To beat England, Wallabies need Pocock to repeat 2011 heroics
The last time the Wallabies emerged in second place from a Rugby World Cup pool to face a heavyweight opponent in the quarter-finals they were indebted to two players in particular for managing to advance to the final four.
A nerveless youngster named James O’Connor contributed six points with the boot as the Wallabies edged out South Africa 11-9 in Wellington in 2011, while David Pocock caused so much havoc at the breakdown irate Springboks fans effectively chased referee Bryce Lawrence out of the game.
For all the choppy water that has passed under the bridge since then, here we are again.
The Wallabies are collectively a poorer team than England, who they will almost certainly face in Oita next Saturday. But they do have O’Connor, who is an oasis of creativity in an otherwise barren back line, and Pocock, who resurrected his tournament against Georgia on Friday with a performance that must guarantee a spot in the starting XV against the old enemy.
His presence suddenly looms over the quarter-final to such an extent that it would not be a surprise to hear Eddie Jones ask for a “fair go” at the breakdown in next week’s build-up. Pocock is a factor in the outcome of games again.
It would be a bit much to suggest the 31-year-old had been playing with self-doubt at this Rugby World Cup, but even champions need reassurance from time to time and his ability to get over the ball against Georgia must have boosted his confidence.
Defensively, it all fell into place again: the timing, the technique, the relationship with referee Pascal Gauzere. In the 25th minute he cleverly identified a collapsed maul from a Georgian lineout drive and flopped on top of the pile of bodies to stop the ball from emerging, all the while checking with Gauzere that he was still legal. That’s the sort of experience you need in a quarter-final.
On attack he got involved in some tough carries and cleanouts against a Georgian pack whose reputation as strong scrummagers clearly preceded them. How else to explain the lack of early reward the Wallabies got from their clearly superior set-piece?
Pocock had to roll his sleeves up, too, because the back line struggled. Christian Lealiifano must return at No.10 because it comes naturally to him. From a distance, it did not seem clear if the Wallabies forward runners knew exactly when they were going to be required to carry or simply run decoy and/or blocking lines. Matt To’omua offers so much from the bench it seems obvious to return him there.
As for Pocock, perhaps it will be Isi Naisarani who makes way for him? In a World Cup dogged by handling errors – as a spectacle the 2019 edition has been ordinary so far – Naisarani was a major culprit on Friday night.
Jack Dempsey is breathing down Naisarani’s neck as a starting option, a selection call that could open the door to Pocock wearing the No.8 jersey, if those numbers matter any more. In Naisarani’s defence, the big man is unlikely to play as poorly two weeks in a row.
England will feel they are well equipped to deal with Pocock. There was a time when northern hemisphere players took a look at Pocock’s physique and wondered if he came from Mars. Now, the likes of young flankers Sam Underhill and Tom Curry look like they inhabit the same planet.
Nonetheless, the Georgians hardly lack power and found Pocock hard to shift.
It is fitting that Pocock’s career should come to this. Barring upsets his final game in Wallabies colours will either be against old rivals England, the All Blacks in the semi-finals or in the final itself.
That is a stage worthy of his achievements in the game. Earlier in this tournament it appeared that he might be destined for a bit-part role, unable to find his place in a game that was no longer so sympathetic to the pilfering specialist. But the veteran is refusing to go quietly.
It is a long way from Wellington in 2011 to Oita in 2019. Can Pocock and O’Connor be the link men between two unlikely victories? – smh.com.au