After a golden week atop the Rugby Championship ladder, the Wallabies are back in the doldrums after their 48-17 walloping by Michael Cheika’s Pumas on Sunday. On the strength of their courageous comeback win in the opening round, Australian rugby fans had dared dream the men in gold might repeat the dose in San Juan before marching over South Africa (as they did in 2021), then vanquishing a sickly All Blacks.
But the fumbling nature of their game in San Juan and the brutality of the scoreline has snuffed that hope and now, yet again, there is only tunnel at the end of that light. Defenders of the faith will find excuses in the departure of captain Michael Hooper before the first Test and the glut of injuries that has beset the side these past months, but the bare bones of this heavy defeat are the Wallabies were outplayed, out-enthused – and perhaps most worryingly of all – out-coached.
Although Dave Rennie continues to enjoy the strong support of Rugby Australia, the pressure on the coach is growing. With just two wins from his last eight Tests and an overall win-rate stubbornly sub-40% – the worst Australian record since the game turned professional in 1995 – the tremors of concern are now panicked shudders as the Wallabies wobble on their path to glory at the Rugby World Cup next September.
Since the seemingly indestructible Hooper succumbed to his “mindset” struggles, speculation has bubbled up in the media that Rennie is training his players too hard and that the punishing regime is impacting the minds and bodies on match day. Whether the scattered thinking of young men subjected to excess mental and physical fatigue is why Australia consistently start Tests so sluggishly remains up for debate.
Certainly, they stumbled out of the blocks worse than ever on Sunday, conceding a try in the first minute and finding themselves 14-0 down after six minutes of game time. The lapses were all-too familiar. After Australia spurned ball-in-hand mauling to kick the ball away, the Pumas countered, spinning it wide and left at pace to Juan Imhoff, who stabbed a grubber into a corridor of uncertainty between Australia’s back three.
Winger Jordan Petaia cleaned up but then spat it to unsuspecting No 15 Tom Wright. Imhoff simply picked up the gift-wrapped fumble and scooted 22 metres to score. It was a rookie’s error but not one you’d expect from professional rugby players, and a queasy flashback to last month when Marcus Smith scooped up a similar Wallabies loose ball in the third Test in Sydney to seal the Ella-Mobbs Trophy for England.
Argentina’s second try was even simpler, and as such, infuriating with Thomas Gallo picking and driving under the posts through a Wallabies defensive line soft as butter.
But as they had in Mendoza, Australia found their new dawn at their darkest hour. Second Test tyro Fraser McReight, playing in Hooper’s No 7 jersey and channelling his absent leader’s tenacity, burrowed brilliantly at the breakdown to win a Puma ball. From the ensuing lineout, Rob Valetini charged over the gain line. It gave stand-in skipper James Slipper the momentum to slither over the stripe.
Another Wallabies comeback victory looked likely in the 24th minute when Petaia took the ball at speed and flipped it over his shoulder for James O’Connor to score. But when that five-pointer was overturned after Slipper was pinged for a tip tackle and illegal cleanout, Australia’s resolve crumbled when it should have hardened.
Argentina caught the mental drift and struck a decisive blow, with a wonderful solo try from inside centre Jeronimo De La Fuente who split the Australian defence wide open and turned a callow Wallabies error into a calamitous 14-point swing.
When another Valetini break after half-time saw Petaia crash over only to be stripped of the ball by Gonzalo Bertranou, Australian heads dropped. Cheika’s men, ascendent in the critical moments and smarter by half, then brought down the sword over and over, with a seven-tries-to-two demolition – their biggest ever win over Australia.
Although each team in this year’s Rugby Championship now sits level, with one win and one defeat apiece, Australia trail the field they headed this time last week. They now face a two-Test series against a Springboks side chastened by the resurgent All Blacks and eager to avenge their upset defeats by the Wallabies last season.
While Slipper admitted he was happy to slink out of Argentina after a “really tough tour”, Rennie was ropable, describing the demolition as a “massive disappointment” and drawing a line in the sand. “We certainly want to earn the respect of the country,” he thundered post-game, “and you don’t do it with performances like that.”
He’s right. But it’s an all-too familiar refrain from a coach and team with bigger issues. Their fullback, line-out jumpers, decision-making and discipline were again exposed, and tactically they were out-foxed by their old friend-turned foe Cheika, whose men kicked, rucked and gelled better, with greater discipline and superior resilience.
Australia had their moments – they seized a few but, as usual, blew too many.