OITA, Japan — Michael Cheika knows he’s got a lot of work to do on his pre-game pep talk to make sure his Wallabies start games at the Rugby World Cup in the same way they’ve been forced to finish them.
Slow starts have been a theme for Australia in the opening 39-21 win over Fiji, the 29-25 loss to Wales and Saturday’s 45-10 win over Uruguay in Pool D.
“We were just a little bit off the pace at the start. That’s three times now, three games a little bit off the pace at the start,” Australia’s head coach said. “So I know I have to get my pre-match speech a little bit better!”
Cheika, who was voted coach of the year in 2015 after guiding Australia to the final, hasn’t had the same consistency with the Wallabies since.
The Australians were nine points down against Fiji before coming back to win in Sapporo, and were down 26-8 against Wales before clawing their way back to within one point near the finish.
Expected to win comfortably on Saturday, the Wallabies handicapped themselves with some lazy tackling technique against a highly committed if over-matched Uruguay lineup, some poor tactical and scrum options and conceding a one-man advantage for 20 of the first 40 minutes.
The Australians led 19-3 at halftime despite the two yellow cards for high tackles for lock Adam Coleman in the 14th and blindside flanker Lukhan Salakaia-Loto in the 29th.
Four tries in the second half put the result beyond doubt before Uruguay got a late consolation try.
Tevita Kuridrani and Dane Haylett-Petty finished with a pair each after crossing in each half, and 19-year-old Jordan Petaia scored with his second touch in test rugby. He scored Australia’s second try in the 24th, and provided the last pass for Kuridrani’s first try.
Veteran scrumhalf Will Genia scored a try and set up another after the break, and prop James Slipper barged over from close range to notch his first try in 94 tests. That sparked a big celebration, and his exit from the field for a deserved break.
“We got the pace up in the second half,” Cheika said.
Kuridrani, who was held up over the line when he was inches from a third try, admitted the first half “was a bit rusty.”
“But we went out of the change room in the second half and we stuck to the basics. We came out in the second half and got the job done,” he said. “We were trying to go wide before that. We stuck to the basics again and all the tries came after that.”
Cheika made a lot of changes after the loss to Wales, wanting to give all the players in the squad some game time. Petaia and young prop Taniela Tupouto were playing for the first time.
“I thought for his first entry to World Cup, Taniela Tupouto did well when he came on as well. Slipper got his first try … you saw the excitement there,” he said. “We needed those guys to get good game time, the two locks played a full game, so I was happy with everyone.”
The Wallabies defended their line right until the end, when No. 8 Manuel Diana touched down on the line after 18 phases of attack for Uruguay.
Flyhalf Felipe Berchesi, who slotted Uruguay’s only points of the first half, landed the conversion to finish with five points for the match.
The Uruguayans appeared to cross for a try via center Tomas Inciarte after a ruck turnover just before halftime, but the television match official intervened to disallow it because Diana was never onside before he pilfered the ball at the back of the ruck.
The backrower made amends for that when he drove over for a five-pointer after Uruguay got within a meter of scoring five times between the 74th and 78h minutes.
Uruguay coach Esteban Meneses paid tribute to the commitment of his team, and the improvement in back-to-back World Cups. Australia beat Uruguay 65-3 four years ago in England.
“For us it’s incredible, the players left everything on the field,” he said. “Congratulations for the players from Uruguay, it’s fantastic.”
The Uruguayans opened the tournament with an upset 30-27 win over Fiji but have slumped to consecutive losses to Georgia and Australia ahead of their last game against Wales.
Australia will finish off the group stage against Georgia at Shizuoka on Friday.