Michael Cheika’s Wallaby coaching record has taken a beating since the World Cup final, with slim takings across the Rugby Championship and inbound and outbound touring visits.
Add another series defeat at home against Ireland in the June international tests and hopes look dim ahead of next year’s World Cup. Time is running out for the Wallabies to build any momentum, and this year’s Rugby Championship must yield results outside of beating Argentina.
Last year the Wallabies ended the season on a high note by beating the All Blacks in Brisbane in the final Bledisloe, breaking a run of losses going back to 2015. They almost had a thrilling upset in Dunedin in the second test but were pipped at the death by a Beauden Barrett try.
If they are to reclaim the Bledisloe for the first time since 2002, this weekend’s opening test in Sydney is a must-win. They cannot afford to leak 54 points as they did on the same ground last year. With the second test back at the graveyard Eden Park, the Wallabies need this one. A neutral venue for the third and final test in Yokohama, Japan also gives the Wallabies a chance should they have the series leveled by then.
Rugby Australia’s repatriation programme has continued, with the return of Matt Toomua from Leicester. He gives the side options at 10 and 12, bolstering depth in a position severely lacking in Australian rugby.
With Bernard Foley the only real option at flyhalf, Toomua can slot into the axis as a replacement for either Foley or Kurtley Beale in either position. A left-field answer to the centre problem could also see Israel Folau play in the midfield, Beale move to fullback and Toomua slot into 12.
Rugby Australia has come under criticism for pandering to players’ overseas adventures, but the patient approach is starting to pay dividends.
With captain Michael Hooper secured for another five-years last week, the commitment brings a sense of positivity around the team. Israel Folau’s contract is said to be down to negotiating the length of the deal and another boon for Rugby Australia is likely around the corner.
There is enough talent there to beat the All Blacks, but the Wallabies can’t afford injuries or brain fades. The centre crisis with Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani out will already put enormous pressure on the midfield, with stopgap utility Reece Hodge set to cover. The slightest mishap could cost them and no doubt will be an area that is targeted by all opposing teams.
The forward pack is a mix of experience and youth, with the dynamic backrow partnership of Pocock and Hooper headlining the pack. Young enforcer Lukhan Tui could fill the six role, while young lock Izack Rodda will likely partner Adam Coleman in the second row.
The emergence of Taniela Tupou continued this year at the Reds, and he could be the catalyst for points as an impact player of the bench. His scrummaging has come a long way in the three years since he joined the Queensland side but his power running is as good as ever.
The Wallabies will play three of their first four games at home, with only a short trip across the Tasman in between. This will give the side a prime opportunity to head into the final rounds away in a good ladder position, provided they can defend their home turf.
An early win against the All Blacks could be the catalyst for a decent run in this year’s Rugby Championship, which makes this opening clash more important than ever.
It has been a lean few years for the men in green and gold, and Rugby Australia’s investment in older players needs to pay off this year. There is no denying that this is an aging team, full of superstars that hit the scene in the late noughties.
The Wallabies and Cheika are putting all the chips in for one last hurrah from this generation of players.
Whether that has any chance of paying off or not starts now.
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