Rugby Championship preview: Wallabies to endure another tournament of mediocrity

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·8-min read
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 Credit: PA Images
Credit: PA Images

Next in our set of previews ahead of the Rugby Championship we examine the prospects of last year’s second-place finishers, Dave Rennie’s Australia.

It has been a frustrating couple of seasons for Rennie and his players following the 2019 Rugby World Cup – a tournament which marked a real low point in Australian rugby.

Since the departure of Michael Cheika, whose stubborn insistence not to change the game plan – despite results and performance suggesting otherwise – led to that 40-16 quarter-final thrashing by England, the Wallabies are still searching for the magic formula.

There has still been progress under the new head coach, who has looked to bring back the variety and rugby intelligence which made them a potent force in the game. Australia may not be bigger than South Africa or as skilful as New Zealand, but they always had an ability to think their way through games and solve problems.

That rather went under Cheika as they continued to do the same thing over and over again without much success against the best nations in the world. Under Rennie, however, they have shown some promise in that area and none more so than when Australia overcame Darcy Swain’s first half red card to defeat the Red Rose 30-28 in their first Test of 2022.

It was a momentous result, ending a run of eight successive defeats against the English, but they then proceeded to slip back into some bad habits. Their discipline was poor, they faltered in the set-piece and contact area, and then began to overplay when it started to go wrong.

The Wallabies of yesteryear wouldn’t have done that but there is enough quality in this squad for them to get back on track and at least have a positive Rugby Championship. The players up front are better than they showed against England while the backline is one of the best in the business so, if the forwards can perform to their potential, they will cause their two closest rivals, South Africa and New Zealand, serious problems.

Last year

Australia went into the first game of the Rugby Championship off the back of a series win over France and, on the scoreboard at least, a narrow defeat to New Zealand in the opening Bledisloe clash. However, those results rather masked their deficiencies, with Les Bleus sending a second-string outfit down south and the All Blacks dominating the opening hour before the Wallabies gained a semblance of respectability.

It meant Rennie’s men were in for a rude awakening as Ian Foster’s charges this time kept their foot on the throat and went away with a stunning 57-22 triumph at Eden Park. Matters didn’t get much better in the reverse fixture as the Aussies succumbed 38-21, this time at home, leaving the coaches and players searching for answers.

Those were partly answered by the returning fly-half Quade Cooper, who stepped into the shoes of the struggling Noah Lolesio and helped the Wallabies ultimately have a positive tournament. Playing his first Test in four years, Cooper had the fairy-tale ending by kicking the winning penalty against South Africa with the clock in the red.

They would follow that up with another victory over the Springboks, this one a more comfortable 30-17 success with the pivot again shining, before two matches against Argentina followed. The Aussies didn’t produce the perfect performances by any means but they were still far too good for Los Pumas, emerging 27-8 and 32-17 winners to secure second place in the table.

This year

The schedule works rather nicely for the Wallabies as they face a tour to Argentina for the first two matches, where they will expect to gain successive victories. If they can achieve that feat then three of their remaining four matches are at home, with the next couple coming against the Springboks in Australia.

If Rennie’s charges can repeat what they did last season, claiming a pair of wins over the defending world champions, then it will set them up wonderfully for the double-header against trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand.

There are still doubts over the Wallabies’ capabilities but, if they are to challenge for the title, then they won’t have wished for a better draw.

Key players

You can’t really look beyond Samu Kerevi. The Fijian-born powerhouse will miss their opening two fixtures in Argentina after being selected to play in the Commonwealth Games for Australia Sevens, but he will return by the time the key clashes come around. Kerevi barely played for the Wallabies last season due to his commitments in Japan, but in terms of impact the centre was right up there.

He will once again be crucial, especially if Quade Cooper returns to fitness and reforms their incredibly effective partnership from 2021. Cooper’s absence for the England series was keenly felt by the Wallabies, despite Lolesio performing pretty well and taking a step forward in his development. Ultimately, the 34-year-old has that extra bit of Test class and at the moment is a step up on the still-improving youngster.

The third undroppable player behind the scrum is Marika Koroibete, who was excellent in the mid-year internationals. He works hard in both attack and defence, making big impacts with and without the ball, and will cause havoc if the Australians can get on the front foot. That lack of forward solidity was the issue for Australia in the recent series with England, so they need their pack to be much better over the upcoming two months.

Taniela Tupou is very much the focal point in the front five but he has endured a few injury troubles this season and you could tell against the Red Rose. Despite a couple of decent showings in the second and third Tests, he wasn’t at his explosive best in either the set-piece or the loose. With more training and game time, Tupou should improve and help take the pressure off the other world-class forward, captain and back-row Michael Hooper. To the bemusement of every neutral the flanker has his critics in Australia, despite delivering consistently outstanding performances over the years, but he was quieter than usual in July. The skipper will therefore expect better of himself in the Rugby Championship.

Players to watch

Following their issues at lock, it was excellent to see Nick Frost step up and produce a superb display in the third Test against England. Although Rory Arnold has returned to the squad, replacing Kerevi as one of their overseas players for the Argentina Tests, Frost should get plenty of game time in the Rugby Championship after that performance. The lock was athletic, dynamic and also solid in the set-piece, suggesting that he could be a Wallabies stalwart for the best part of the next decade.

Another youngster we want to see more of is Jordan Petaia, whose injury problems have stopped him from becoming an international regular. The utility back, who can play at either centre, wing or full-back, got his opportunity early in the first Test, coming on for the injured Tom Banks and making a try-scoring impression. Petaia duly started the second match only to be taken off after four minute due to concussion, ruling the 22-year-old out of the rest of the series. But if he can stay on the field then Australia have a potentially world-class player on their hands.

That could also apply to Petaia’s Reds team-mate, Suliasi Vunivalu, with the rugby league convert a huge talent and remaining in the squad after making his Wallabies debut against England. Vunivalu barely got an opportunity in the mid-year series, only coming on with five minutes left in the third and final Test, but he has the athletic and technical qualities to be a top player. He just needs to work hard and hopefully stay fit and focused as Rennie obviously likes what the ex-league star can bring to the table. Koroibete and Tom Wright are the first choice wings at the moment but no doubt Vunivalu will get a proper chance over the next six matches.

Prospects

Given the All Blacks’ struggles and South Africa’s issues in attack, as well as the Wallabies’ good recent record against the Springboks, Rennie’s men could well challenge for the title, but equally they may be in for a shock in the opening two matches in Argentina.

Such is the difficulty in predicting this Aussie side, they could finish anywhere from top to bottom, but we just think they will be too good for Los Pumas in at least one of the matches and not consistent or powerful enough to finish ahead of the All Blacks or Boks.

Australia have the backline to cause anyone problems but they struggled in the fundamentals during the July series with England and their two main competitors simply have a better set-piece. New Zealand and South Africa also have more physical presence in the forward eight, which means mediocrity beckons. Third place.

Fixtures

Saturday, August 6 v Argentina (Estadio Malvinas Argentinas)
Saturday, August 13 v Argentina (Estadio San Juan del Bicentenario
Saturday, August 27 v South Africa (Adelaide Oval)
Saturday, September 3 v South Africa (Allianz Stadium)
Thursday, September 15 v New Zealand (Marvel Stadium)
Saturday, September 24 v New Zealand (Eden Park)

READ MORE: Rugby Championship preview: Springboks to continue progress by winning tournament

The article Rugby Championship preview: Wallabies to endure another tournament of mediocrity appeared first on Planetrugby.com.

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