RWC Preview – Australia v Russia
Australia v RussiaTrafalgar Park, Nelson
Saturday 1st October 2011.
Robbie Deans may be cursing his luck as the Wallabies’ injury crisis continues to deepen, but the rugby gods have not entirely turned their backs on the men in green and gold.
For not only is it very fortunate that their final pool game is against an extremely limited Russia side, but once the dust has settled at Nelson’s Trafalgar Park on Saturday, the Aussies have a full eight days in which to recover and recuperate ahead of their quarter-final date, most likely with World Cup holders South Africa.
By that time the likes of Digby Ione, Kurtley Beale, Anthony Faingaa, Pat McCabe and Rob Horne should all be fit and available for selection, leaving luckless hamstring injury-victim Wycliff Palu as the only man definitely ruled out of the rest of the tournament.
And strange as it may sound, there may even be a positive to come out of Deans’ backline options being so drastically reduced as it will provide an opportunity for Berrick Barnes to prove that he is the answer at inside centre.
The Waratahs man now appears to have made a full recovery from the concussion problems that plagued him during the Super 15 campaign and the extra option he brings with his kicking game is a massive plus both in terms of open play and off the tee.
Quade Cooper has looked like a man with the worries of the world on his shoulders thus far in the tournament, but with Barnes alongside him he has someone with whom to share the playmaking and kicking responsibilities and that can only improve his game, while also adding an extra level of unpredictability to the Wallabies’ attack.
Admittedly having to play back-rower Radike Samo as a makeshift winger is not ideal, but it is not an unknown position for the rampaging Queenslander and he is quite capable of running riot at the expense of a less than watertight Russian defence.
Up front, meanwhile, the return of David Pocock is arguably the biggest bonus that the Aussies could have received at this stage of the tournament.
It is no coincidence that without the Western Force flanker on board the Wallabies were destroyed at the breakdown by Ireland and Deans and co will be saying a silent prayer that he comes through Saturday’s game unscathed.
Scott Higginbotham has also shrugged off his own back problem and will look to further his claims for a regular spot in a back-row that remains unsettled, while James O’Connor knows that a big performance should see him retain his starting berth even when the walking wounded come back into the selection mix.
A return to the more familiar number eight position will be welcomed by Ben McCalman who has been rather harshly criticised for his below-par performances as a stand-in flanker and with Nathan Sharpe partnering James Horwill in what is undoubtedly the Wallabies’ strongest second-row combination, the pack has a formidable look about it indeed.
And those forwards will certainly need to muscle up against a Russian side who pride themselves upon their strength in the pack.
Despite losing to the USA, Italy and Ireland, they were competitive up front for long periods in all of those games and will be keen to claim small individual victories at the set-piece and in the loose even as the scoreline inevitably blows out.
It will be a big occasion for Melbourne Rebels lock Adam Byrnes of course as he lines up against the country of his birth, while other players worth keeping an eye include dashing full-back Vasily Artemyev and powerful young winger Denis Simplikevich, both of whom found the try-line in the defeat against Ireland.
The Wallabies may find themselves a touch frustrated in the early stages just as they did against the USA, but as long as they remain patient and continue to work through the phases, they will eventually cut the limited Bears to ribbons.
Victory by a margin of between 50 and 60 points looks the go and given that Samo is rarely out of the headlines these days, it might be worth backing him to bag the first five-pointer.
Prediction: Australia 68-10 Russia
First try-scorer: Radike Samo