The 'missing links' that will cost the Wallabies
OPINION: The Wallabies were in similar trying circumstances last year when South Africa arrived to play their Rugby Championship fixtures, but this year will unlikely see a fairytale sweep.
They weren’t given much hope of beating the World Cup-winning Springboks sitting on a three-match losing skid, who were themselves riding a four-Test winning streak after the Lions series and handling the Pumas in their backyard.
However, the Wallabies’ loss to the All Blacks out West in Perth marked the return of dynamic midfielder Samu Kerevi, recalled from Japan, while along came Quade Cooper shortly afterwards to reshape Rennie’s side.
The changes quickly reversed the Wallabies’ fortunes as they stunned South Africa with back-to-back wins.
Cooper’s fairytale test return was complete with a last-gasp clutch penalty goal to take a 28-26 win on the Gold Coast. A week later, centre Len Ikitau and wing Marika Koroibete both scored doubles on the way to a 30-17 win in Brisbane.
Across both tests captain Michael Hooper registered 23 tackles from 23 attempts and took five turnovers. He was back at his best to foil the breakdown and stand tall against the vaunted Springbok pack.
Taniela Tupou unleashed his power running that proved near unstoppable, even too much for the Springboks who thrive on physicality. A smart piece of play on a blindside switch put Tupou’s skills on show as he provided a wonder pass for Marika Koroibete to break the backs of the visitors.
Kerevi was the workhorse midfielder who attacked the Springboks lineout seam with fearless carrying, which set the platform for the Wallabies to run their array of patterns and strike plays.
When you look at the names responsible for the key performances in those wins, it gives cause for concern for the Wallabies, who will be without most of them.
Cooper is injured and will not feature again this year, likewise with Kerevi who suffered a knee injury playing Sevens. Hooper’s absence does not seem likely to end soon although they would desperately like to issue him an SOS call.
Those three ‘million dollar plus’ players will not be on the field for the Wallabies and their absences will be felt.
Experience isn’t everything but genuine production is. They put up big performances last year that will be hard, if not impossible, to replicate.
They have just let go of their defence coach after a historic loss to the Pumas in San Juan, not to mention James O’Connor has been deemed surplus to requirements.
Rennie has set a marker that losses of that magnitude are not going to be tolerated, but it is uncertain who will come in and do better, particularly at flyhalf.
Is there anything on the bright side right now for the Wallabies?
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Well, for one is Dave Rennie’s impressive coaching record versus South African teams.
As head coach of the Chiefs from 2012-17, Rennie held a win-draw-loss record of 17-2-4 against South Africa’s Super Rugby teams for a 74 per cent win rate. His first two tests as Wallabies head coach against the Springboks were wins last year, sporting an early 100 per cent success rate.
He does have a history of winning against South African rugby teams, and the Wallabies will host both matches on Australian soil where the Springboks haven’t tasted success since 2013.
They still have power running in prop Tupou and No.8 Rob Valetini, who is central to most of their go-forward. Without Kerevi in the midfield, they can use short lineouts and get the ball in the hands of either of these two forwards.
Tupou’s form seems to be indifferent, but he is still a must for the Wallabies based on potential. He seems to rise for the big occasions at home and it is hard to see the Wallabies’ tight five getting on top without him.
The return of tighthead Allan Alaalatoa could turn Tupou into a bench option to help negate the 6-2 split from South Africa, where he can still be valuable to provide an explosive cameo.
The back three are going to have to lift dramatically after a shambolic effort handling kicks in the second test against Los Pumas. A full reshuffle there is expected with the oncoming aerial assault pending.
Scrumhalf Nic White is going to have to lead the attack and produce his best work if the Wallabies are going to have a chance, but they are lacking a playmaker at No.10 to link up with the outsides the way that Quade Cooper can.
If they don’t trust Brumbies flyhalf Noah Lolesio to do the job, the best two replacements are not the young Tahs options, but two Queenslanders in Japan, 28-year-old Sam Greene and 23-year-old Isaac Lucas, who are attacking 10s who know how to play.
They are not of the one-dimensional distributor mould with no running game that Australia likes, which is perhaps why they are in Japan.
Relying on Bernard Foley to produce his best at this stage is a stretch and a half, same with Kurtley Beale. We’ve seen everything out of Foley and Beale we need to, there isn’t one last squeeze of the orange left.
Turning back the clock worked with Cooper last year but how many more times will it produce? These are not the same circumstances.
Cooper’s Wallaby career was derailed earlier than it should and he had a point to prove coming back. He was the most talented player of his generation and Rugby Australia never quite found the right formula to maximise his abilities. Rennie saw what he could bring and built around that.
Inversely, Foley and Beale’s careers were not put on hold indefinitely, they were two of Cheika’s favourites who were seemingly undroppable.
They got every chance under the sun despite whatever form they brought to the table, which for the final stages of their international careers, was not good.
It feels like the Wallabies are stuck in a corner here and there are no miracle fixes to pull this time.
It is going to be a younger Australian side, understrength, lacking a few world-class players to match it with the Springboks. They are going to have to fight hard and just take the medicine.
Perhaps the young guns have it in them to pull one out of the bag, but there likely won’t be a sweep this time around.
The Boks have it in them to break their nine-year duck on this tour and get their Rugby Championship campaign back on track.
They cannot possibly lose two in a row to this Australian side.
By Ben Smith, RugbyPass