Slow-starting Wallabies need to address pool-stage weaknesses

Whatever their skipper might say, Australia need to avoid shipping soft tries if they are to compete with England for the full 80 minutes.

TOKYO, 18 Oct - Australia have had problems in the early stages of their matches and were behind at half-time against both Fiji and Wales.

Captain Michael Hooper claimed on Friday that this was not an issue - and even suggested it might somehow be part of a gameplan.

But whatever mind games are being played, the Wallabies will need to avoid conceding early points in Saturday's quarter-final against England.

Australia were 14-12 down at half-time to Fiji in their opener, having been 8-0 behind after eight minutes, following a Peceli Yato try. The Wallabies defence was not organised, as you can see in the video below.

Nic White kicks an inaccurate box kick to one of rugby's most dangerous players, Semi Radradra, who plays in the centre or on the wing. He is tackled shortly after receiving the ball in a positive start, but mistakes follow.

Simple Fijian passing across the line cuts through a disorganised Australia drift defence. The Australians bunch together to defend the pod. Once the ball goes to the backline Australia have nobody left to defend out wide. 

Then the combination of wingers Josua Tuisova and Waisea Nayacalevu, and back-row Yato, is too good to be halted by scrambling defenders. Wallabies coach Michael Cheika will have been disappointed by how easily Fiji scored against his side.

Australia gave up easy tries in all their pool matches, conceding six. That is the third-most among the quarter-finalists, and the Wallabies defence will clearly have to be sharper if they are to progress further in the tournament.

Asked about the slow starts, Hooper said in his final media conference before facing England: "It’s important to understand, and it’s something we’ve looked into, what starting well actually looks like, and I have started to be of the belief that starting well is preparing well for the back end of the game when it opens up a bit.

 "Starting well is sticking to your principles early, not getting flustered by things that are happening, not getting flustered by the scoreboard because you don’t win the game at half-time.

"We want to start well, (but) what does that actually look like? It looks like sticking to our processes and playing the game we set out to play and being confident with whatever comes at us throughout that period. That’s starting well in my opinion."

So, how do those processes look? Australia are traditionally known for having a below-par scrum. This is not the case any more. Their scrum at this World Cup has been one of the best at stealing ball or winning penalties.

As the video below shows, they drive Fiji, who were scrummaging well themselves, backwards in the scrum. Following this they build good momentum and go through multiple phases, culminating in a try for skipper Michael Hooper. It all started from the scrum, which gave them front-foot ball.

Australia have at times played with too much ball in hand. They have not kicked or used an "exit strategy" when they've needed to, which can be seen in their match against Georgia. The Lelos are a forwards-orientated team.

The Wallabies played them in poor conditions and insisted on keeping the ball in hand when they needed to kick. This benefited the Georgia team because it played to their strengths.

In the clip below, they use an exit strategy but poorly. Wales kicked back and won a free kick due to a Wallabies error. The Australian kicking game will need to be more accurate against England, who kick the most from hand of any team in the tournament and turn over ball the second-most.

Australia, as we saw in the second half against Wales, can play attacking rugby. They were down 23-8 at half-time, losing 25-29. They changed in the second half by keeping the ball in Welsh territory, not their own 22.

Their exit strategy improved, as did their kick chase, and that allowed them to escape safely and, on occasion, compete for and then retain ball.

As you can see in the clip below, the Wallabies get a driving maul going then go through multiple phases until Hooper touches down from close range. 

 Australia have been slow to start games but they are still capable of beating quality sides. Their challenge will be ensuring they compete for 80 minutes.

When they have the ball they play like semi-finalists but so far, defensively, they have looked more like losing quarter-finalists. 

RNS cp/sdg/sl/pp