SYDNEY, Australia — They’re the attacking numbers giving Wallabies fans a semblance of hope ahead of Bledisloe I — that is providing Michael Cheika has sorted his side’s defensive woes from 2016.
The Wallabies completed their preparations for the Bledisloe opener with the captain’s run at a gusty ANZ Stadium on Friday morning, the Australians again declaring their intention to play an attacking game.
“The boys have been itching to get out on the field,” Wallabies skills coach Mick Byrne said. “The boys have been working hard, they want to back their fitness and we’re going to play a running game.
“Our challenge is to hang on to it. If we’re going to run the ball, hang on to it and back our skills because the quality of work these guys have done. I think you’re going to see a pretty frenetic game tomorrow night.”
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Australia have certainly picked a side to attack, though their handling could be tested if the wind continues to blow like it did on Friday. Cheika’s decision to blood a midfield combination of Kurtley Beale and Samu Kerevi reflects the Wallabies’ intentions, but it’s Beale’s partnership with Bernard Foley that looms as a potential game-breaker.
The Waratahs pair will be playing their first Test together as 10-12 duo, reverting to the NSW setup that helped secure the franchise a maiden Super Rugby title in 2014. The Waratahs rode an up-tempo, attacking game plan all the way through to the final, before Foley sunk the Crusaders with a 78th minute penalty goal.
Numbers provided to ESPN by Opta Stats confirm just how dangerous Foley and Beale were as a midfield partnership during their time together at the Waratahs, and how they may be able to get the best out of Israel Folau and Samu Kerevi. In 2014, the Waratahs pair combined for 20 try-assists, 33 clean breaks and 23 break passes. Those numbers put Foley and Beale inside the top 10 in each category, highlighting their ability to create space of those outside them – Beale in particular.
Twelve months on, Beale and Foley combined for 27 break passes to sit second and third overall while Beale topped the charts for that stat on his own in 2014. The 28-year-old’s previous 60 Tests have all come at fullback, fly-half or off the bench; but No.12 may yet be the position from which he makes the biggest contribution at Test level, particularly with the damaging Kerevi outside him.
The Queensland centre had been in superb attacking form in Super Rugby this season before suffering a broken hand at the end of April. Kerevi’s rotten luck continued when he then injured his ankle against the Blues in Samoa, ruling him out of the Wallabies’ entire June campaign.
Still, Kerevi’s attacking stats held up against some of the most damaging players in Super Rugby – particularly the 57 beaten defenders [5th]. He also made 14 clean breaks [14th] and 19 offloads [14th] in what was a shortened season, and that was playing in a Reds side that won just three games all year.
Samu Kerevi Matt King/Getty Images
But where there is hope in attack for the Wallabies this weekend, there appears to be despair in defence.
While Beale enjoyed stellar attacking seasons at No.12 for the Waratahs in both the 2014/15 Super Rugby seasons, he missed 29 and 27 tackles respectively, placing him inside the top 10 worst defenders in consecutive years. Kerevi, meanwhile, missed 23 tackles before he was cut down by injury in 2017; the fact he has played little rugby in recent months may also be a concern.
But it’s the memory of a 42-8 hammering at ANZ Stadium last year that perhaps will most worry the Wallabies, a defensive effort in which they missed a whopping 40 tackles and conceded six tries; one that highlights the scope of the task that Beale and Kerevi face on Saturday night.
“We’ve been working hard on that area [defence],” Cheika said Thursday. “Again last year, when I look at that game and I still believe that I over trained them in the lead up because I was stressed about their fitness, that’s a mistake we haven’t made this year.
“We’ve worked really hard on the d [defence] because we know it’s going to be a very important part of the game because of how potent they are in attack. We’ll take a few risks sometimes to get the outcome that we want, but I believe we’re well prepared in that area.”
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