RWC 2015: What did the Six Nations mean for the Wallabies? Part 1

The last day drama that brought the curtain down on this year’s Six Nations, saw an unprecedented 221pts and 27 tries across the final three games. Ireland, England and Wales all finished with four wins from their five matches with only points differential meaning the trophy remained in Dublin for another year.

But was that final flurry of attacking rugby enough to unduly concern their counterparts in the Southern Hemisphere ahead of the Rugby World Cup, which kicks off in just five months time? The Wallabies face both England and Wales in Pool A’s ‘group of death’ and should they emerge unscathed, there is a strong chance they may meet either Ireland or France in the knockout stages – see graphic below.Wallabies RWC2015 potential draw

With that in mind, Rugby News runs the rule over Europe’s best, reflecting on their Six Nations efforts, how they are placed ahead of the World Cup and what challenges they may present the Wallabies if/when they meet at the game’s showpiece event.

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IRELAND
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Joe Schmidt_2015

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt is one of the game’s smartest thinkers

Deserved champions, although, they would be the first to admit that they didn’t fire on all cylinders across the entire competition. A disjointed start against Italy in round one was followed by a stoic rather than emphatic win over France in round two, while the loss to Wales in round four wasn’t exactly a poor performance but they came up short nonetheless. However, when they put their foot to the floor and ticked every box, as they did against England, and in the crucial last clash with Scotland, they proved to be an unstoppable force. Reaching their zenith in arguably two and a half games out of five and still walking off with the trophy should be an ominous sign for everyone else.

If you could level any kind of criticism at their feet, it may be that they didn’t feel the need to entertain in the process of winning a trophy – but since when has that been a basic requirement for sporting success? The absence of Brian O’Driscoll has not been as keenly felt as perhaps expected, particularly with the emergence of the brilliant Robbie Henshaw, who has formed a more than promising centre partnership with Jared Payne. But there is no doubt that a fair amount of creativity has been replaced with pragmatism.

Whether this is the style coach Joe Schmidt wants to adopt at the World Cup remains to be seen. You wouldn’t put it past the master tactician to have decided this was the way to get the chocolates against European opposition while keeping something in reserve, if and when the likes of Australia and New Zealand etc roll into town in five months.

One thing’s for sure, with 14 wins from the 18 tests since Schmidt took over, they’re definitely doing something right. The Wallabies would not be scheduled to meet them until the semi-finals at the earliest but having lost to Ireland in Auckland four years ago, they would be wary of another smash and grab raid should they meet again. And this is a much, much better Ireland.

Strengths:

Runs on the Board – Consecutive Six Nations titles and four losses from 18 tests must have engendered ample confidence that they know how to get the job done.

Joe Schmidt – A genuine super coach whose record speaks for itself. Leaves no stone unturned, has the utmost respect and trust from his players and analyses opponents with forensic detail.

Johnny Sexton – Now arguably the finest flyhalf in world rugby but let’s not write Dan Carter off just yet! If he’s on – and he usually is – Ireland are a formidable beast.

Weaknesses:

Lack of creativity, particularly through the midfield – Relevance may depend on Schmidt’s approach to each game.

Over reliance on the Connor Murray/Johnny Sexton halves combination – They are such a fulcrum of Schmidt’s game plan that if either drops out, Ireland are most definitely a lesser opponent.

Strength in depth – While their first XV is a daunting proposition and their matchday 23 significantly stronger than in recent history, a couple of injuries to key positions across a four-to-seven game tournament, depending on their progress, could leave them vulnerable.

Wallaby Watch:

Any meeting between the two in October would see the coaching might of Schmidt, and his predecessor at Leinster, Michael Cheika, lock horns in what shapes up to be a fascinating tussle. Schmidt won round one last November but Cheika barely had his feet under the Wallaby door. Given his knowledge of many of Ireland’s finest from his time in Dublin, you can bet he has watched their recent games with interest and is likely to have something up his sleeve should they meet at the business end of the tournament. Ireland’s recent record against Australia, coupled with the memories of that famous night in Auckland at the 2011 World Cup, marks them down as the most dangerous of opponents.

Last five meetings:

2014 Ireland 26-23 Australia (Dublin)

2013 Australia 32-15 Ireland (Dublin)

2011 Ireland 15-6 Australia (Auckland – RWC)

2010 Australia 22-15 Ireland (Brisbane)

2009 Ireland 20-20 Australia (Dublin)

 

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ENGLAND
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Ben Youngs_2015

Flyhalf George Ford has taken England’s attack to another level

So near and yet so far. Again. Runners-up for the fourth year in a row, England’s inability to cross that final threshold still leaves a bevy of doubters when it comes to their World Cup potential. As good as Sir Clive Woodward’s vintage England side were for a few years, it wasn’t until they’d got their own monkey off their back with their 2003 Grand Slam, that their title credentials for that year’s World Cup truly writ large.

This was the time for Stuart Lancaster’s side to step up, grab some silverware and engender belief amongst both themselves and their supporters. Fair enough, they went within one converted try of doing exactly that, but as incredible a performance as that last round effort against France undoubtedly was, they were left chasing an unlikely points total due to their profligacy a week earlier, when they had let Scotland off the hook in a dominant second half.

But even then, they shouldn’t have let it come down to points. A bloody minded, clinical victory over Wales in Cardiff in round one, when they were severely undermanned through injuries, promised great things. The eventual dispatching of Italy in round two had its glitches along the way, but a 30pt margin over anyone is not to be sniffed at. No, it is the way they played in Dublin in round three, when they really, really had to step up to the plate and give of their absolute best against the holders and favourites, it is there that their Six Nations challenge faltered, and why question marks as to their ability to cope when the heat is turned up to the max, remain.

They were outmuscled, outfought and outthought by Ireland, their execution under pressure faltering in the Aviva Stadium cauldron. Time and again under Lancaster, this England side, while immeasurably improved, offering up a far better brand of rugby than the majority of their predecessors, and certainly heading in the right direction, don’t appear to learn from their mistakes or be maturing enough as a side to warrant the belief that they can emerge from the toughest group at the World Cup and win three straight knockout games against the best teams in the business. Home advantage is a major string to their bow but they realistically have five months and three ‘friendlies’ remaining to iron out all the creases in order to benefit. No-one remembers a gallant loser.

Strengths:

George Ford – His vision and running game opens far more doors than the reliable but generally safety first Owen Farrell.

Strength in Depth – The emergence of Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson adds to a healthy rollcall of talent, particularly in the backs. England do have the pool of talent with which to succeed, picking the right combinations is the key.

Courtney Lawes – Could even have made a shortlist for player of the tournament despite missing the first three rounds, such was his influence. Brutal defence, phenomenal work rate, unmatched physicality. World class.

Weaknesses:

No runs on the board – No silverware at the HQ trophy room since 2011 and with four runners-up placings in a row, a blossoming legacy as ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride’.

Starting XV? – Have arguably the best talent pool of players in many a long year but if everyone is fit and available – not a luxury Stuart Lancaster has been afforded in fairness – does he know his starting XV? They still need to nail down combinations in the backline – Tuilagi (if fit) or Burrell? Joseph or Twelvetrees? Watson or Rokaduguni? Nowell or May? Nice problems to have but problems all the same.

Manu Tuilagi’s injury – Out with a groin injury since October, the imposing centre’s ability to get over the gainline may be the missing cog that makes this promising attack truly click for 80 minutes, week-in, week-out, rather than the blistering 20-40 minute salvos it has teased with thus far. Lancaster and co. will be sweating over his availability.

Wallaby Watch:

One of the oldest and fiercest rivalries in sport, Australia and England have a particularly colourful history in rugby, none more so than at the World Cup. The Wallabies triumphed in the group stages of the inaugural tournament back in 1987 before humbling England again at Twickenham in the 1991 final. Since then however, Australia have come unstuck, losing Quarter-Finals in both 1995 and 2007, and the final itself on home soil in 2003. Lose this Pool A clash and qualification probably comes down to the last game against Wales. Despite their current world rankings status (is that ever truly relevant?), their last meeting in November showed that the Wallabies have more than enough weapons to hurt the host nation, they just need to secure the set-piece ball in order to do so.

Last five meetings:

2014   England 26–17 Australia (London)

2013   England 20–13 Australia (London)

2012   Australia 20-14 England (London)

2010   England 35–18 Australia (London)

2010   England 21–20 Australia (Sydney)

STICK IT IN YOUR DIARY:

3rd October 2015 – England v Australia – Twickenham Stadium, London

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WALES
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Leigh Halfpenny 2015

Leigh Halfpenny is one of the best fullbacks in the game but is he about to move to the wing?

Their world was turned upside down after an opening day defeat at home to England, the pundits writing off their title chances there and then and ready to consign ‘Warrenball’ to history as a game plan that had been figured out and usurped. Four wins later however, they briefly held the Six Nations trophy in one hand before the heroics of Ireland and England relegated them to third place on points differential only. A battling win in Edinburgh was followed by a fairly comfortable dismissal of a benign France in Paris, which set things up nicely for the visit of unbeaten Ireland in round four. It was here that Wales rediscovered everything that was good about their game in 2011-12, a period which saw them win a Grand Slam and go within a penalty kick of a place in the World Cup Final.

Using gigantic battering rams to get you over the gain line isn’t exactly a novel approach but when it is executed with perfection, it is undoubtedly hard to stop. Couple that with one of the finest defensive efforts you could ever hope to see and the extra string to their bow that the flowering halves combination of Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar have brought to the table, and Ireland suddenly found themselves facing an immovable object. They didn’t play poorly, although it was by far Johnny Sexton’s worst 80 minutes in the green shirt under Schmidt, it was just that Wales were better on the day – hungrier, fiercer and more desperate.

What their efforts a week later in Rome showed was that if needs must – as they certainly did on that day – they do have the ability to run the ball, use some width and be a genuine try scoring threat, rather than relying to some extent on the metronomic boot of Leigh Halfpenny. Ironically, it was the enforced absence of Halfpenny, injured just before half-time, that probably forced their hand. The introduction of Scott Williams to the wing and the shift to fullback by Liam Williams, gave a chance for both talents to showcase their attacking ability. A seven try second half followed and all of a sudden, Welsh ambition seems to be burning brightly once again. They will be a handful.

Strengths:

Leigh Halfpenny – Not just the best goal kicker in rugby but also one of the best readers of the game with uncanny positional sense; is superb under the high ball and can spring a counter attack from anywhere. Will he be moved onto the wing to accommodate Liam Williams at fullback?

Backrow – Arguably the most complete backrow in Europe, if not the world. Skipper Sam Warburton, in tandem with Taulupe Faletau and Dan Lydiate, with Justin Tipuric adding plenty from the bench, are the fulcrum of this Welsh side.

Jamie Roberts – The crash ball was invented for this guy. Enjoying a stellar season with Racing Metro 92 in France and back to his vintage Lions best from 2013. Ominous.

Weaknesses:

No Plan B? – The theory persists that this is still a one dimensional side. Stop their go-forward and you stop Wales. Gatland’s challenge is to mollify their basic ingredients with some of the younger talent currently on the fringes – and don’t be afraid to run it!

Tighthead – Samson Lee is without doubt one of the most promising tightheads in the game but if he fails to recover from the achilles injury he picked up against Ireland, Welsh propping stocks could be at straining point. The call is for Gatland to go cap in hand to the recently retired legend Adam Jones and urge him to reconsider. Don’t hold your breath.

History – For all their legendary players and the fact that the sport is a religion in Wales, the national side have yet to succeed at the sport’s top table, mustering a third place finish back in 1987 and finishing fourth behind the Wallabies in 2011. In order to change that paltry record, they will need to defeat one, if not both, England and Australia at Twickenham to progress to the Quarters where the likes of Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa await. History beckons.

Wallaby Watch:

As the results below show, Wales have been Australia’s bunnies for a few years now. But closer inspection also tells you that there hasn’t been much between the two sides. Facing them at Twickenham, rather than a raucous Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, is certainly advantageous to the Wallabies and, depending on earlier results, this final group game could well be a decider. Win and you’re through. Lose and you’re on the plane home. Having only lost to them twice in the last 27 years, Australia should go in with a fair degree of confidence.

Last five meetings:

2014   Australia 33-28 Wales (Cardiff)

2013   Australia 30-26 Wales (Cardiff)

2012   Australia 14-12 Wales (Cardiff)

2012   Australia 20–19 Wales (Sydney)

2012   Australia 25–23 Wales (Melbourne)

STICK IT IN THE DIARY:

10th October 2015 – Wales v Australia – Twickenham Stadium, London

In Part 2, we look at France, Italy and Scotland…

First published by Rugby News on: April 11th, 2015

 

 

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