This year it is Australia who will be taking on the Grand Slam challenge. They face Wales on the 5th of November, Scotland on the 12th, France on the 19th, Ireland on the 26th and England on the 3rd of December. But what do they have to do to achieve a Grand Slam?
Australia has been having a rough time of it of late. The Wallabies are a shade of the team we saw last year at the World Cup and beating the Four Home Nations, and possibly France as well, might be a bit too much for them. But there is no such thing as a weak Wallabies team.
Scotland should not be too big a problem for the Wallabies, though Scotland has proven in the past number of years they can shock them as well. In the cauldron of Murrayfield, the Wallabies have to be on their toes and not let the Scots get their running boots on.
The Scots have a backline to rival any in the world and a pack of forwards to match, but they are not as strong as a lot of other teams. If the Wallabies let them get into their game, they will let it come down to physique. And letting it come down to that will play a role in their next games.
Wales is unpredictable. A fully fit Wales will be a massive challenge. Sadly though, the last we saw of Wales they were getting mullered by the All Blacks. But Wales are fast, they can take advantage of any mistakes the stuttering Wallabies make. Yet what Wales may do is an unknown, due to injury problems and what we saw of them last.
Ireland lost their test series in South Africa over the summer, but they gave it a good run. There is no mistaking the quality Ireland has, but Ireland has a weak spot that was exposed during the Six Nations. They have a tendency to get suckered into the forwards slug fest. They have a host of new recruits in the team, and that might be a risk for them, but at the same time it could pay off.
There has to be a changing of the guard soon anyway, and with all four Irish provinces flying, they have ample resources. But that tendency to get suckered into a short forwards game is worrying.
When Ireland use their three quarters properly and begin to run, they are one of the more dangerous sides in the world. And Australia has to be wary.
For the other two matches, France is a complete unknown. Like the Wallabies they are never weak, but nobody really knows what they can do. They did not do well against Argentina, but that is testament to Argentina’s growth more than France’s weakness.
During their summer tour, they too rang the changes, but that was also out of necessity, with the Champions Cup final and the Top 14 final still to take place back home. But while France are never weak, we know them to be either absolutely brilliant or absolutely terrible.
For the Grand Slam, beating France could be a cherry on the cake, but it is the Home Nations that count. They just have to survive France, as it is England which will really test them.
England, of course, beat them resoundingly in the summer. Some of the difference between the sides was because of absolutely French refereeing, but England won those matches and the series deservedly. England were very dominant in the forwards, which got them a lot of possession and the three quarters were deadly.
The Ford – Farrell combination in midfield is an instance of a second fly half on the field working well. Farrell is a good kicker and is effective as long as he does not have to work like a first centre typically does. With the destructive running of Vunipola at 8, and Joseph and Brown outside him, and Ford controlling the game, there is a second playmaker who can find space and steer things.
And that is a key difference.
So what does Australia actually have to do?
First of all, Cheika has to cut out the stupidity of playing Foley at centre and Cooper at fly half. It does not work. While the second playmaker strategy worked in the past, and while it does work for England, it does not work for Australia now. Foley is the leader of the Aussie backs and not anyone else. He is wasted as a centre.
Playing Foley at fly half and Cooper at centre might work, but not the way they do things now. Bledisloe 3 was proof of that. When Foley lead it, they played a great game against the All Blacks, but the moment Cooper came in and Foley moved to centre, their backline became a shambles.
Secondly, the Wallabies have to sort out their back row. During the World Cup the hardcock combination of Hooper, Fardy and Pocock worked very well, but with the constant reshuffling and the injuries there have been, that particular back row has not played since. But it seems they are now back together, with McMahon and Timani to fill in.
The reason this is so important is because Australia have struggled to get possession against strong forward teams. When they cannot get their back row in the right place fast enough, they just do not get clean ball and they lack the destructive force around the fringes that is so desperately needed.
A third key point for them will be sorting out discipline. Against England during the summer, and again during the Rugby Championship, they just gave away far too many penalties. They got unnecessary cards and it cost them. During the first Bledisloe match, Adam Coleman got sin binned, but he was lucky not to be sent off. In fact a number of Australian players were very lucky that day.
With repeat infringements and dumb play, they put the noose around their own necks and had the referee been less lenient, they could have ended the match without 15 on the pitch.
Lastly, the Wallabies have to have some good luck in the backline. They have struggled with injuries there, and Cheika has selected a side with almost 3/4 forwards. Of course the forwards are more likely to pick up injuries due to the work they have to do, so it might work out for the best. But there really aren’t many spares in the backs. Folau, for example, is the only specific full back.
While Foley and the wingers can probably fill that gap during a match, should anything happen to him, it leaves them with a massive problem. And having to fly players in to fill gaps is never ideal either. Cheika might have done well to leave a couple of forwards at home and replace them with strong utility backs who are capable of filling such gaps.
Whether the Wallabies are truly capable of getting the Grand Slam remains to be seen. But once they have faced the music in Cardiff, we will know more about their chances.
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