Australia beat Wales last weekend in an exciting clash that showcased a marked improvement in execution and decision-making in a year that has been difficult for the Wallabies – to say the least.
Quade Cooper is now showing the benefit of time in the saddle and the confidence that comes with putting multiple wins together and this flowed into the rest of the back line.
Many praised Cooper for his contribution in the Wallabies’ first try but for me, the try belonged to Joe Tomane who had his best game in an Australian jersey.
The skill to tap forward and regain a pass that was high and behind him and then quickly recycle inside was more valuable than the space that Cooper provided.
Roarers will probably debate that, but either way, the ability to finish those opportunities is something that has increased markedly over the November tour.
If the disappointment of the Lions series loss and Rugby Championship failure were rock-bottom, then Ewen McKenzie has done a credible job of putting Australia back on the upswing.
Putting trouble-makers into leadership positions has been a long-used tactic for coaches to turn a team’s fortunes around (think Troy Flavell for the blues or Dylan Hartley for Northampton) and it has been a solidifying factor in McKenzie’s attempt to create a new image and ethos for Australia.
Underlying these changes has been the performances and development of the less established players in the team.
In the backs, as I mentioned before, Tomane has gone from strength to strength, Nick Cummins continues to be rock solid, Tevita Kuridrani has shown he will be a player for the future and Israel Folau has had possibly the best rookie year of any Australian player ever.
In the forwards, Michael Hooper completely out-played Sam Warburton and continues a good year, Scott Fardy provides a wide running game and some well-needed mongrel to the pack and Ben Mowen has been astute with his captaincy.
So, with these players going well and things looking up for Australia, the big question is, what do you do with the established players that will come back next year?
There is an argument to be made that all the mentioned players above could be replaced by the injured. Think of these returning players:
Kurtley Beale, David Pocock, Scott Higginbotham, Wycliff Palu, Hugh McMeniman, Pat McCabe, Henry Speight, James O’Connor (assuming he wants to play) and then a number of fringe players like Jesse Mogg, Rod Davies and Jake Schatz.
Is McKenzie going to be loyal to the players who have turned around the public perception of the Wallabies or is he going to go back to the players that were a part of a team that put the team into a downward spiral?
It’s an interesting problem given that most of these returning players offer compelling arguments as to why they should be selected.
On the one hand, there are several world class players there that could offer points of difference in big games and on the other hand, this would be a slap in the face to the players that have served him well on this tour.
One thing is for sure, McKenzie can’t afford to backtrack on his ideology of turning around team culture.
Hopefully the standards that have been set on this tour will be applied to returning players as well and if this is the case, then Australia can look forward to a much better year in 2014.