How should the Wallabies' overall performance in 2021 be measured?
Fortunes in international rugby can change pretty quickly, and the Wallabies have felt this more than most.
With the final stanza of their 2021 season coming to a close in Cardiff against Wales on Saturday (Sunday morning AEDT), an encounter that has traditionally produced some thrilling matches, the Wallabies have a chance to restore some pride and end the season on high.
After all the training, analysis and press conference jabber, when the smokescreens finally clear, nothing less than a win against Wales will be enough to chalk up the Wallabies season as a successful endeavour as they look to avoid a winless Spring Tour.
It raises the question: what is a pass mark for the Wallabies?
Their record currently stands at 7 wins out of 13 games. Looking back, the Wallabies 2021 season has provided fans with plenty to feel good about: a nail-biting series win over a rising French team, back-to-back victories against the world champion Springboks, wins against Argentina and a historic test in Japan, culminating in a five-game winning streak.
Unfortunately, it seems Wallabies success is measured more on who they didn’t beat. It’s All Blacks or bust.
It is a by-product of the Australian psyche and their relationship with winning, harkening back to a fabled “golden era” of the Wallabies that is still the yardstick for the casual observer.
In a crowded sports market, the cut-through of Wallabies success is short-lived and highly scrutinised, and anything less than winning back the Bledisloe is seen as a failure. Even winning ugly is not palatable for most fans and seen as a rejection of playing the Australian way.
But for all that, the Wallabies consistently remain one of the world’s top-ranked sides and are capable of beating any team on their day.
Embarking on this Northern Hemisphere tour ranked third in the world, there was reason for optimism, buoyed by an influx of European recruits with the good oil on how the home nations played. Enthusiasm was quickly deflated.
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And yet it should be noted that the Wallabies were leading their match with 10 minutes to go against Scotland. Admittedly they were outplayed by England, but given Australia’s recent track record against them, it was hardly surprising.
What has been disappointing is the Wallabies skills and game management.
At the moment, the Wallabies game plan seems to be at odds with the player’s ability to execute. Their most resounding wins this year came through clinical, patient and high-percentage play, based on a platform of set-piece and gaining the upper hand in the physicality to control the game.
When trying to play fast up-tempo rugby without doing the hard grind through the middle, the backline quickly runs out of options, pushes passes and makes unforced errors. Patience and composure are what is needed.
So the attention now turns to the final game against Wales. It’s all well and good to talk about learnings and the game not going to plan, but it’s up to the players to show they have understood and are able to change it up.
While Wales have a depleted squad, the current Six Nations champions still pose a considerable challenge for a Wallabies team at the end of a long season. It is true that the Wallabies have been their own worst enemies, with ill-discipline, a lack of composure and poor game management in crucial moments becoming the obvious signs commentators point towards, but fans are hoping they can lift themselves out of the doldrums and bring the A-game that captured the attention of a nation during the Rugby Championships.
There is plenty to build on for the Wallabies if they can put it all together. For the first time in many years, the front is genuinely world-class, the lineout has been a bright spot and the halves pairing of Nic White and James O’Connor have the experience to unlock the potential of a raw but talented backline.
It all has to start with the senior players stepping up. O’Connor, White, Beale, Slipper and Arnold are all in their thirties and should have the game knowledge and steady hands to drive the team around.
For four-and-a-half months, Lalakai Foketi had been in Dave Rennie's black book. Then, on Monday, he received the news he had been waiting for. #Wallabies #WALvAUS #AutumnNationsSeries https://t.co/ihcTxZwizY
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 19, 2021
In particular, O’Connor’s own admission this week in the press was telling, when addressing what he needed to do to bring the backline into the game.
“I felt I eased into that game and probably took too long to flatten the attack up,” he said reflecting on his performance against Scotland.
“In the England game I felt I built on that … but we piggybacked them into the game and every time we did build, we’d lose it.”
This test against Wales will be their last chance to iron out the kinks and decide whether to continue with their selection policy. Time will tell whether the overseas players experiment will be deemed a success, but in this final game of the year, the Wallabies need to draw a line in the sand if they are to continue their upward trajectory.
From hearing the talk out of the Wallabies camp in the lead up to the Wales test, the playing group is acutely aware of the task at hand.
“There’s a heap of good things to take out of this year,” O’Connor said.
“It’s two losses and two that we will learn big lessons from. This week is all about just putting it together – finding that balance of how we play and also playing the conditions and then just finishing the tour on a high.
“We feel we’ve had a good year and we’ve really built this year so we want to show the public you know what we can do.”
There’s no doubt that Rennie has bought the culture that is needed after some disruptive years. The foundations have now been laid and coupled with backroom administration getting its ducks in line, the Wallabies are now in a position to push on.
With the 2023 World Cup, the 2025 Lions tour, and the 2027 World Cup bid, it puts Australian rugby at the epicentre of a lot of action in the coming years.
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