Pool A at the Rugby World Cup was already deadly enough. Now Matt Giteau, David Pocock and Drew Mitchell look eager to get involved with Australia.
The Rugby World Cup narrative has already taken so many intriguing twists and turns that December 3, 2012 – when each nation discovered their group-stage opponents – feels like a prehistoric date.
Of course, England and Wales were slapped with a stunningly tough draw that afternoon. They would face one another, as well as Australia. Subsequent qualifying competitions have added Fiji and Uruguay to an excruciatingly difficult Pool A.
At the time, the reaction from fans and everyone more closely associated with each team was almost universally one of disbelief. Two and a half years later, some of the incredulity is yet to lift. But reality checks are coming on a weekly basis.
Every Super 15 game the nuclear Nemani Nadolo carves up for the Cruaders, we are reminded how slippery a banana skin Fiji will be. Rapid, hulking, dexterous Pacific Islanders do not tend to die wondering.
A week ago, the Australian Rugby Union’s decision to relax their eligibility rules to consider foreign-based players with over 60 caps nudged the goalposts closer towards the Antipodes.
Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell promptly underlined their credentials by guiding Toulon to a 24-18 victory over Clermont and their third consecutive European title at Twickenham.
Meanwhile, another candidate for a Wallaby jersey appears hellbent on making the trip. Two knee constructions in 12 months looked to have derailed David Pocock’s career. However, the outstanding openside – still 27 – is starring for the Brumbies and back to somewhere near his wonderful best.
Between them, this trio boast 201 Test caps, 63 international tries and vital experience of World Cup knockout matches. Even more important that pedigree though, is form. And none of them are lacking in that department.
Here is a run-down of their recent efforts.
Friday evening in Canberra saw a high-octane head-to-head as Pocock took on incumbent Australia skipper and Waratahs number seven Michael Hooper. Two excellent, all-action performers produced a compelling individual tussle.
Though Michael Cheika‘s reigning champions triumphed 13-10, Pocock was rock-solid at the breakdown and extremely strong on the gain-line. Hooper had flashes of brilliance too, scavenging well and smashing runners.
Cheika will surely devote a decent chunk of the coming months to working out a way to accommodate both men in the same back row. A lineout jumper at No 8 is a must in that case. Such selection quandaries are another story. For now, Pocock’s display deserves praise.
This copybook ruck turnover in the first half was a fantastic way to begin:
Tracking Pocock is fascinating. He starts in the bodyguard position and, because his primary responsibility is to patrol the fringes, he is behind the defensive line as Kurtley Beale receives a pass from scrum-half Nick Phipps:
Beale jinks and darts himself, looking to squeeze between Scott Fardy and Ita Vaea, who cuts down the mercurial Waratah with a low tackle. Pocock swerves stealthily behind the contact area:
Steaming in on a support line, Wycliff Palu identifies the pilfering threat of Fardy and takes out the Brumbies blindside as Pocock latches onto the ball:
Adopting the ‘jackal’ position, Pocock braces and is strong enough to survive the joint clear-out of Will Skelton and Dave Dennis – around 260 kilograms of second-row weight:
Referee Glen Jackson is on the spot, and does not hesitate in awarding a penalty to the Brumbies for holding on as Pocock rolls back with the ball:
Later in the half, Pocock almost pulled off a similar heist as Hooper stormed into midfield from set-piece:
This sequence epitomises Pocock at his peak. It starts with a full-stretch scrag…
…before he swings back around onto his feet to compete for the ball:
Sekope Kepu and Palu pile into the contact area and Jackson calls a scrum as the ball becomes unavailable. But Pocock was so close, as the reverse angle shows:
Following some serious graft in the gym, Pocock has returned a stockier figure and weighs over 110 kilograms. He is putting this ballast to use in attack as well. There have been 64 carries in his last four starts.
Although this one ended in a turnover – ironically as Hooper shunted into a counter-ruck – it demonstrated dynamism and penetration from a flat-footed start:
Later on, with the Brumbies behind and desperate to rescue a result, Pocock found himself in a wide channel. He responded calmly and skilfully, and Joe Tomane nearly grabbed a second try:
Picking up a wayward pass, Pocock backs his pace, arcs outside Skelton…
…before drawing in Bernard Foley and releasing the pass:
This footballing ability is another big tick. In a side full of irresistible strike-runners, Australia need a few link men. And a pretty special one was in action on Saturday.
The European Champions Cup decider, an all-Top 14 affair, was unsurprisingly saturated with huge collisions. That said, there was room for the odd moment of guile. Giteau sounded an early warning with this slicing break:
So often the instigator of Toulon’s sweeping attack, he then linked up with Juan Martin Hernandez:
Giteau was shifted to fly-half from his preferred inside centre position for the final. Here though, he is at second receiver after being played in by Leigh Halfpenny.
This gives him more scope to assess the situation. Initially, Giteau shapes to kick…
…but then sense an opportunity out wide, and fires a pass across to his Argentinean teammate:
Stealing across, he can remain in the attack and collects a return flick pass…
…to threaten again.
The likes of Matt Toomua, Quade Cooper, Foley and Beale mean midfield playmakers are rife in Australia. On the stroke of half-time, Giteau showed his ability to conduct phase-play has arguably matured with age.
Fizzing on the gain-line, he throws a flat pass to Steffon Armitage:
One phase later, off the back of a Mitchell carry, Mathieu Bastareaud scores:
Giteau’s quick thinking and soft hands are instrumental. As Wesley Fofana sprints out of the line, the 32 year-old cooly picks off the dog-leg:
The clinical transfer can be best appreciated from the reverse angle. Sebastien Tillous-Borde‘s service is transferred very nicely:
Giteau look primed to round off his afternoon with a try just after the break, until he aimed an errant offload:
A couple of isolated, uncharacteristic blemishes did not detract from a pivotal role in Toulon’s glorious, historic win. Cheika will certainly have noted Giteau’s influence, and well as that of his countryman out wide.
For all his humorous and mighty popular social media use, Mitchell is not some kind of flashy, flaky rugby celebrity. His approach to the game is one of hard-edged honesty, of industry and commitment.
This weekend, he was a talisman for Toulon. In three explosive involvements, the wing inspired his side. A first-half kick-return represented the first:
A panicky clearance from Noa Nakaitaci is fielded and brought back with interest. Some neat footwork unbalances Fritz Lee and the burly No 8 gets his head in an awkward position.
The reverse angle offers an insight into the venom in Mitchell’s run:
Clearly, Toulon were able to stay on the front foot from this position after Lee had been bumped off.
On the hour mark, Mitchell intervened when Clermont had won a scrum against the head:
Above all, this is a fine piece of decision-making. As Clermont spread the ball wide and Camille Lopez loops a pass to Jonathan Davies, Mitchell rushes in to sabotage the attack.
Here, we can see how far he has to travel and how, with Aurelien Rougerie lurking, there is an element of risk:
But the timing is flawless, the technique close to perfect. Mitchell folds Davies by driving his shoulder into the Welshman’s midriff and pumping the legs:
Not content with the tackle alone, Mitchell bounces to his feet to make a nuisance of himself at the ensuing ruck as well:
A Nick Abendanon solo try reduced Clermont’s deficit to just 19-18 minutes later. Then came the crescendo:
There is a lot to take in, so treat yourself to another look:
Toulon’s driving lays the foundations, sucking in Clermont’s forwards before Tillous-Borde snipes, drawing replacement hooker John Ulugia. Bastareaud acts as a decoy in midfield, holding Julien Bardy just long enough for Mitchell to take the gap:
Neither Ludovic Radosavljevic nor Thomas Domingo can stop the break. In the clear, Mitchell drifts towards the touchline before bursting off his right foot to bypass Rougerie:
Lopez grasps at thin air and Abendanon is beaten by a left foot step:
All in all, Mitchell left six defenders in his wake. His balance, in plain view below, was superb:
Mitchell has stiff competition for an Australia berth, as do Pocock and Giteau. It is also two and a half years since any of these men pulled on Wallaby gold.
At least one will be at the World Cup, though. All three will push hard. Perhaps it is clearer to put is this way: Pool A would be all the more deadly for their inclusion.
Slowly, all of England and Wales are realising as much.