Dane Haylett-Petty has been made to look bad by a Wallabies defensive system that needs to lift across the board, according to veteran Drew Mitchell.
Makeshift winger Haylett-Petty had a strong debut Test series against England in June but was tormented in last month’s two Bledisloe Cup defeats, missing a combined nine tackles as the All Blacks savagely targeted Australia’s right-side defence.
The 27-year-old plays at fullback for the Western Force, and won the Nathan Sharpe Medal for his efforts this year, but appears to be no chance of playing in his natural position at international level unless Michael Cheika moves Israel Folau to the centres – a call the coach has so far strongly resisted.
Mitchell said it was unfair to suggest Haylett-Petty was letting the team down, tipping a positive response if South Africa tries the same tactics in Saturday night’s Rugby Championship clash at Suncorp Stadium.
“I think probably collectively, not just Dane, we’ve fallen short a little bit on our system in defence,” Mitchell said.
“I guess sometimes it’s highlighted a little bit more on the end of the line because it’s easier to see.
“We need to get better at the whole system of our defensive structure (so) it doesn’t put all the weight on one bloke.
“Dane’s been playing really well any time he’s had the ball and he’s also made some really good reads in defence.
“If (the Springboks) target him, it’s great, because he’ll bounce back and show what we all know that he’s capable of.”
Wallabies defence coach Nathan Grey raised eyebrows when he said it would be “quite easy” to patch things up following the first defeat to New Zealand, but the subsequent introduction of Bernard Foley at inside centre may have muddied the waters further.
The defensive line looked confused in Wellington with Foley and five-eighth Quade Cooper tucked away in the backfield, and the All Blacks had no trouble finding space to exploit and gaps to burst through.
Mitchell, meanwhile, is in contention to replace the departed Adam Ashley-Cooper on the left wing after getting through Tuesday’s full-contact training session unscathed.
Persistent groin issues have kept Mitchell sidelined for the last five months but whether Cheika will gamble on a player with no match fitness is the key question.
If not, the recalled Henry Speight – who played rugby sevens for Australia at the Rio Olympics last month – looms as the likely inclusion.