Wallabies’ Mark Nawaqanitawase a weapon for Rugby World Cup


PARIS — Up there, Marky Mark. After a performance that may well have caught the eye of AFL scouts, Mark Nawaqanitawase has said he is ready to embrace a Rugby World Cup that seems destined to be fought out in the French skies, following an opening weekend of matches that highlighted the importance of a good kicking game.

The Wallabies winger was spectacular under the high ball in Australia’s 35-15 win over Georgia on Saturday night — their first triumph in six Tests under Eddie Jones — leaping into the air on multiple occasions as both Carter Gordon and Ben Donaldson hoisted bomb after bomb at Stade de France.

Australia had a clear plan not to take any risks inside their own half, which meant Nawaqanitawase was going to be expected to do the hard work on the chase, a role in which he did not disappoint as he repeatedly outjumped the Georgian back three to regain possession for the Wallabies.

“The boys did their job very well there and I guess I just had to do my job, but there is always more to improve there,” Donaldson told ESPN of Australia’s attacking kicking strategy. “But it’s a real strength that we’ve got at the moment and one we’ll look to use in the future.

“Each team we play is different, and we want to use different tactics. But we’ve got some good wingers here who can get in the air and we want to use all of our capabilities, so the boys are doing very well to get us the ball in the right spots, Donno and Carter, and we’ve just got to go up and get the ball, really.”

Nawaqanitawase spoke with ESPN ahead of the Wallabies’ departure from Australia, saying he was keen to make himself a target for attacking bombs or cross-kicks in France, a play that was underutilized during the brighter days of Israel Folau’s Test career.

“It’s a new group, there’s new combinations there, obviously got Carter at 10, it’s definitely something there we can use to dominate against other teams,” Nawaqanitawase told ESPN in mid-August. “So it’s definitely something I’m looking to pull out at some point.”

And it seems that message has got through to Jones, or the coach has at least recognied how important a competent kicking game will be in France, after the hosts and New Zealand also employed a kick-heavy strategy in Friday night’s tournament opener.

According to World Rugby’s match notes, France kicked 76% of their possession and New Zealand’s 68%, while in the later Saturday fixture England booted away an incredible 96% of their ball in the 27-10 win over Argentina.

“Definitely, I hope it’s not as hot though because I’m going to have to be working a lot,” Nawaqanitawase replied when asked if he thought kicking, and therefore chasing, was going to be a key theme of this World Cup.

“But I’m all for it, because I guess it means I get more ball. If it’s what the team needs, then that’s my job.”

Asked what the key to his aerial prowess was, Nawaqanitawase said there was no real secret — just an unwavering desire to get up and contest.

“It’s just the want for the ball, the determination, if you start with that the rest will look after itself,” he said

Whether the Wallabies go to the air quite so much against their next opponents, Fiji, who meet Wales in Bordeaux on Sunday night in a vital Pool C clash, remains to be seen; the prospect of the Pacific Islanders’ explosive outside backs carting the ball forward at speed might not be so appealing.

But if Australia do look to go back to the air, then Nawaqanitawase, and playmakers Gordon and Donaldson will again need to be in sync, an area of the game Jones was rapt with in the 20-point win over Georgia.

“Our attacking kicking was really good, we put Mark in a lot of situations where he really caused the opposition a lot of trouble,” the Wallabies coach said.

Away from his aerial prowess, Nawaqanitawase also showed the growth in his skill set, laying on a crafty 50/22 kick that secured Australia the field position from which they would score their first try of the tournament inside two minutes, before he finished his World Cup debut with 110 metres from 13 carries, three clean breaks and five beaten defenders.

Meanwhile, Jones had special praise for Donaldson, who was a worthy man-of-the-match after his 25-point haul against the Georgians, which yielded two tries and six of seven shots at goal, that 85.7% kicking percentage set to make it very tough for Andrew Kellaway to return to the No. 15 jersey for next Sunday’s clash with Fiji.

“We felt in a game like that, because Georgia play very similar to France, they’re a high kicking team, so his long kick was invaluable,” Jones said of Donaldson. “He’s a very good decision maker and then his goal kicking was first class.”

Donaldson’s selection had been hotly-debated after Australia’s World Cup squad announcement in August, after a Super Rugby Pacific season he himself admitted was “inconsistent”, and a Rugby Championship where he didn’t see a minute of action.

But the Randwick youngster, whom Jones quipped was only selected because of his club affiliation, was determined to not only be a fringe member of the squad, telling ESPN he wanted to “contribute” to Australia’s World Cup campaign.

On Saturday night in Paris, he did that and much more.

“I felt really good. When you’re given the role of a goal kicker, you work during the week and hope they come off nice in the game, which they did.

“The two tries I scored came off the back of some brilliant play by the boys. I didn’t have to do much but it’s always exciting to dot the ball down over the tryline.”

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