Chalk another one up for Cheika
If, as history leads us to believe, it is defence and not tries that wins World Cups then we may as well start engraving Australia’s name on the Webb Ellis trophy for the third time.
The Wallabies delivered a heroic rearguard display on their way to a 15-6 victory against Wales at Twickenham to not only claim top spot in Pool A and book a favourable quarter-final clash with Scotland next weekend, but also sound perhaps the clearest warning yet that they are once again ready to lift the sport’s biggest prize.
This just a week after they stunned England – and a capacity crowd at English rugby’s HQ – with an electrifying and defence-shredding attacking performance. As coach Michael Cheika put it in the wake of his side’s latest stunning triumph, “If behind every great man there is a great woman, behind every great attack there is a great defence.”
This current Australia side is certainly blessed with some real stars of the international game in the likes of David Pocock, Matt Giteau, Israel Folau and Bernard Foley but make no mistake this latest triumph was an epic team effort that surely rivals the greatest ever produced by the men in green and gold.
Incredibly intense and enthralling, this try-less contest was just as compelling as the eight-try thrill-a-minute clash served up by Scotland and Samoa earlier in the day. Such is the sport’s and this tournament’s ability to repeatedly serve up compelling and contrasting drama.
Midway through the second half and under intense pressure from a Wales side determined to reduce a six-point deficit, underline their own credentials and avoid a last eight showdown with an improving South Africa, Australia buckled – mentally at least.
Twice in the matter of moments the Wallabies lost a man to the sin-bin with first scrum-half Will Genia and then lock Dan Mumm yellow carded for blatant infringements and as a result they were reduced to 13 men for what proved to be a pivotal period of the game.
But instead of crumbling during that seven minute siege, the Wallabies simply grew in stature with the outstanding Adam Ashley-Cooper and Ben McCalman among those who slammed the door time and time again on a Wales side whose shortcomings in attack were as stark as their rivals’ heroics on the back foot.
Australia did not just survive the onslaught but thrived in the aftermath and their lively play with ball in hand having escaped the hangman’s noose was rewarded with the only points of the second half – with Wales perhaps shell-shocked at their own failure to convert such a significant advantage into points.
Wales’ inability to make their numbers count is sure to give coach Warren Gatland some sleepless nights in the wake of this game especially after his side had worked so hard up to that point to largely shackle the much-vaunted Australia attack with their own usual vice-like defence.
Not only that, they kept the scoreboard ticking over thanks to the boot of fly-half Dan Biggar but the warning signs were arguably there as his run of 15 successful kicks in-a-row came to an end on the stroke of half-time.
More alarming was their reluctance or failure to stretch Australia with some width that would have surely created the time and space within which to take control of this contest. Wales’ failure on this front is as extraordinary as Australia’s defiance.
Wales captain Sam Warburton’s insistence on keeping it tight in the hope his side would muscle their way over the line is understandable at first but just plain confusing when they repeatedly met a dead end.
The power offered by centres Jamie Roberts and George North earned some hard yards as planned but there was little flair to accompany it and what they did muster lacked cohesion and a fear factor.
And even when they did manage to get over the line – on three separate occasions – they failed to ground the ball as a result of yet more headline-grabbing heroics from the Wallabies.
As far as Wallabies captain Stephen Moore is concerned there was nothing special about the gut-busting efforts of his players. “They were just doing their job,” he insisted post-game – but doing it extremely well to the tune of 126 tackles.
Asked following the game if his side’s battling display would boost their belief, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika insisted: “You don’t get belief from things like that, you need belief to get through things like that.”
The performance and the comments from both Moore and Cheika speak volumes about the unity that has been fostered within the Wallabies’ camp – an enviable characteristic highlighted even further by their preference for the term ‘finishers’ rather than replacements.
As impressive their back-to-back victories over England and Wales they are not the finished article. Apart from the obvious acts of indiscipline there were others – including one act of petulance from Moore in the first half that cost his side 10m and afforded Biggar a much easier kick which he duly made.
Cheika knows his side got away with one against Wales and while they may be able to conjure a repeat of their own outstanding endeavour there is next to no chance that they will meet another side so wasteful in the knock out stages of the competition.