Deans' men undone by problems old and new
France trounce Wallabies
Australia's flanker Radike Samo makes a break. Photo: AFP
It will be the infuriating predictability of the Wallabies' loss to France in Paris that sits like acid in the guts of the bleary-eyed loyalists.
It has been the way for the past five years that whenever Australia take one step forward, at least one back promptly follows. Praise, such as was given to the Wallabies after the Argentina and All Blacks games, is akin to cutting off Samson's locks for this outfit. One side was ready for a Test match at the Stade de France, the other was in green in gold.
First, due recognition for the winners. You have to say coach Philippe Saint-Andre played it wonderfully all week. His selections worked beautifully - particularly Maxime Machenaud and Freddie Michalak at No.9 and No.10 - and the smokescreen he put up in the days before the Test appears to have found its way into Australian eyes. France were unfit, poorly prepared and at least a year away from a decent performance, he insisted. Yet one glance at his squad and the quality was apparent. What's more, he sent them out with belief and the message that boldness was to be encouraged.
Impish two-cap fullback Brice Dulin was dancing inside his own 22 within 10 minutes. Short throws were taken at the lineout. They did not all work but it told of the attacking intent. Saint-Andre's work cast a dark shadow over the Australian coaching box.
One incriminating statistic goes to the heart of the Wallabies' effort. They missed a huge number of tackles, 24 all up - or one in every four attempts. The review tape does not discriminate and will be unforgiving viewing for many, including the most experienced man on the paddock.
Twice in the 39th minute build-up to Michalak's drop goal the captain, Nathan Sharpe, badly fell off ball carriers to allow them crucial metres up the middle. It was uncharacteristic but emblematic of a wider malaise. In the 33rd and 44th minutes, back-rowers Louis Picamoles and then Yannick Nyanga simply burst straight through the middle of the ruck and strode 30 metres before being brought down.
Other problems were more familiar. Possession and territory statistics were superficially flattering (59 and 58 per cent in favour of Australia) but this was only proof of a lack of penetration, not control. It is the pattern with which Waratahs fans are only too familiar.
The Wallabies ploughed through the phases, attacking narrowly, and the French were waiting for them. Having watched poor All Blacks discipline work into the Wallabies' hands in Brisbane, the French sat off the ruck and backed their defence to eventually repel the pick-and-drives. Their ability to tackle and then bounce to their feet was exceptional. And when the Wallabies did go wider, the lack of a plan was confounding.
One incident, in the 20th minute, stood out. Playing with the benefit of a penalty advantage after several pick-and-gos close to the French line, Nick Phipps (whose confidence must now be rebuilt after a grim evening) threw a long pass out to Kurtley Beale. If it did not catch Beale by surprise it came pretty close to it, and his back line was similarly out of sync. Not one runner was in position to offer himself as an option, and Beale was promptly gobbled up by Florian Fritz and Michalak, not a known defensive enforcer. If a back line is not even expecting the forwards to give them the ball, the balance is incorrect.
By contrast, when the French had the ball they had the ability to burst into a contact and then offload to support runners, forwards or backs. It is at times like this that the Wallabies can look so badly out of step with the attacking requirements of the modern game at the highest level. All the sharpest hands and aerial skills were on the opposition side. The 33-6 scoreline did not flatter the hosts, especially as the Wallabies were lucky to keep 14 on the field. Rob Simmons's awful tip tackle on Nyanga will attract the most scrutiny, but Tatafu Polota-Nau was fortunate to avoid a spell for cynically coming in from the side to spoil a French raid early in the second half.
The last word must go to the scrum because it will now dominate the build-up for England. It wasn't fit for purpose, and if we were looking for how the new engagement calls might impact the Wallabies, the news is all bad. There were few resets - just four out of 19 scrums - and that might have been down to the shorter sequence as well as referee Nigel Owens's laudable insistence that the front rows were close enough to avoid constant collapses. The result was a reward for France's desire to use the set-piece positively, offensively.
Indeed, for the penalty try, replacement tight-head Vincent Debaty actually lifted Benn Robinson off the ground - he had gone straight down on one knee - and drove him backwards.
England were adequate in beating Fiji, not intimidating, but that piece of vision will be seared into not only their pack's minds but those of 80,000 expectant worshippers at Twickenham.