Australia finishes group stage with 27-8 win over Georgia
SHIZUOKA, Japan (AP) — Michael Cheika didn’t mind his Australia lineup finishing off the Rugby World Cup group stage with a rugged, attritional win over Georgia. He was already thinking of England.
The heavy defense and Georgia’s traditional strength at the setpiece was all solid preparation for a likely quarterfinal match next weekend against England, which is coached by another Australian schooled at the same club as Cheika.
The wet and windy weather Friday night hampered Australia’s regular attacking game and it took three tries in the last quarter, including two in the last five minutes, to convert a glut of possession into a bonus point, 27-8 win at Shizuoka.
Australia is on top of Pool D, but Six Nations champion Wales finishes off the group stage against Uruguay on Sunday and is expected to remain unbeaten and clinch No. 1 spot in the pool to move into a quarterfinal against France.
“I wanted the forwards to get a good, hard hit out,” Australia coach Michael Cheika said. “We know it’s going to be a big contest next week in the forwards, and we missed a few opportunities in attack. We stayed a bit too far back, but conditions were a bit tricky.
“We are getting a platform but we need to be sharper in attack. We need to pick the holes better, get up a bit flatter, and take the opposition on.”
England got the weekend off after securing top spot in Pool C when its scheduled game against France was cancelled over concerns about the impact of a super typhoon expected to batter central Japan on Saturday. Defending champion New Zealand advanced atop Pool B after its last game against Italy was also canceled. The cancellations were unprecedented at the Rugby World Cup.
But it would have given England coach Eddie Jones plenty of time to watch Australia against Georgia on TV.
Jones was Australia coach when the Wallabies lost the 2003 Rugby World Cup final to England in extra time. He was a consultant for South Africa’s winning campaign in 2007 and guided Japan at the 2015 World Cup, where it upset the two-time champion Springboks and won three games. He and Cheika both spent their formative years at the Randwick club in Sydney. There’s a lot at stake personally for both, and for their teams.
Australia has shown patches of good form at the tournament but been unconvincing in the first half of all four games.
It took a solo effort from winger Marika Koroibete in the 60th minute and tries from flanker Jack Dempsey and replacement scrumhalf Will Genia in the last five minutes to finish off a Georgia team that tackled itself to a standstill.
Australia had almost 80% of possession and 85% of the territory in the first half and led only 10-3 at the break, with scrumhalf Nic White burrowing over for the only try in the 22nd minute and flyhalf Matt Toomua landing the conversion and a penalty goal.
The Australians were already qualified for the quarterfinals but still needing a hit-out. The Georgians provided just that, making 128 tackles in the first half to put up a defensive wall.
“Our first game against Georgia, they certainly delivered in terms of setpiece physicality and it was a perfect day for setpiece play,” Australia captain David Pocock said. “Their defense is really solid. Credit to them, through the whole game.”
Georgia finished with 201 tackles against a Wallabies lineup that dominated the ball but failed to capitalize.
“I thought we defended with big hearts today,” Georgia coach Milton Haig said. “We did the country proud.”
It wasn’t until a Koroibete moment of individual brilliance that Australia put real distance between itself and Georgia on the scoreboard.
Australia had a brief period of ascendency in the scrum early in the second half, winning a tighthead just before the entire Georgian starting front row was replaced in the 51st minute.
But poor passing options were costing the Australians in attacking situations. The ball went to ground in three consecutive movements by the Australian backline before momentum shifted when Koroibete swooped on a loose ball. He picked it up running toward the wrong end, before turning and straightening up, stepping inside and outside two defenders, and then cutting back inside the cover defense to score in the 60th.
Toomua converted to make it 17-3 but it was the Georgians who scored next, against the run of play. After a wild tap for a Georgian lineout win, flyhalf Lasha Khmaladze stepped through a big gap in the midfield and fed left wing Alexander Todua to sprint into the corner.
It cut the margin to 17-8 but the fatiguing Georgians struggled to keep matching the Australians late.
“We fought well,” Georgia captain Merab Sharikadze said, reflecting on the improvement his Georgians have made after some lopsided losses to Wales and Fiji. But, “you can’t win the games unless you score points. We played really good defense. I’m proud of my boys, I’m proud of my country, we still need to improve a lot.”