PARIS — The Wallabies are off their doughnut in Eddie Jones’ second coming.
Saturday evening’s Rugby World Cup triumph over Georgia was never going to be declared a turning point in their journey under the 63-year-old due to the Europeans’ 11th ranking, but it will have eased some of the nervous tension that exists when a team or individual is yet to get off the mark.
While the 35-15 was not even close to the perfect performance, it was an ideal hit-out for Australia who had dropped all five of their Tests under Jones this year. Their four tries also secured the bonus point, which may yet prove vital in what is expected to be a tight Pool C that also features Wales and Georgia, who meet in Bordeaux on Sunday night.
Arguably the biggest positive of Australia’s 20-point win was the fact their recent scrum resurgence continued. In Angus Bell and Taniela Tupou, the Wallabies have the front-row bookends to be a menace at the set-piece — the significant weight of skipper Will Skelton and Toulouse lock Richie Arnold only adds further force — and they put the revered Georgian set-piece under pressure as a result.
They also utilized the aerial skill set of Mark Nawaqanitawase superbly, with the right winger proving an excellent target when teammates Carter Gordon and Ben Donaldson found the right height and depth with their attacking kicks.
“Well round one you want to be sitting with five points, so I think we got five points,” Jones said when asked about what had pleased him most in the 20-point win.
“Then parts of the play; it’s the first time I’ve been involved in a game against Georgia, or a training session, against Georgia where their scrum hasn’t dominated or looked like dominating. So it’s a real credit to [scrum coach] Neal Hatley and the front-row, Taniela in his 50th cap, and Belly and [Dave] Porecki, and the rest of the pack, for their scrum efficiency and the way they scrummed.
“And secondly, our attacking kicking was really good, we put Mark in a lot of situations where he really caused the opposition a lot of trouble. So they’re two really key and promising areas for us.”
The lineout however, was not so sound, and cost the Wallabies just before halftime after the sin-binning of Georgia’s Mirian Modebadze for a cynical tackle on Nic White. With far bigger games to come, starting with Fiji next week, it was the kind of five-metre lineout Australia simply must nail, and one that should have resulted in at least a 26-3 halftime lead.
As it was, the margin was five points fewer following first-half tries to Jordan Petaia, who poked his head through the line on more than one occasion, and Nawaqanitawase, who received a spectacular offload from his outside centre to score — both tries coming down a short-side that scrum-half Tate McDermott was keen to explore before his departure to a serious head knock.
Towards the end of the first half, in one of the many moments that Georgia did open the Wallabies up, McDermott wore a knee flush to his chin as he circled back in cover. He will miss at least next Sunday’s game with Fiji as a result, and Australia will be hoping it is no longer than that.
While Nawaqanitawase was a constant target in the air, the in-form Wallabies winger also showed the growing variety in his skill set with a classy 50/22 kick that gave Australia the field position that led to Petaia’s try after just two minutes. When the right winger crossed himself only six minutes later, the Wallabies had the opportunity to really run riot, but instead they settled for three first-half penalties from Donaldson’s boot, the fullback’s ability to split the uprights making a welcomed changed to the kicking woes of the past couple of months.
But when the Wallabies should have put the game beyond any reasonable doubt after halftime, they instead invited the Georgians back into the contest. First a dreadful chase on a near 50/22-kick from White saw Los Lelos tear off on the counter, before they were then gifted a scrum on halfway when Gordon opted for a kick — that rolled touch in-goal — when three of his Wallabies teammates were desperate for the ball outside him after a Georgian turnover.
As was the case in Friday night’s opening clash at the same venue, both teams put boot to ball repeatedly. But on this occasion it ended up costing the Wallabies five points as they quickly conceded two quick penalties and, a few minutes later a try, all while they were up a man. While Jones said he was happy with the Wallabies’ attacking kicking, sometimes their chase left a lot to be desired.
Sensing their moment, the Georgians grew in confidence and with the majority of the 75,770-strong behind them, started to ask questions of the Australian defence with increasing regularity.
Then came the defining moment of the second half and, as turned out, the match.
Had it not been for Tupou, who found himself in the right spot at the right time, the Wallabies could have themselves leading by only six. With the Georgian back three doing increasing damage, fullback Davit Niniashvili split the Wallabies from inside his own 22 and tore off down field. But when the Lyon player was taken in a key tackle by White, his offload found a backtracking Tupou, who shot off in the opposite direction and found Donaldson with a basketball-style pass over the top that led to the first of his the fullback’s two tries.
“I thought I had it [the try], I thought I had it,” Tupou quipped later proudly adorned in his 50th Test cap. “I think if I had dummied and kept going I would have had him, but I was just as happy that I set up someone else. But I was hoping he scored because I was tired.”
The Wallabies had the breathing space they needed, and they extended their lead out by another seven points with Donaldson’s second five-pointer from a nice Gordon cut-out, before the Georgians grabbed a late consolation try to round out the scoring.
The Europeans had also blown two other opportunities in the second half, centre Merab Sharikadze dropping a ball cold after running into a yawning gap, before Nawaqanitawase jolted the ball free from impressive winger Aka Tabutsadze in a desperate bit of cover defence.
Undeniably, Georgia were by far the better team in the second half, which only raised questions about the Wallabies’ ability to be even a remote threat in the later stages of this tournament. Australia’s lineout certainly went to pieces in the second half — something Jones attributed to the lack of experience among his forward replacements — while Gordon’s option-taking is reflective of a No. 10 still finding his way at Test level.
As Jones keeps reminding everyone who’ll listen, the nation’s rugby fans must be prepared to be patient with the 22-year-old.
The Wallabies got huge shifts from skipper Will Skelton, who carried on 10 occasions, while rising back-rower Tom Hooper was busy on both sides of the ball and topped the carry count for the forwards with 12.
But there was no better player on the field than Nawaqanitawase, who continues to go from strength to strength in the Test arena. Reminiscent of Israel Folau in the air, with the tackle-bumping ability of Ben Tune, Nawaqanitawase created all sorts of headaches for the Georgians and will be responsible for more than a few bruised and sorry bodies in white.
Donaldson’s first foray at fullback was a concerted success and will likely be worth another shot, particularly given his goal kicking which yielded 15 points as part of his 25-point haul. Those kinds of numbers were always going to get him the man-of-the-match honours, but he was sound at the back and his work to catch up to Tupou during that dramatic second-half turnover will have also impressed Jones.
“He was awesome. For a young fella, he showed a lot of character, playing 15, he has never played an international game,” Jones said of Donaldson. “He’s been training there the whole year with us and we had confidence in him. I’m proud of these young boys but it’s just a start.”
The Georgians, meanwhile, deserve credit for a performance they will look to build on, and one that got significantly better after halftime. Had Niniashvili’s ball not found Tupou midway through the second half, they may well have really made things uncomfortable for the Wallabies, and they have certainly evolved their game to the point where they can put both of Fiji and Wales under some pressure in the coming weeks.
Australia, meanwhile, have the win they so badly needed. While Jones rejected the notion that it would breed a new wave of confidence within his group — he said that confidence was already there — the value of a maiden Test win for those just starting out on their international careers cannot be understated.
Nor can the fact that this won’t be a result that will have put any of the tournament heavyweights on notice — there is much more improvement still to be found for that to be the case.