Spring Tour: Slick Wallabies’ firepower too much for Brave Blossoms

They didn’t have it all their own way but the Wallabies’ improving 2017 continued with a fine attacking display against a gallant Japan on Saturday, downing the Brave Blossoms 63-30 in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final stadium in Yokohama, in a nine-try exhibition of their burgeoning firepower.

The concession of 30pts at the other end ensures that head coach Michael Cheika will still come away from this one wanting more from his troops – the concession of 17 penalties against a side that enjoyed just 44% possession will surely be a stat to revisit en route to Europe.

But the way in which his backline clicked and executed their opportunities; the impressive performance at no.10 from the increasingly invaluable Reece Hodge; and the offloading improvements exhibited by a hard-working pack, will give plenty of reason for optimism ahead of the impending clashes with Wales, England and Scotland.

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Just five minutes were on the board when the Wallabies opened their account. A no-arm tackle from Japanese hooker – and former Melbourne Rebel – Shota Horie, allowed Hodge to kick to touch and put his side in range, before a bulwarking charge off the lineout from Tatafu Polota-Nau set the platform, and quick ruck ball and a cut-out pass from Kurtley Beale put Samu Kerevi away.

The visitor’s scrum enjoyed some early pay and after a penalty gave them another prime lineout option from Hodge’s sledgehammer boot, they struck again. This time it was a much-cherished first-phase score – slick ball off the top, and Hodge in position to attract defenders and pop infield for an angled line from Henry Speight to race home.

Tatafu Polota-Nau_Wallabies v Japan_2017

Tatafu Polota-Nau was in rampant form for the Wallabies

Ticking along at a point-a-minute, the Wallabies’ pace, power and precision was proving too much for a Japanese side struggling to make much headway, and Rikiya Matsuda’s 16th minute penalty never looked likely to kick-start a full-blown riposte from the hosts. So it was no surprise when Polota-Nau, the best player on the park in the opening quarter, capped off a fine first 25 minutes with his third try in national colours, controlling and then finishing off a textbook driving maul to slide home, and Hodge’s prolific boot making it 19-3.

A couple of exuberant offloads almost carved open a vintage five-pointer for the visitors just before the half hour. The equally-impressive Sekope Kepu found fellow prop Scott Sio with soft hands, and if the loosehead’s similarly deft flick had landed in the lap of the onrushing Nick Phipps for try number four, instead of bypassing his desperate grasp, it would have been the perfect validation of the skills work being done on the training paddock by Mick Byrne.

With little opportunity to apply pressure or find a foothold in the game, Brave Blossoms skipper Michael Leitch pointed to the posts when his side got a penalty within range. But already three scores behind, and with the way the Wallabies were carving their defence apart at will, three-point nibbles seemed an unlikely pathway to redemption.

That decision became even more questionable when Matsuda duly pushed his kick wide of the uprights, and when the Wallabies concocted another five-pointer a couple of minutes later, the writing appeared to be well and truly on the wall.

A trademark lung-busting run from Sean McMahon opened the door, a neat delayed pass from Hodge put Beale through through the line and the utility back – playing in the no.15 jersey in the absence of John Eales Medallist Israel Folau – adjusted his feet to open up his left side in the tackle and put Tevita Kuridrani away to the chalk.

The Brumby centre had another before the break. A loose up ‘n’ under from Matsuda was fielded by Beale and shifted to the left flank where Japan was short of numbers. Reece Hodge duly found Marika Koroibete, who put in a fine left foot step and popped up for Kuridrani in the tackle, and the 26-year-old had clean air in front to grab his double.

Hodge’s success with all five conversions meant the 35-3 half-time score was the Wallabies biggest first half tally since they played Russia at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, a game they went on to win 68-22. The challenge was going on with it against Japan and putting them to the ‘katana’ in the same manner.

Yokohama Stadium_2017

Nissan Stadium in Yokohama will host the the 2019 Rugby World Cup Final

With their backs firmly against the wall the Brave Blossoms had no choice but to come out firing after the break, to preserve some dignity and give the fervent 40,000 crowd something to cheer about at least, if not turn the result back in their favour.

Afforded field position off a breakdown penalty they went for broke, driving a maul within 15 metres before replacement Wimpie Van Der Walt peeled off and smashed his way to a few feet short of the posts. The green and gold wall held firm but conceded an offside penalty, and when the hosts opted for a scrum – showing some innovation with winger Lomano Lava Lemeki putting the ball in, and scrum half Fumiaki Tanaka posing an attacking option in the backline instead – another surge from Van Der Walt paid dividends, with the TMO confirming he had somehow found the line under a mass of Wallaby defenders.

Riyaki Matsuda converted, and when he then slotted another three points a couple of minutes after the kick-off following more ill discipline, Japan had made a 10-0 start to the second stanza and the Wallabies were in danger of undoing their early work. But woken from their slumber, they soon concocted a reminder of their attacking prowess.

It’s origins weren’t exactly pretty, a rare pass to the floor from Hodge leaving Henry Speight to flounder and mop up a potential mess. But the flying winger soon turned water into wine with a darting run infield past static defenders, and when he put Beale away off his shoulder, the ever-alert fullback had Samu Kerevi alongside him, and the rampaging Reds centre made the finish look easy, swatting away one tackler and hitch-kicking clear before diving in style to slam the ball down single-handed.

Samu Kerevi_Wallabies v Japan_2017

Lift-Off: Samu Kerevi gets airborne after great work from Henry Speight and Kurtley Beale

Strangely, Japan persisted with their ‘take every point available’ approach to make it 42-16 through another Matsuda penalty in the 54th minute, while the Wallabies persisted with ball in hand, and the simple tactic of using Kerevi as a battering ram at every opportunity. And it was his charge off a scrum in the 57th minute that attracted two defenders and created the space for Kuridrani to shadow his run and profit from the offload to dive in for his hat-trick.

Captain Nick Phipps was in on the act before long. A messy exit play from Japan was punished without remorse when a seismic hit from Hodge on Matsuda forced the ball loose in-goal, and the skipper pounced for his seventh Wallaby try to rack up the half-century.

Coach Cheika rang the changes as the game ticked over into the final quarter, with Michael Hooper, McMahon and Adam Coleman departing, and Lopeti Timani, Ben McCalman – his 50th test cap – and debutant Matt Philip joining the fray. And Wallaby no. 915 didn’t take long to make an impression, carrying hard to punch his way over the gain line and allow Phipps to pop one up for a surprised, but elated, Rob Simmons to run in unhindered.

The copybook was blotted somewhat by the concession of another try, Japan illustrating the rolling maul prowess they developed so successfully under the previous tutelage of Eddie Jones and Steve Borthwick by marching the Wallabies back over their line for the otherwise quiet Amanaki Mafi to touch down. And they should have another shortly after, Sione Teaupa hitting a lovely line off a bullet pass from fellow replacement Yutaka Nagare, but failing to hold onto the pill with the line begging.

But if you can credit the home side with one thing in particular in a somewhat humbling performance, it was their refusal to buckle under the weight of points, or stray from their structures. Intent on playing out the full 80 they had the last say, industrious lock Kazuki Himeno spinning out of a tackle to find the line after Japan cleared quickly from a five-metre scrum, and earning his country’s highest ever tally against Australia in the process.

That may be of some consolation to head coach Jamie Joseph when he reviews the tape, and an irritant to counterpart Cheika in equal measure. But in mitigation, the Wallabies had emptied their bench long before Japan rallied, and on this evidence, the glorious high of victory over South Africa at the last World Cup would appear to be some way away from being repeated.

For the Wallabies, a job well done but plenty to dissect. Next stop Cardiff.

AUSTRALIA 63 (Tevita Kuridrani 3, Samu Kerevi 2, Henry Speight, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Nick Phipps, Rob Simmons tries; Reece Hodge 9 cons) defeated JAPAN 30 (Wimpie Van Der Walt, Amanaki Mafi, lnomi tries; Rikiya Matsuda con, 3 pens, Yu Tamura 2 cons) HT 35-3

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