Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Resurgent Wallabies pose major threat

Peter Betham of Australia runs at Ben Smith of New Zealand. Photo / Getty Images
Peter Betham of Australia runs at Ben Smith of New Zealand. Photo / Getty Images

A week today, the All Blacks will be in Sydney looking to extend their consecutive victories to a world record 18.

Facing them will be a Wallaby side that is rising in confidence: a Wallaby team that has not lost since last October and is slowly finding a new, Australian, identity and way of playing under coach Ewen McKenzie.

The Waratahs' maiden Super Rugby title last Saturday was a sign that rugby is resurgent across the Tasman, not the busted flush it was this time last year.

The Wallabies also have in Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale and Will Skelton three players with genuine X-factor. They have special gifts helping build optimism in Australia that finally, they have the missing ingredient to end one of their most frustrating periods - they have gone 12 years without the silverware.

The All Blacks have held the Bledisloe Cup since 2003. In that time they have played 30 tests against the Wallabies, won 24 and drawn one.

The Wallabies haven't beaten the All Blacks since August 2011 and haven't beaten them in Sydney since July 2008.

But they are hopeful that now they have the weapons to come up with the magical plays at those critical times. "You've got to be able to win the ball and do the fundamental parts of the game, but there's no doubt that they are the guys who can make things happen," McKenzie said recently. "Call it X-factor or game-breakers or whatever you like, the All Blacks have been blessed with many of them over the years and it's nice to have a few.

"You need a few weapons in your armoury. If you've only got one, they can play them out of the game tactically, but if you've got a couple, it's hard to handle them."

And that is the question - do the All Blacks have as much X-factor as the Wallabies? Does Ben Smith have the same bag of tricks to call upon as Folau? Can Beauden Barrett, likely to come off the bench later in the game, make something happen as he did for most of last year? Then there is Jerome Kaino - all 110kg of him wound up and ready to strike.

Will his explosive tackling and destructive defence change the momentum in a game that most experts are picking to go down to the wire?


Ben Smith - X Factor rating: 8

It's probably only been in the past 12 months that the full extent of Ben Smith's talents have dawned on everyone. Including himself. But in Dunedin this year it became obvious he was a player with the ability to turn a game with acts of brilliance. His miracle chase, tackle and turnover on Manu Tuilagi in the second test against England will unlikely be bettered as the best individual act of the season. That one act changed the momentum and dynamic of the test -- it enabled the All Blacks to reach the break 10-6 down rather than 17-3.

Perhaps it's hard to see Smith as an X-factor player as such because his first touch in test rugby was to drop the ball and, having made his debut in 2009, he didn't win a starting berth until 2013. He was, as All Black coach Steve Hansen said last year, a slow starter. "When he first came in, I don't think he believed that he should have been here. He had doubts. As time's gone on, he's got more comfortable in the environment to the point where he's playing outstandingly well."

There's also the problem that his weaponry is hard to identify. At 1.86m and 93kg he's not a big man. He's quick enough without being deadly fast and he's agile, but not in the same way as Christian Cullen. But throw it all together and add in his vision, timing and innate reading of the game, and Smith is a player, especially from fullback, who can pull off the unimaginable and win a tight test.


Beauden Barrett - x Factor rating: 7


The Hurricanes first-five became renowned last year as the international game's top impact player. On several occasions Barrett came off the bench and changed the game with incredible acts of skill.

At Eden Park against the Springboks, it was his 70-metre run, beating six defenders along the way that soothed nerves after Dan Carter was forced off early. It was Barrett who finished the move against France which was voted International Rugby Players' Association try of the year and it was Barrett who danced past five Springboks to win the epic encounter at Ellis Park and with it the Rugby Championship.

He has become a victim of his own success as the All Blacks now love having him in waiting -- knowing that he has the running game, the vision and the instincts to pull off something special once he gets on to the field.

Barrett's impact has been instrumental in helping him to a world record of having played in 19 tests and not yet experiencing defeat.


Jerome Kaino - x Factor rating: 7


It's always a little harder trying to assess the X-factor of a forward. They don't tend to make their presence felt in such obvious, game-changing ways. But Jerome Kaino does - the power and impact of his defence is regularly game-changing. He tackles harder and more explosively than any other player in world rugby and it rattles and unsettles opponents.

He once almost chopped Wales hard man Bradley Davies in two. And at the 2011 World Cup it was his try-saving tackle on Digby Ioane that sucked nearly all the fight out of the Wallabies. Ioane was virtually over the line when Kaino caught him and somehow pulled him back and buried him. Hard. That jolting defence of Kaino's can turn games. It can lead to offensive situations being blown and a whole team believing in themselves again which is why, when Kaino won his first cap back after his stint in Japan, Hansen said: "I never wanted Jerome to go to Japan in the first place. He's back at just the right time. He's like a caged animal, keen to get out there."


Israel Folau - x Factor rating: 9


It's almost certain that Israel Folau is going to produce one piece of magic in Sydney -- one decisive act that will provide the Wallabies with a significant opportunity. He is just that sort of athlete. Folau is Australia's version of Sonny Bill Williams -- so similar in dimensions and capable of doing things no one else is.

His greatest strength is his aerial work where he can leap to take cross kicks. The Wallabies are bound to have been working on some kind of move to leave Folau competing one-on-one with someone in the All Black back three for an offensive high ball.

They will also be working on strike moves to play Folau into space as he needs only half a metre, not even that, to beat the best defenders and once he's in space, he's virtually unstoppable. He eats up the ground with a rangy long stride and yet is frighteningly agile with it.

Has scored 13 tries in 18 tests, which tells a story in itself.


Kurtley Beale - x Factor rating: 7

There's no doubt that Kurtley Beale, when his head is right, can play. He has pace, he has vision and he has the confidence to back himself.

He was, probably, the single biggest contributor to the Waratahs' championship effort this year. He relished that play-making role and made things happen.

He's the sort of player who can be on the periphery of a game for long periods and then, from nothing, find a hole or create a hole and change the outcome. He'll have his wild moments, times when his accuracy is poor, but the Wallabies know that and they will back him to deliver one big, game-changing play.

"I think Kurtley is the best rugby player I've ever played with and the best I ever will play with," Beale's Waratahs teammate Jacques Potgieter said last week.

"The best of the best. When he gets the ball it is like in slow motion, he has got so much time with the ball. And the thing he has taught me is that he always backs himself."


Will Skelton - x Factor rating: 6


The Auckland-born Will Skelton is generating a fair bit of excitement across the Tasman. At 2.01m and 138kg (although he may be a fair bit heavier) he is massive, yet -- as he's shown all year -- reasonably mobile and agile with it.

It's not necessarily his size, though, and by extension his ability to destroy men in the carry, that Wallaby coach Ewen McKenzie is hoping to utilise. "Everyone talks about his size, but I've been more impressed by the skill touches," McKenzie said recently. "I've said for years now the thing that's defined the All Blacks is the forwards' contribution to passing in the game. It's easy to crash the ball up. It's knowing when to do that and when to create opportunities for someone else and I've seen him do that a number of times this year and that's the thing that has impressed me the most."

- NZ Herald

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