The Wallabies’ end of year report card: Part 1

Simon Douch Roar Guru

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    At times it was frustrating and disappointing, then, uplifting and encouraging, but that’s just the life of an average Wallabies supporter.

    Australian finished 2017 with a record of seven wins, five losses and two draws, the most recent result, of course, a 53-24 hiding at the hands of a resurgent Scottish side at Murrayfield.

    We were promised a year of growth with the 2019 World Cup in Japan on the radar. Led by Michael Cheika, the Aussies certainly did improve as the year progressed, culminating in a four-game winning streak, including a victory over the All Blacks in Brisbane.

    But this success was short-lived, with consecutive losses to England and Scotland to round out an exasperating season.

    The season has been one of exceptional individual talent, flashes of brilliance, controversial selections and inconsistency. Where there is good, there will always be bad, and so here is the year in review for a number of significant team members, the first of a four-part series.

    Tatafu Polota-Nau

    Average Roar rating: 6.33
    Highest Roar rating: 8.06 (vs Japan – 11/4)
    Lowest Roar rating: 4.84 (vs Scotland – 6/17)

    Taf had an outstanding international season of growth. Publically announcing his desire to be the country’s first-choice hooker, Polota-Nau made the No.2 jumper his own and lived up to his bold pre-season predictions. With Stephen Moore finally succumbing to his age and retiring, the former Western Force hooker eases the transition of talent to the next generation of hookers coming through the ranks.

    Polota-Nau is an outstanding scrummager and excellent in contact, however his lineout throw was a point of concern. A clear signifier of his progression in this area was the early try against Wales from a rolling maul off a good lineout. Polota-Nau played his role to perfection and barged over the line for an easy try. While not perfect by any means, Polota-Nau has improved his throw to the point that it is a reliable aspect of his game.

    Not five minutes later, he made an outstanding cover tackle on the Welsh halfback, who would’ve otherwise trundled over the try line for an easy score, highlighting another clear positive to Polota-Nau’s game – effort. In the back half of the Rugby Championship and then on to the Spring tour, he has thrown his weight around and truly played hard for the country.

    As mentioned above, his early-year lineout struggles continued, culminating in two bad overthrows in the second half of the lost game against Scotland in the June Internationals.

    But the biggest ‘low’ for Polota-Nau is easily the fact that no-one has room for him. Taf played the waiting game, hoping the Force would survive the Super Rugby cut, and ultimately missed the opportunity to sign with another Australian rugby club.

    He has now signed with Leicester for next season, however, he will still be eligible and needed for the World Cup, having passed the 60-Test minimum requirement for overseas-based players.

    World Cup prospects
    Polota-Nau needs to play in Japan. There is a great crop of young hookers coming through the ranks, but the veteran will still own the position come 2019.

    Tatafu Polota-Nau

    (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

    Michael Hooper

    Average Roar rating: 5.99
    Highest Roar rating: 7.30 (vs New Zealand – 10/21)
    Lowest Roar rating: 3.87 (vs New Zealand – 8/19)

    He runs hard, tackles hard and just about does everything on the field at full throttle. Hooper has played a major part in turning the Wallabies’ disastrous start to the season into one that has fans cautiously optimistic for the future.

    He is possibly his own worst enemy though, as Hooper’s consistently impressive performances have created an unfair benchmark of quality for himself.

    An opportunistic try against New Zealand in Dunedin is worth a mention. He almost had a sheepish look on his face as he emerged from the shambled maul, through the bulk of the All Black forward pack, to scamper across the line to give his side a remarkable two-try lead.

    Hooper is easily the most consistent performer in the forward pack, so much so that his impact can be overlooked in favour of the way he communicates with the referees or even the way he wears his socks. You can’t fault the captain for trying to lead his team through his own performance.

    We hope the skipper isn’t lactose intolerant because he has had so much cheese this season. An eighth yellow card of his career against England, the second in as many weeks, is a new record and an incredible achievement.

    With the role that a player of his position is expected to play in a game, Hooper will surely flirt with a few cards over his career, and he is proving to be exceptionally good at converting warnings to ten minutes on the sideline.

    That’s compared to three yellows for Richie McCaw in his entire career – although, let’s be honest, it should’ve been way more – and then six for South Africa’s Schalk Burger.

    Cards can be an unlucky occurrence, but Hooper needs to find the sweet spot between contesting the ruck and sitting on the sideline. We can’t have a yellow for our captain in any game of the latter stages of the World Cup.

    World Cup prospects
    He is a world-class player, a developing captain, and is assured a spot on the squad headed to Japan in 2019.

    Hooper’s biggest challenge will be to address his leadership skills, not only in relation to his teammates but also to the refs.

    Michael Hooper of Australia

    (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

    Ned Hanigan

    Average Roar rating: 4.16
    Highest Roar rating: 5.76 (vs Fiji – 6/10)
    Lowest Roar rating: 2.80 (vs New Zealand – 8/19)

    Hanigan burst onto the international scene in the June series, with many being impressed by the youngster’s skills, especially with the ball in hand. Thinking it was merely a brief introduction to international rugby, supporters could overlook his lack of physicality and be happy with his overwhelming promise for the future.

    Hanigan tries hard and puts in an admirable effort each time he is on the field. Fast forward past the Rugby Championship for a moment, and he has performed well during the Spring tour. Although his impact in and around the breakdown remains wanting, his presence is beginning to be felt.

    As a fair summation of Hanigan’s lack of physicality, he ran in to defend his teammates during a small scuffle against the Springboks in Perth. The only problem is, he ran into Eben Etzebeth, who made Hanigan look like ragdoll.

    Again, all the effort and intent is there, just don’t go looking for a fight with Etzebeth – it’s a foolish thing to do. If you need any more information on Hanigan’s lows, spend 30 seconds browsing The Roar’s rugby section.

    World Cup prospects
    He will definitely be part of the equation, with a good amount of experience under his belt, Hanigan has the opportunity to really grow in next year’s Super Rugby competition.

    A man with a bright future.

    Ned Hanigan Wallabies

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    Sean McMahon

    Average Roar rating: 6.40
    Highest Roar rating: 8.20 (vs New Zealand – 10/21)
    Lowest Roar rating: 3.76 (vs New Zealand – 8/19)

    McMahon has seemed to play his entire career so far in a second tier behind Hooper and David Pocock. As such, he’s had limited chances to prove himself. With Pocock enjoying an extended paid vacay, McMahon was thrown into the number eight position at the start of the international season. Most were concerned with his lack of size and physicality to play the eight, rather suited to seven, where he has excelled over the past several years. But we were sensationally proved wrong.

    McMahon started the season slowly, with a horrible outing in the first Bledisloe Cup match, but he improved with every game. During the season finale, at Murrayfield, the blockbusting eight was the only forward in a yellow jersey with a hint of physicality and ‘go forward’.

    McMahon’s biggest highlight was definitely during the dead rubber against New Zealand in Brisbane, where he burst through the heart of the All Blacks’ defence for a barnstorming 50-metre run at the death of the Test. It was inspiring, impressive and helped Australia complete a phenomenal victory.

    Good things don’t last forever. Every good performance was marred by the realisation that he is leaving for Japan, just not with the Wallabies in 2019. Each post-match interview involved a sly question about what it will take to keep him here. But, as always, you only appreciate what you’ve got when it’s gone – or going.

    World Cup prospects
    Will he come back? He reckons he is keen to play, but it’s a fairly worrying situation. Quite simply, he is too good not to have. If he wants it, it will be there.

    With rumours that Japanese club rugby will be postponed in 2019, there could be a possibility of his return to the Wallabies.