Wallabies finish like they started - disappointing

Mon, 05 Dec 2016 12:15
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OPINION: rugby365 columnist Brett McKay wraps up 2016 and the roller-coaster that the Wallabies are on.

For the Wallabies, season 2016 has finished exactly the same way it started: an agonising loss to England in a game in which they'll rue missed opportunities to convert into points.

The Wallabies, therefore, finish 2016 with six wins and nine losses, and finished the year-end tour with good lead-up wins against Wales, Scotland, and France, but let the Grand Slam slip away with a loss to Ireland that they could very easily have won if the ball bounced differently here and there.

The England loss confirms everything we already knew about the Wallabies this year.

When they can get good quality, front-foot ball they can make ground and create scoring opportunities against any team in the world. And they can look as good as any team in the world as they do it.

And the Wallabies have had plenty of moments in 2016, too. They've looked red hot at different times against New Zealand, England, Ireland, South Africa, and Argentina, but have a set of results that belie those moments.

It all started back in June, with England arriving on our shores for a series that was supposed to be all about continuing the Wallabies' advantage gained during their thumping Rugby World Cup win at Twickenham only eight months before hand.

Instead, it was all about Eddie bloody Jones.

Eddie arrived 'back home' with that big smile up front and the conspiracy theories bursting to be let out at the earliest possible opportunity.

His conspiracy form was strong, too, Eddie's, with suggestions that the Australian rugby media were in on Michael Cheika's make-Eddie-uncomfortable scam, the suggestions coming with his bags - deliberately held up by Australian Customs, apparently - still circling around on the conveyor belt.

But Jones would have the last laugh, with a well-thought through plan based around exceptional defence and patience.

England won all three Tests, and the First and Third tests in particular - won in Brisbane and Sydney, respectively - were won despite having less than 30 percent of possession, and despite scoring fewer tries than the Wallabies.

Jones had noted that the All Blacks didn't need all the ball to win games, and he was convincing his side it could be done as they were doing it.

All the while, the Wallabies scratched their heads. If they play that much rugby, they argued, they should be winning games. And yet, they did and they weren't. And they didn't really know how to find a solution to the problem.

(Hint: look at your ordinary discipline, everyone screamed from the rooftops.)

By the first two Bledisloe Cup matches, expectations had plummeted, and the Wallabies failed to meet even those. The 8-42 loss in Sydney was about as bad as it gets, and after four consecutive losses at home, Australian rugby fans were starting to wonder whether a huge regression was in progress, or whether that incredible run through the Rugby World Cup was actually a massive over-achievement.

A second Bledisloe loss in Wellington a week later meant the Bledisloe dream was dead for a fourteenth straight season.

A fortnight later, the Wallabies would notch the first win for the season in their sixth match, with a 23-17 win over South Africa that was probably more comfortable than the scoreline suggests. A win over Argentina a week later showed the Wallabies did actually have a playing style that they were trying to find in 2016, if not for the pesky detail of better sides not letting them find their groove.

A trip to the Highveld followed, and what on form might have been the Wallabies first ever win in Pretoria, was instead a performance that promised so much early, yet delivered so little in the end. It wasn't the first or last time this would be the case this year, and on reflection, the 18-10 loss was the perfect 80-minute illustration the Wallabies' 2016 form.

Twickenham in London has been a mostly happy hunting ground in the last 12 or so months, and so it proved to be when the Wallabies faced off against Argentina in the first ever Rugby Championship match played in the northern hemisphere.

It was another Wallabies win with plenty of things to like punctuated by plenty of things that made you shout at the TV. If this hadn't been the way it was for all of 2016, we might've been concerned. Attack good in patches, set piece OK, defence a bit patchy, breakdown more so, gain line made in spurts. Sound familiar?

Another Eden Park Bledisloe loss is best quickly moved on from, and by the time the Wallabies arrived in the north, there was a tempting if challenging Grand Slam on offer.

They were wonderful against Wales, easily the most complete performance of 2016, but then back to their patchy, scratchy best in the only-just win over Scotland. I don't know what it is, but Scotland over the last six or eight years have always managed to save their best for Australia. Forget the ranking, this was anything but a comfortable win.

France brought the Wallabies down to their mercurial level and very nearly beat them with experience, and then Ireland continued their giant-killing form with a scintillating first half that the Wallabies did well to rein in, only to see Ireland to win the final grind.

Final verse, same as the first. England. Eddie bloody Jones. Mind games, media by-play, blow-ups in supposed private referee's briefings made public. That is to say, just another week in the Jones v Cheika universe.

And another Test that got away. The Wallabies looked red hot in the first twenty minutes on Saturday, and were deservedly ahead at the break, yet the feeling of inevitability was there as England stormed back into the game straight after halftime and ultimately ran away.

It was yet another perfect illustration of the Wallabies of 2016: excellent on attack when making the gain line and serving up quick ball, but utterly bereft of idea once on the back foot chasing the game.

There's been plenty to like about the Wallabies at times this season, yet here we are again. Right back where we started.

Maybe next year for the Wallabies?

By Brett McKay
@BMcSport
@rugby365com

* Brett McKay is an Australian rugby writer and commentator, who has sat through more Bledisloe Cup and World Cup Final losses than any human should have to endure, and is desperately hoping for a change of luck soon. For regular musings on rugby, sport, and all manner of life's trivialities, you'll find Brett on Twitter at @BMcSport