harris, which may give Australia an opportunity to put pressure on in what I think is one of the Wallabies' strengths - the lineout, both on attack and defence. It's one area where they may push the All Blacks, but again, they struggled there against England.
I don't like to dwell on the past too much, but on the back of this year's Super Rugby form and the England series, this Test in Sydney is the Wallabies' best opportunity to try to show more than what they've shown so far this year. If they don't and get a hiding, they may be on track for one of the worst years ever for Australian rugby.
For me, it's all about the pack. Those eight men will determine if they are going to compete.