The signs of concern were there for all to see earlier in the week – the frown-lines when Eddie Jones first learned that he was likely to have to play the critical Pool C match against Fiji without his two biggest forwards, Taniela Tupou and skipper Will Skelton.
The game itself resembled one of those slow-motion car crashes, when you can see what is going to happen a few moments before it occurs, but can do nothing to avoid it. Time stretches out, the eyes open wide, and what lasts only a few seconds feels far, far longer. It is never easily washed away from the memory.
That is how the Wallabies’ build-up must have felt, after the announcement of Tupou’s absence and Skelton’s withdrawal from their starting XV, the media release of the Fijian side, and in the prior knowledge of Irishman Andrew Brace’s appointment as the referee. From the Australian viewpoint, it was an accident waiting to happen.
Eddie Jones did everything but admit it in public during his post-match presser:
“We can’t blame the loss on Tupou and Skelton not being there. We have got to be good enough to go without them.
“The penalties – when you aren’t on the front foot, it’s quite easy to give away penalties.
“So, I’m not worried about our discipline, I’m worried about our ability to get on the front foot. [In] any game of rugby, you’ve got to get on the front foot.
“We just couldn’t get one [any] part of game going. If we were able to get our maul going that could have changed the game, but we couldn’t get that going,
“We didn’t get any ascendancy in the scrum, they beat us at the breakdown, so that was the difficult thing about it.”
If you cannot win the gain-line on the carry, it means that you are losing the collisions. If your opponents are trundling forwards at scrum-time and in the maul, it means you are going backwards. If you cannot remove threats to your ball-carrier after the tackle is made, it means you cannot play any constructive rugby. Australia lost all the pure power contests that the game has to offer against Fiji, and that was all she wrote.
Fiji filled their starting team with players renowned for their defensive skill in the contact zone – both in the tackle and at the situations which arise just after it is made. They knew that the likes of Josua Tuisova and Levani Botia would be richly rewarded for their efforts in that area. All referees have a slight instinctive preference at ruck-time, either favouring the ball-carrier or rewarding the pilferer, and Andrew Brace falls into the second of those two categories.
Botia and Tuisova duly enjoyed a major influence on proceedings, generating three forced fumbles in the tackle, and five turnovers at the post-tackle between them. By the end Australia were losing one in every nine rucks that they set, and you cannot make a living on attack under that kind of statistical cloud.
The firm of ‘Botia & Tuisova’ operated together like a top-flight double team, one tagging in the other seamlessly to ramp up the pressure – if one didn’t get you, the other surely would complete the job. They ganged up on the two big Aussie ball-carriers remaining in the run-on side, No 8 Rob Valetini and No 12 Samu Kerevi:
In the first example, Wallabies No 10 Carter Gordon offers the ball to Valetini on a cutback run, but ‘the firm’ are waiting for him, with both waiting to strip the ball on the ground immediately – aided by subtle deflection block by No 5 Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta on the first cleanout support, Fraser McReight.
The screenshot amply points up the hardships for the Wallabies cleanout against the deadly duo throughout the game. Jordian Petaia is already on the deck and the twin vultures are hovering. You may take care of one, but can you manage both? The odds are against you:
The only real difference between the two instances is that it takes one single ruck to turn over the Wallabies in the first – with Tuisova stopping Kerevi in his tracks and Botia stripping him of the ball – and two in the second, with a joint tackle by the Fijian No 7 and No 12 on Kerevi prefacing a winning counter-ruck led by Botia on second phase.
Australian injuries and Fijian selections were circumstances beyond the control of Australian head coach Eddie Jones, but there were also issues arising from Wallabies selection which very clearly could have been avoided. Jones has been wedded to the notion of Rory Arnold’s slightly less-talented and less-productive twin brother in his starting second row, but on Sunday afternoon Richie conceded four penalties on his own, and he should have picked up a fifth in the lead-up to the first Wallabies try of the game:
The big man clearly plays at the ball on the ground and prevents the Fijian ball-carrier from placing the ball after the tackle, and the Wallabies run away to score a cleverly-conceived quick lineout try by Mark Nawaqanitawase, after the intermezzo of a 50/22 kick by scrumhalf Nic White.
The utilisation of, and support for young No 10 Carter Gordon rightly became a big talking point after the game. Eddie bristled at the mention of comments by ex-All Blacks centre Sonny-Bill Williams on Stan Sport’s live television commentary:
“My take on this whole ordeal of a game is, I feel for Carter Gordon right now. Because he doesn’t have a Quade Cooper or [Bernard] Foley to go back to the hotel and say, ‘Bro, these things happen but you know you will be better.’
“It’s really tough seeing him get pulled [replaced after 50 minutes] like that… These selections – we’re in a high-performance arena, and sometimes you live and die by your selections and Eddie Jones got found out tonight.”
“‘Obviously I have learned a lot from Quade and he has been massive for my growth in the last few months,” Gordon told the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year. “We are still super-close and we still talk a little bit. He sent me a really nice message when the squad came out and said he is here for me, and is going to continue to help me as much as he can. So that just shows the person he is, and how good a bloke he is.’
“Cooper may have blocked calls from Jones and Hamish McLennan, the Rugby Australia CEO, but he still supports his mates however he can. He probably would have helped on the field too.”
The issues have been compounded by the replacement of one of Australia’s outstanding back-line performers in the warm-up matches, fullback Andrew Kellaway, by Ben Donaldson in the No 15 jersey. Donaldson is in to kick the goals that Carter cannot, and offer additional playmaking support to the youthful outside-half.
When push comes to shove, the negatives of this situation outweigh the positives. That was especially true of the formation the Wallabies used to receive the high ball in the encounter at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard. Whenever they expected a contestable kick, Gordon was positioned on the receiving touch-line (“1”) with Donaldson away from the ball further infield (“2”) and Nawaqanitawase tracking back on the far side (“3”):
Australia has kicked off to the left, and Gordon shifts over to the expected receiving side instead of the nominal fullback Donaldson. Typically, those roles would be reversed. Why was Donaldson not trusted to field the high kick? Why was more pressure heaped on Gordon’s shoulders?
In practice, it did not work out well at all:
In the first example, Gordon is rudely thrown into touch after making the receipt, in the second he has the opportunity to run the ball back but (fatally) gets too close to the flying challenge of Josua Tuisova. The hill rapidly became a mountain: another fumble on a hit by Eroni Mawi, another unfortunate encounter with Tuisova when the bouldering Fijian No 12 simply ran over the top of the Rebels pivot on first phase, just as Jonathan Danty had done in the final warm-up against France.
The coup de gràce arrived near the start of the second period:
Gordon does not get anywhere near the high ball, Donaldson is too far away to help, and Tuisova gleefully picks up the gift of a loose ball to run away and score in the corner. The Flying Fijians never looked back and the young Wallaby, upon whom so many Australian hopes for the future are pinned, looked crestfallen. He was subbed off only seven minutes later to prevent further psychological and physical damage, but by then it was probably too late.
In terms of preparation, Fijian head man Simon Raiwalui and his coaching staff won the game-before-the-game hands-down. They understood that the absence of Will Skelton and Taniela Tupou from Wallabies ranks would give them the upper hand at scrum and maul, and so it proved.
They knew what referee Andrew Brace would and would not allow at the breakdown and they picked Josua Tuisova and Levani Botia to exploit his preferences. They both delivered homme-de-match performances in response. Tuisova got the award but it could just as easily have been his brother-in-arms.
Raiwalui and his coaches probably also foresaw the issues that the playmaking axis of Carter Gordon and Ben Donaldson might experience on defence, and the No 10 was taken to pieces under the high ball with Donaldson being shifted away from his natural role. Add in a sprinkling of thunderous Fijian runs and tackles, and the Rebel playmaker’s confidence has been left in tatters. What he wouldn’t give for a Quade in the squad right now.
There was nothing Eddie Jones could have done about the injuries to Tupou and Skelton, but there was plenty he could have done about the non-selection of a front-line goal-kicker, about the Wallabies’ backfield organisation, and about their skill priorities at No 10 and No 15. It has also taken him too long to discover that Richie Arnold is not in the same sphere of operations as his twin brother.
Fortunately, the game is not yet up for either Eddie or Australia at this World Cup, and there is a repêchage. There remains a realistic chance for the Wallabies to beat Wales and create a cut-throat competition for the top two spots in Pool C, a competition which will be decided by bonus points accumulated.
Take a punt on Pone Fa’amausili to provide some Thor-like power on the carry for 40-50 minutes, slot in Matt Philip alongside Nick Frost in the second row and bring back the sorely-missed Kellaway to provide stability at the back, and a green-and-gold phoenix may yet rise from the ashes of the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard. The highly unlikely is still quite possible.