Michael Cheika is already attempting to soften expectations for the Wallabies by declaring this is “the best Irish team ever” in the lead up to the first Test.
“They’re coming down here as No 2 in the world,” he said.
“They can claim that they’re underdogs as much as they want but they’re certainly going to be the favourites.
Whilst Ireland is deservedly the world’s number two team, a number of front-line starters are missing for the first test, including linchpin Johnny Sexton. With captain Rory Best also set to miss the whole series, this team is materially different from the team that won the Grand Slam at Twickenham – which should really give the Wallabies an edge.
Regardless of who wears the underdog tag – the Wallabies need to win this Test series to prove they are any hope at the World Cup. This is a decisive point in the four-year cycle. Their appearance at the 2015 Rugby World Cup final has been succeeded by two poor years – both at Super Rugby and international level by Australian rugby.
Eddie Jones and his English side defeated Cheika’s side 3-0 at home in the June Tests in 2016, a deflating World Cup encore which led to a downward spiral. Swept by New Zealand, they managed a lone win over South Africa and two over Argentina during the Rugby Championship.
The only respectable victories last year were against New Zealand and Wales as they bullied World Rugby doormats Italy, Japan and Fiji while maintaining the wood over Argentina. They finished the year with two embarrassing defeats over England and Scotland. Their win record against Tier 1 nations not named Italy and Argentina since the last World Cup is an unforgivable 27%.
Cheika is renowned for his old school toughness and can bring that trait out in a side. His work at Leinster in the late 2000’s transformed them into a champion side, bringing in an edge that ex-players from that team praise about. The problem is that was a different era of rugby and game has changed dramatically. In this second era of professional rugby, the gap has closed. Every tier one nation is physical, brutally tough and fit. That is a pre-requisite and no longer a formula in itself for success. The differences are in clinical execution, decision-making, strategy and fundamental skills.
Even Cheika’s Super Rugby success in 2014 with the Waratahs and World Cup run in 2015 are fast becoming relics of the past. The game evolves rapidly every two to three years with new styles of play and an ever-growing level of detail.
Those details that require laser-like precision are left wanting with Wallaby teams of late. Bonehead mistakes and basic errors plague Cheika’s Wallabies. There is little talk about creating space or use of skill with smart play, only ‘winning collisions’ with aggression and physicality.
There was hearsay that Eddie Jones knew if he beat Australia in the first test of that 2016 tour, they would win three-nil as he thought Cheika would thrash his side on the training paddock leaving them exhausted for the rest of the series. Did that actually happen? No idea. The history books will show England won three-nil though.
There has been nothing to suggest that this side will do anything other than exit at the quarterfinal stages next year, at the hands of either France or England. They have enough brawn to beat minnows, but not enough brains to match it with the best.
This Australian team has world-class talent – David Pocock, Will Genia and Kurtley Beale have all returned to play in Australia, Israel Folau is here (for now) and Michael Hooper is ever-present. It’s time this team showed up to prove that whatever Cheika is doing, works.
Because it certainly hasn’t been.
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