Winless Wallabies could be without skipper
Australia’s ailing captain Michael Hooper will give everything to play against Wales in Cardiff with the Wallabies desperate not to leave their underwhelming British tour empty-handed.
The wounded Wallabies must beat Wales this coming Saturday to avoid the ignominy of a first winless year-end tour of Europe in almost half a century.
The sight of their leader limping off with a foot injury at Twickenham seemed to sum up a dispiriting game, but outgunned Wallabies in the 15-32 loss to England at Twickenham at the weekend.
“I’ve done something to my foot, we’ll have a look at it. It happened in the tackle, a rugby injury,” Hooper reported afterwards, adding that it currently felt “all right”.
Asked about being fit for the team’s final Test of the year in Cardiff on Saturday, he promised: “I’ll give it every chance I can.”
If not, either Nic White or James O’Connor could take the reins after both doing a spell as stand-in captain following Hooper’s exit.
But coach Dave Rennie will surely need his inspirational No.7 firing again for a match that now takes on even more significance after the disjointed performances which have led to a narrow defeat against Scotland and a much more comprehensive loss to England.
“It’s hugely important [to win in Cardiff]. With the support that we have back at home and here, we definitely want to finish on a high,” said Rennie, who’s at least confident he’ll have props Allan Alaalatoa and Taniela Tupou back after the head knocks which have sidelined them.
As he suggested, no-one could question the heart and defensive effort of his side but they must improve dramatically in all other areas – particularly discipline.
Among the 81,575 who thronged to ‘HQ’, a sizeable contingent of fans wearing the green and gold were left frustrated to see them give away a penalty, on average, every four-and-a-half minutes, while wing Tom Wright and prop Angus Bell both took a trip to the bin.
Some of those errors, sighed Rennie, were just “dumb” and, unlike last week when he was clearly unhappy with some of referee Romain Poite’s decisions, he had no complaints about Jaco Peyper’s calls this time as he pinged England nine times too.
“Most of the issues were our own undoing. We got into some good positions with the ball and got stripped three times. We’ve got to be better,” he said.
“We prepared really well, went in with good clarity and confidence, but we’re turning too much ball over and some individual mistakes put us under pressure.”
It raised the spectre of whether a burgeoning team that had flourished with home backing during the Rugby Championship might have simply not been able to handle the pressure of packed cauldrons ‘up North’.
“I’m not sure how much the crowd’s got to do with it,” retorted Rennie. “It’s exciting for the boys to be up here. We talked a lot about embracing it and we’re where we want to be.
“It’s got more to do with us having to be accurate; you don’t get many opportunities at this level, you’ve got to build pressure. We just didn’t do that.
“Of course, it’s a setback. The plan was to come over here and keep building on that [run of victories in the Rugby Championship and in Japan].
“Over here, they ask a lot of questions of you, put a lot of ball in the air, and play a lot of territory.
“You’ve got to be disciplined and you’ve got to be accurate – we were neither.”
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The past weekend’s match shaped as the turning point in Dave Rennie’s tumultuous tenure as Wallabies coach.
Instead, the year-end tour threatens to end in despair unless Australia’s spluttering attack can fire and spark a morale-boosting rebound victory over Wales on Saturday.
Soaring to third in the rankings after five straight victories for the first time since 2015, hopes were high that the Wallabies were building nicely towards the 2023 World Cup in France.
But back-to-back insipid defeats to Scotland and Eddie Jones’ England have left Rennie’s men staring down the barrel of a first winless year-end tour of Europe in almost half a century.
Not since Australia lost successive Tests to France in 1976 or to both Wales and England in 1973 in abbreviated year-end tours have the Wallabies returned home from Europe empty-handed.
A different style of rugby is essential for success in the northern climes, a fact glaringly exposed on this trip to Britain in which the Wallabies have managed just one solitary try from the two games against Scotland and England.
That the touring class of 2021 are just two years shy of another global showpiece in Europe only raises the stakes before the showdown with Wales in Cardiff.
“It’s hugely important. The support we had back at home and the support we have over here, they deserve better,” Rennie said.
“So we definitely want to finish on a high.”
Alarmingly, Australia has now lost eight consecutive Tests against England – by an average margin of 16 points – since Jones took charge after the Wallabies unceremoniously dumped the tournament hosts out of the 2015 World Cup before the knockout stages under Stuart Lancaster’s coaching.
Rennie conceded the Wallabies’ disappointing tour form is a step backwards after generating some desperately needed momentum with a home series win over France and twin victories over world champions South Africa before departing for the Northern Hemisphere.
“Of course it’s a setback because the plan was to come over here and keep building on that,” he said.
“It’s exciting for the boys to be up here. We’ve talked a lot about embracing it. We’re where we want to be.
“But we haven’t performed with the accuracy and consistency that we’ve needed over here.
“They ask a lot of questions of you, they put a lot of ball in the air, play a lot of territory and you’ve got to be disciplined and accurate.”
Another loss this weekend will render the five-match winning streak on home soil this year as merely another false dawn for the Wallabies.