Posts Tagged ‘Australia’

The highlight of the weekend was, as anticipated, Wales v Australia. What an incredible advertisement for the great sport of rugby union. Both sides were totally committed, as Australia attacked with panache and Wales defended heroically. The breakdown battle was intense, with Scott Fardy and Michael Hooper getting through a mountain of work to give the edge to Australia in that facet of the game. Amazingly, there were no scrums until the 46th minute, which contributed to a free-flowing game played at searing pace. But in the end, it was déjà vu for Wales as they once again lost to Australia by a small margin, 30-26.

The main headline was Australian flyhalf Quade Cooper’s sublime performance – he marked the occasion of his 50th cap for the Wallabies with a breathtaking display of his attacking skills. When he gets quick ball and accelerates onto it, he looks like he can do absolutely anything.  He has the best long passing game in the world which compliments an array of bedeviling short balls and offloads, and also continues to develop a very intelligent tactical kicking game.  After Saturday’s match, Welsh center Scott Williams compared defending against Cooper to “chasing shadows.”

It is amazing to think that Cooper was in the international wilderness not long ago, having fallen out with Australia’s then-coach Robbie Deans. Cooper didn’t feature in the Lions series this past summer, and it looked like, after a promising start to his Wallabies career, he might never reach 50 caps. Huge credit is due to the man for having worked hard both on his game and his maturity. He had developed a reputation as a party boy, but is now Australian vice-captain at just 25. And credit is also due to coach Ewen McKenzie for showing faith in a player who had performed so well for him at Super Rugby level for the Queensland Reds. Man-management is so important in rugby, as with all team sports, and clearly Cooper and McKenzie have a lot of trust in and respect for each other.

The Aussies will be hugely encouraged by this performance – Bob Dwyer (who coached the Wallabies to the 1991 World Cup) wrote on the always excellent Green and Gold Rugby that for the first 60 minutes of the game, it was “the best I’ve seen Australia play for 10 years.” Meanwhile, Welsh players said all the right things after the match – that their focus would immediately turn to the Six Nations – but privately they will be very disappointed. It remains to be seen how strongly they will bounce back from this defeat, but just based on the quality of the Welsh team, I would make them favorites to win a third straight Six Nations. It’s going to be a very exciting tournament though – England, Ireland, and France (in that order) have shown that they are legitimate contenders for the trophy as well.

Domestic Rugby News

It was business as usual in the English Premiership this weekend, as the top five clubs (Saracens, Northampton, Bath, Harlequins, and Leicester) all won their matches. In the French Top 14, the notable results were seventh-placed Grenoble beating second-placed Toulouse 25-18, and Stade Francais making a major statement, dominating powerhouse Toulon 23-0. In the Pro 12, which features teams from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Italy, the top four (Munster, Leinster, Glasgow, and Ulster) all won, although Munster and Ulster were less than convincing in defeating Dragons and Zebre, respectively.

Saturday November 30, 12 PM Eastern – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

The 2013 Autumn Internationals conclude with a match that should be an absolute cracker. Australia has had the edge over Wales in recent years. Since 2007, the teams have played 12 times, with Australia winning 11 – the sole Welsh win came in November 2008 in Cardiff. The margins have been razor-thin though – in the last three matches between these two, Australia has won by two points twice, and by one point once. Wales will be desperate to reverse this trend. The match has added significance as these two teams have been drawn in the same group for the 2015 World Cup. So each team is anxious to gain the psychological upper hand as rugby’s showpiece event draws nearer.

A compelling secondary storyline is what effect, if any, the manner of the British and Irish Lions’ victory over Australia this past summer will have on this game. It was a remarkable 41-16 victory for the Lions in the third and deciding match, and the defeat was a massive psychological blow for the Australians. The 2013 Lions team was dominated by Welshmen, and seven who started the third Test for the Lions will start for Wales on Saturday: Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Mike Phillips, Richard Hibbard, Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Lydiate, and Toby Faletau. For Australia, the number is eight: Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Christian Leali’ifano, Joe Tomane, Will Genia, Stephen Moore, James Horwill, and Ben Mowen. These players certainly know each other very well, and I expect three individual matchups to be crucial in determining the outcome of Saturday’s match.

Hooker: Hibbard v Moore will be a captivating battle – they are two of the best hookers in the world. They will be looking to target each other at scrum time and in the loose. Hibbard has been in the press this week talking confidently about reproducing the physicality the Lions exhibited during the third Test, and no doubt Moore will want to take his opposite number down a peg.

Lock: The Jones v Horwill matchup is another that will set the tone for the two packs. These two were involved in controversy during the first Lions Test when Horwill stamped on Jones’ face as Jones was trapped at the bottom of a ruck. Horwill was eventually cleared of the offense after a farcical judicial process, and the two captained against each other in the third Test. Horwill’s form since then has been so poor that he was stripped of the Australian captaincy by coach Ewen McKenzie, and nearly dropped from the team altogether.  When Horwill and Jones are at their best, they are seriously tough customers, and hopefully they will have a great battle on Saturday.

Scrumhalf: Phillips v Genia at number 9 will be fascinating. Genia has been in mostly bad form this season, and Phillips has been inconsistent on the field, in addition to off-field issues – last month he was embarrassingly fired by his club, Bayonne, for apparently showing up to a video session drunk. As with many scrumhalves, these two struggle with clearing the ball quickly from the base of the ruck. Too frequently both Genia and Phillips pick the ball up, have a look around, take a few steps sideways, and then finally pass. This is a major problem because it takes away time and space, allowing the opposition defensive line to rush up and apply pressure. When a team is functioning well, the scrumhalf should know where the next pass is going as he is getting to the ruck, and by the time he gets there, he should be passing immediately, off the ground. These two will be under major scrutiny on Saturday.

I expect another close game, but I give Wales the edge. They showed against South Africa three weeks ago that they are a very good side. Australia has shown glimpses of quality over the past month, but they are at the very end of a long, brutal season. Despite McKenzie billing this match as a “Grand Final,” I think it will be one hurdle too far for the tired Australians. Below: highlights from the last time Wales beat Australia. Wales by 5

Saturday November 23, 1 PM Eastern – Murrayfield, Edinburgh

Rugby Union is the fastest growing sport in the United States, with an estimated 1.13 million Americans already involved in the game. This number is only going to increase in the years to come. USA Rugby has done a great job investing in the grassroots of the game with Rookie Rugby, and just staged a very successful Test match – they managed to sell out 18,500-capacity PPL Park in Philadelphia with a few weeks to spare, and the Eagles produced a great performance (albeit in an ultimately losing effort) against a very strong Maori All Blacks side.  The full All Blacks are considering playing a Test here in 2014. The Eagles squad features a number of players currently plying their trade at top European clubs – Samu Manoa (Northampton), Chris Wyles (Saracens), and Blaine Scully (Leicester) all play in England, while Scott LaValla plays for Stade Français in Paris. All this without mentioning the inclusion of Rugby Sevens at the 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympics, and the exposure that will hopefully generate for both Sevens and Union here. So these are exciting times for rugby in America.

But there’s something else the game needs in order to grow here: star players (of any nationality) who are fun to watch not only for their strength, skill, and athleticism, but also for their style, the way they express themselves on and off the field. Look no further than Australia and Western Force winger Nick Cummins. Like Arizona Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, he is nicknamed “Honey Badger” for his tenacity, although unlike the diminutive Mathieu, Cummins is a big fella at 6’2″ and 219 pounds. He has become something of a cult figure in Australia for his post-match interviews, in which he dispenses with standard sporting clichés in favor of some delightful Australianisms. In the interview below, which was conducted after the Italy-Australia match two weeks ago, Cummins speaks fondly about how it’s “good to bag a bit of meat – tasted like a bit off the bone, actually.” (“Meat,” in this context, refers to “meat pie” which is rhyming slang for “try.”)

 

But alas, the Honey Badger is not in the Australian team to face Scotland – he was one of six players to be dropped by coach Ewen McKenzie on Monday for engaging in a bit of mid-week boozing before the 32-15 victory over Ireland last weekend. Although there was no alcohol ban or curfew in place, and although there were no reports of inappropriate conduct, McKenzie felt that the players in question had had a few too many and stayed out too late, and decided he needed to send a message that he is serious about establishing a professional team culture. Rugby went professional in 1995, but it still retains some of its amateur roots, especially with regard to teams getting into a bit of mischief while on tour. So I empathize with the players, but I can understand McKenzie’s perspective as well.

This long-winded introduction brings us to the game itself. In addition to the alcohol-related suspensions of Cummins and Adam Ashley-Cooper, inside center Matt Toomua is injured, and outside center Tevita Kuridrani is serving a five-week ban for an illegal tackle he made against Ireland. The result is four enforced changes in the backline – Mike Harris and Christian Leali’ifano come in at 12 and 13, respectively, while Chris Feauai-Sautia and Joe Tomane start on the wings. As Leali’ifano has never played senior rugby at 13 (usually considered the most difficult position defensively), when defending against Scotland, Australia may drop flyhalf Quade Cooper out of the line, with the backs outside him moving in one position. That would leave Harris and Leali’ifano at 10 and 12, where they have considerable experience, and Feauai-Sautia at 13, where he started five games for the Queensland Reds in Super Rugby this year. It will be interesting to see if this makeshift backline can be effective on Saturday.

The Australian pack is unchanged – they have been deservedly criticized this season, but produced a much better performance against Ireland. They will have to conjure up another huge effort against the Scottish pack. For the Scots, lock Jim Hamilton is a guy who, as the Aussies would say, provides real mongrel – exactly what Australia has frequently lacked of late. He is a hulking figure at 6’8″ and 275 pounds, and plays a very aggressive and confrontational style. In the back row, blindside Johnnie Beattie and openside Kelly Brown, who captains the side, are good, honest grafters, while number 8 David Denton is a major ball-carrying threat.

The Scots defended bravely for long periods against South Africa last week, but were completely outclassed by a very good Springbok team. I expect to see an improved performance this weekend. If the Scots are to beat Australia, their pack will need to provide a rock-solid platform for their unsteady backline. Murrayfield is one of world rugby’s great stadiums, and the crowd will lift the Scottish players. Finally, it remains to be seen what effect the distraction of the six players being suspended may have on the Australians. I see Scotland keeping this one close for 60 minutes before Australia pulls away. It may require a moment of magic from Cooper or Israel Folau to break the Scottish resolve. Australia by 10