Wallabies off the mark and still drifting away
Close call for Wallabies in Florence
Australia's Brett Sheehan is injured. Photo: Reuters
No one has ever claimed it wasn't a cruel game: for most of the match Italy's five-eighth Luciano Orquera had outplayed his opposite, Kurtley Beale, yet it was left to him to hit a 79th-minute penalty to the right of the posts, denying his side a chance to secure a famous draw.
This wasn't so much the Wallabies playing a get-out-of-jail card, but repeatedly landing on Mayfair while their hosts weren't looking.
Australia were adequate for 30 minutes and then abject, failing to score a point against the 10th-ranked team in the world for the final 50, repeatedly squandering possession with a lack of accuracy that has become the season's signature. If Orquera's chip kick had bounced into the arms of Sergio Parisse in the 66th minute, or if inexperienced referee Lourens van der Merwe had decided that the late scrum collapses on Italian ball were penalisable, the unthinkable could have happened. The gap in quality between the sides was so small to be indistinguishable.
Hounded … Edoardo Gori wraps up Adam Ashley-Cooper. Photo: Getty Images
Beale chose an inopportune time for his employers to have his worst game in the No.10 jersey since his positional switch. There have been instances in previous outings when he looked like a fullback playing out of his comfort zone, but this was almost an entire 80 minutes of awkwardness. Three times he performed a shuffle directly into traffic, either dying with the ball or taking himself out of the game. Opposite him, Orquera probed, offloaded, and directed traffic with greater aplomb. Australia ran the ball for 247 metres while Italy - mocked for years as spoilers and with no heritage of running rugby - managed double this.
In the loss against France, a general lack of passion was identified as the cause of the problems, an inability to bring the mental rage required at this ferocious level. But in Florence, it was something more tangible - poor technique and skills were in evidence. Opponents of the coach have more material to work with.
Two instances in particular caught the eye, and again they cast Australia's set-piece attacking plans in a poor light. After 44 minutes the Wallabies were in coveted real estate, 15 metres from the Italian line and with a scrum to work with. The platform was solid enough, but when Nick Phipps spun it to Beale, he tossed a wide pass to Adam Ashley-Cooper, well behind the advantage line. Taking even further sting out of the attack, Ben Tapuai was already in line when Ashley-Cooper received Beale's pass. Consequently, when Ashley-Cooper dropped it back inside to his centre partner, Tapuai was static, an easy target for the Italian defence. The Reds No.12 promptly turned the ball over.
Two minutes later from a Wallabies' lineout, the subterfuge amounted to Michael Hooper taking up a crash ball into an Italian midfield known for its robustness and losing the ball in contact. There has been talk all year about the disruptive influence of injuries but just seven days before, an All Blacks side made 14 changes - omitting the likes of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Israel Dagg and Cory Jane from the starting line-up - and ran in five tries against Italy.
Moreover, it is not just the old foes who are providing unflattering comparisons. Ireland have been robbed of Brian O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney but put seven five-pointers past the normally unyielding defence of Argentina in Dublin on Saturday.
Australia's lack of tries this year is an accurate reflection of current inadequacies. This is not a great side to watch, occasionally drawing deserved respect for its sheer bloody-mindedness before disappointing by failing to provide anything more sophisticated than that. It might be enough against Italy, and it might even be enough against the Welsh if they play as inaccurately as they did in the first half against the All Blacks. But it'll never be enough to be the best team in the world. The Wallabies this year are a mile away and drifting.