“Po-cock. Po-cock. Po-cock.” You can bet that’s the sound Michael Cheika hears his watch makes day and night since Australia secured their place in the final four and that more than any player, including Folau, he wants to have his *real* captain ready to play against Argentina.
Pocock, and Folau to a lesser extent, might have seemed huge misses against Scotland but unfortunately for the Wallabies, the injury worries start with Scott Sio, the cornerstone of their new found scrum solidity. Sio left the quarter final with his arm in a make-shift sling after a surprisingly dominant showing from the Scottish scrum. There have been some questionable looking pictures that have been making their way around in the last couple of days but the bottom line is that Sio is injured and a big doubt to make it through in time. The most recent update is that Sio has an elbow haematoma and has very little movement but they’re planning to give him as much time as possible to prove his fitness. It does not look good though which is a shame for him and for the Wallabies chances too. The last time they went up against the Argentinians, the Wallabies scored 4 tries in a 34-9 win but that doesn’t tell the full story of the match. It was a close, tough encounter most of the way through and the Wallabies withstood a Quade Cooper yellow card to pull away with two tries in the last 3 minutes while surviving a Foley meltdown from the kicking tee and a thorough going over in the scrum.
Slipper, who must have thought he threw the quarter final to Bennett, started the Argentina game but was repeatedly penalised while under severe pressure from Ramiro Herrera as the Argentine scrum destroyed the Wallabies early on before leaving the game just before half time due to a concussion (Sio actually came on and didn’t fare much better until Argentina subbed their starting front row off). On four occasions, Herrera drove straight through Slipper who also struggled against South Africa the previous week so it’ll be crucial for the Wallabies that Slipper can hold his own against Herrera if Sio can’t make it especially given that the relatively untested Toby Smith (his two tests so far have come against Uruguay and USA) will cover Slipper from the bench. Kepu, Moore, Polota-Nau and Greg Holmes will take up the rest of the front row spots. Look out for the replacement front row when they come on – recently they’ve looked very powerful at scrum time, never more so than when they pushed the Argentina replacement front row around at will in the same game this year.
The second row will almost certainly feature a resurgent Kane Douglas, who Leinster fans will have a few choice words about, and Rob Simmons. Simmons is the veteran lineout caller but presents a bit of an issue for the Wallabies. When they play ‘the Pooper’, they have to play Simmons to secure their set piece as neither Hooper nor Pocock are reliable jumping options. Simmons isn’t the strongest ball carrier and you won’t see him make many dominant tackles but he’ll put his fair share of effort into trying anyway and the Wallabies won’t mind making the trade-off for the extra firepower at the breakdown. Aside from Pocock and Hooper, who I’ll go into more detail a bit further on, the backrow features the unsung Scott Fardy who does a lot of the work that Hooper and Pocock don’t do, allowing them to generally swan around the pitch making the other team miserable. Look out for the gangly guy in a scrum cap clearing out rucks, defending on the fringes, and slowing down opposition ball – the Pooper strategy really wouldn’t work without him playing this way. The replacements will be interesting; expect to see Dean Mumm, who carried a few weak Argentine tacklers over line to score in July, cover the second row and 6 while Ben McCalman will cover 8.
I don’t see there being many changes in the backs (none if Folau is unavailable) after the backline generally did its job in helping Australia to 5 tries against the Scots. If Folau is available, and I expect him to be, he’ll take his spot back and leave Kurtley Beale on the bench. I’d like to see Beale stay in though, and take Mitchell’s spot on the left wing instead where he can play a Digby Ioane style role, running off the fly half’s inside shoulder to take some of the pressure off him. It’s no secret that Foley plays better when he has Beale with him to shoulder that playmaking responsibility and their chemistry would prove invaluable, as it did against England. Beale also seems to get the very best from Folau too. The other key player in the backline is Kuridrani. Picking Kuridrani was a controversial step initially as it meant taking Wallaby legend Ashley-Cooper out of his favourite position but it Kuridrani has excelled there for Australia. He provides a good crash ball option and, seeing as he actually passes the ball, the play actually gets to the wings! Australia will rely on Kuridrani to get them over the gainline when the game tightens up and he does a good job of drawing more than one defender to the tackle and bending the defensive line.
The worry for me is the fitness of the injured trio. Australia badly missed Pocock at the weekend but I’m sure that both he and Folau would have played had they been playing any of the other quarter finalists. There are two sides to making a decision not to play them against Scotland – one is that it smacks of hubris and Scotland would have made them pay for it if they hadn’t thrown to the back of a lineout in their own 22 (in pouring rain!!!) in the last few minutes of a game they were winning. The other side of it is that their injuries are bad enough that playing them would have been a big risk. If that is the case, I’m concerned about Pocock’s ability to contest the breakdown. A calf strain is easy to re-aggravate and if you’ve ever tried to contest a breakdown while staying on your feet, you’ll know that your calves will be at full stretch as you lean forward so his injury isn’t exactly something that won’t bother him once he’s past the worst of it.
After the win against England, there was a lot of talk about how Australia had played with two fetchers to England’s none and how the selection might prove to be a game changer in the future. Funnily enough, that’s just not true. Michael Hooper is not a fetcher. Australia struggled to contest the breakdown against Scotland and it wasn’t Hooper having a bad day – he just isn’t that player. He’s fast, tackles hard and wears 7 on his back so it’s easy to be confused into thinking that he is but in reality he’s actually more like a smaller and faster 6 or 8 that plays on the open side of the scrum. The reason that the Pooper works so well at the breakdown is that Hooper’s speed allows him to rush out and make a dominant tackle, leaving Pocock to arrive immediately after and clamp onto the ball. It’s Pocock that makes the combination work, not Hooper. If you put McMahon in instead of Hooper, you’d see a similar style and Pocock continue to get in over the ball and wreak havoc and his return from injury has been the main personnel difference between Ewan McKenzie’s ‘Wobblies’ and these Wallabies that are genuine contenders for the World Cup.
Without Pocock to steal the ball and pressure the opposition to lose numbers by having to flood the breakdown, some of the concentration flaws that plagued Australia resurfaced. There may have been an element of buying into the hype about their defence after the heroic effort against Wales but to have two players staring at each other while a Scot picked up the ball and strolled right between them will give them a kick and make sure they don’t make unforced errors against the Pumas. Having Pocock back will be a big boost and last time out, he evened out Argentina’s scrum dominance with his mastery of the breakdown. Coming back from injury, there’s a chance he might not be as effective this time around and Argentina will be better prepared (they had never played him before) with the inevitable selection of their own impressive openside, Matera, who was rested last time around. It’ll be important for Hooper to prevent Argentina from replicating New Zealand’s 2011 Semi-Final game plan against Pocock, where the All Blacks ran at Pocock, forcing him to make the tackle and then clearing the breakdown before he can contest it. Hooper’s speed and anticipation of running lines will be vital here – it might prove the difference between Argentina generating quick ball with Pocock lying at the bottom of a ruck somewhere, and Folau running free with an overlap because Pocock turned Marcelo Bosch over in the tackle.
From an attacking standpoint, the Wallabies have scored tries against Argentina regularly, with Folau flourishing against the unstructured Argentine defence. In the most recent match, where Nicola Sanchez had such a shocker that he was dropped the next week, Argentina kicked poorly and often straight to Folau. In Super Rugby this season, the New Zealand franchises had shown that good tactical kicking was an effective way of stopping Folau. Early on however, Sanchez kicked the ball:
from a right-centre ruck straight on to Folau on the right-centre of the pitch, 10 metres inside his half. The kick was long, low trajectory kick that gave no chance for one of the outside backs to chase it and Folau received the ball under no pressure at all. So far, this is unsustainable for the Wallabies without an equally poor repeat performance from Sanchez. From here Folau does what I expect the Australians to try often in this game if the ball is kicked to them, reversing the field of play. He identifies an area of the defensive line where there are two of his teammates (Pocock and possibly Kepu) between two Argentine defenders (one of whom is Sanchez) and heads towards the gap at pace. From here, he has two options. The first is to run between Pocock and Kepu and make the defenders come around them to make the tackle. From here, Australia can get quick ball and recycle it to make more ground. The second option, which Folau opts to take given that he has an overlap on the outside, is to fix the first defender and then shift the ball wide. Pocock runs a smart blocking line that Sanchez tries to milk a penalty from by running right into him and Tomane ends up with an easy run to the line. While Sanchez (and the then unavailable Hernandez) are unlikely to gift Folau as much space as he had here, the Wallabies could often use Folau in this way to create the half breaks that he can be lethal from.
Pocock: Quite simply the best fetcher in rugby. Without him, only Fardy provides consistent competition at the breakdown. Pocock is Australia’s best hope at stymieing the Pumas’ wide attacking game before it gets going and Argentina’s defensive structures (or lack of), are weak against quick turnover ball.
Slipper: Slipper just can’t afford to slip up. A talented player in the loose, he is capable of packing down well in the scrum and the solidity of Moore and Kepu alongside him might coax a good performance out of him. If Herrera does get the best of him, it could turn into a long day for the Wallabies.