Positional switch the key in Australia’s Rugby World Cup win over Fiji | Sport
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika made a key positional switch in their opening World Cup game against Fiji in Sapporo which not only helped them come from behind to win, but could be an important pointer for the rest of the tournament.
It was the subtle shifting of James O’Connor to inside-centre and Samu Kervi to outside-centre that helped the Wallabies to gain composure in attack.
In the Wallabies’ build-up to the Word Cup their new attacking style of play largely revolved around the powerful Kerevi crashing over the advantage-line to create momentum. But the Wallabies did not use Kerevi as a battering-ram against Fiji, at least not from the set-pieces. Instead, they tried to play an up tempo game, using the width of the field.
The problem was the Wallabies’ ball-handling skills did not match their ambition. In the first-half so many balls went to ground from poor passing and catching, under-mining their game-plan.
Cheika’s plan was for the Wallabies to control 65 per cent of possession. They exceeded that objective with 69 per cent of the ball in the first-half, but still trailed 14-12 to a highly disciplined and spirited Fijian side.
It was a very sloppy first 40 minutes by the Wallabies, with their scrum the only thing keeping them in the game. Early in the second-half Fijian outside-centre Waisea Nayacalevu scored a try to put the Pacific Island nation ahead 21-12. The Wallabies were in real danger of losing a pool game for the first time in World Cup history and making a shock early exit.
The try originated from yet another handling error by the Wallabies. From a lineout win just on the Fijian side of halfway the Wallabies took the ball into a maul and rolled it forward before executing a rehearsed move.
Halfback Nick White passed to Kerevi at first receiver and he took the ball to advantage line. When Kerevi turned to pass he seemed in two minds about whether to give it to O’Connor, who appeared to be a decoy, or out the back to five-eighth Christian Lealiifano. As a result the ball went to ground where it was scooped up by Nayacalevu who raced half the length of the field to score.
By no means was Kerevi the only player to throw a poor pass or drop a ball, but the Wallabies needed to get their ball-handling together, particularly if they wanted to go wide. Cheika responded by switching Kerevi and O’Connor around, a move that resulted in the two centres playing in positions that are more natural to them.
Until this year, Kerevi spent the vast majority of his career for the Queensland Reds and the Wallabies at outside-centre, while the utilitarian O’Connor played a lot of inside-centre early in his career for the Western Force. The main difference between Kerevi and O’Connor as ball-distributors is that the former is an off-loader and the latter is a passer.
With two playmakers in the inside backs the Wallabies were able to shift the ball wide without making quite as many handling errors and were able to capitalise on their dominance of possession and territory, gradually grinding the Fijians into submission.
Kerevi still made lots of runs and gained plenty of metres. He scored a try in the 68th minute after taking a pass from Will Genia at first receiver from a ruck five metres from the Fijian line and beating the defence easily. But if the Wallabies want to play a wide game they need the ball in the hands of ball-players to shift it quickly.
In two of the Wallabies’ tries scored on the edges it was interesting to note that Kerevi was not directly involved. Winger Reece Hodge scored in the right-hand corner in the 35th minute. From a ruck five metres out from the Fijian line White passed to Lealiifano, who cut-out Kerevi with a long ball to O’Connor, who linked with fullback Kurtley Beale to put Hodge over.
The Wallabies’ Fijian-born winger Marika Koroibete scored a try in the 71st minute that wrapped up the game at 39-21. The try featured Australian captain and openside flanker Michael Hooper reprising his long ago role as an inside-centre for Sydney club Manly.
From a lineout win the ball went through the hands of replacement five-eighth Matt Toomua, Hooper, O’Connor and reserve fullback Dane Haylett-Petty to Koroibete, who flew down the touchline. In both tries the ball was transferred quickly to the fast men on the edge.
The Wallabies clearly had a tactic to move the ball around to tire the Fijians, banking on their superior fitness in the last 20 to 30 minutes of the game. The bench players, or finishers as Cheika likes to call them, did a good job at the end, but the momentum was already swinging back to the Wallabies.
The question is will the Wallabies look to employ similar tactics in their blockbuster pool game against Wales next Sunday? The Australians are fortunate to have two centres who can interchange and vary the attack. If they want to play direct, Kerevi can take the ball up at inside-centre, but if they want to go wide, they can use O’Connor’s passing skills at second receiver.
It’s just a matter of knowing when to make the switch.