England loss provides Wallabies blueprint
It may take some time for the shock to disperse, but the first clean-sweep series loss on home soil since Hannes Marais' South Africans won 3-0 in 1971 provides Michael Cheika's Wallabies a definite way forward for The Rugby Championship and the Bledisloe Cup.
But there's one massive, unavoidable proviso.
They simply must stop shooting themselves in the foot.
As has been the case throughout the series against England, the Wallabies cruelled any chance they had of pulling off a miraculous victory through ill-discipline and good old-fashioned panic.
Owen Farrell is an 80 percent kicker over his Test career, but the middle corridor of the field as far back as the 10-metre line – penalty goal territory, essentially – is his bread-and-butter. Statistics show that his success rate in this part of the field averages out around 93 percent.
Over the three Cook Cup Tests, the Wallabies gave Farrell 17 attempts at penalty goal, and he obliged by raising the flags with 15 of them. In Sydney at the weekend Farrell kicked six from six.
You only have to look the fact that Bernard Foley kicked only five penalties from six attempts across the series – and never took a shot in the Second Test in Melbourne – to see the stark disciplinary difference between the two sides.
This has to be addressed. The Wallabies may not face as accurate a kicker as Farrell during The Rugby Championship, but that can't be seen as an invitation to continue infringing. The remedy has to be to stop giving away the penalties in the first place.
Skill errors have featured through the series, unfortunately, and the sad reality of Southern Hemisphere rugby is that Australian players and teams will inevitably be compared to the stupendously skilled Kiwis. But regardless of how high the bar is set, the Wallabies basic skill levels in this series wasn't good enough.
Passes should not go to players in worse positions. Clearing and penalty kicks for touch should find touch.
The selection and subsequent performance of Matt Toomua at inside centre proved that the Wallabies do perform better with the dual playmakers system that has historically served Australian rugby well. A second ball-player immediately provided options that just weren't present in Brisbane and Melbourne.
Toomua's presence worked on a number of fronts.
Most importantly, it took pressure off Bernard Foley at flyhalf. Another attacking option in Sydney meant that the England defenders couldn't just plough through on Foley all night as they did in the first two matches; they were forced to hold back in order to identify where point of attacking focus was coming from.
This in turn allowed Foley to play flatter – where he is far more effective and dangerous – and it also gave Toomua the opportunity to straighten the attack, further benefitting the runners inside and outside him. And the use of inside and outside runners – finally! – hitting holes certainly created issues with the English defensive shape.
It obviously worked, too, because Eddie Jones admitted post-match that they were ropable in conceding five tries. England's defence never looked like splitting in Melbourne only seven days earlier, but the simple injection of unpredictability in the inside centre channel put the ball over their line five times in Sydney.
This has to remain in the Australian game plan going forward.
Against probably the best scrum in world rugby currently, the Wallabies enjoyed some moments of success. After being completely towelled up in this department in Brisbane, it will have given the Australian forwards confidence heading into the Southern Hemisphere series in August.
The line-out issues remain, though, and that certainly isn't helped in the absence of David Pocock by the selection of a rarely-jumping trio in Will Skelton, Michael Hooper, and Sean McMahon in the pack. The job of contesting the Wallabies line-out is made easier again when Hooper and McMahon are set up in midfield for crash-ball runs. Twice in the second half in Sydney, England noticed this arrangement and stationed three jumpers in between Australia's two.
New Zealand did a similar thing in the World Cup Final, and I can't imagine South Africa will miss the opportunity with Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit on the field. It's simple fix that just needs a bit of game smarts applied.
Similarly, the days of the twin openside flanks should probably be numbered – and even more so if one of them is not Pocock. Without the Brumbies ball thief, the Wallabies breakdown lacked a genuine on-ball threat, and that allowed England's effective but not earth-shattering flanks to attack Australian ball at will.
All in all, and while the series loss is still stinging, there really isn't a lot of need for major overhauls. Reactions to series losses often lack rationality, and a clean sweep series loss has sent Australian rugby fans properly into old-man-shouts-at-cloud territory.
But it will only take some relatively simple adjustments by the players individually during this final period of Super Rugby, and then collectively once back in Wallabies camp again, to quickly make up lost ground. Cheika can help this, too, by selecting the team he needs to win, not the team he'd like to watch play.
Cheika wants to stick to his running rugby mantra, and that's admirable, but he's got to get his side out of the habit of playing with one arm tied behind their back. While the history books won't show it, Australia did play some good rugby during this series.
They just need to re-focus on playing more of it.
By Brett McKay
* 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