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SANZAAR year in review: Part 4

Australia's Sefanaia Naivalu. (Brian Lawless/PA via AP)
Roar Guru
29th December, 2016
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As another year draws to a close, with the flow of the sands of time as unremitting as ever, it’s time to introspect, before we look forward to another year of hard hits, great tries, reset scrums, the Southern Kings, a spurt of trans-Tasman “love” around mid-August, and Dean Mumm.

So let’s look back at the year that was for SANZAAR.

Click here to read Part 1: Argentina
Click here to read Part 2: New Zealand
Click here to read Part 3: South Africa

Australia

The year that was
It was an odd year for the Wallabies, but when is there ever an uneventful year for them? Wallabies fans’ emotions have swung from smug confidence to shock, to desolation to hope, and back to confidence and ultimately, disappointment.

That smug confidence I spoke of was bred during last year’s dream run to the World Cup final.

During that run, the Wallabies had dispatched England and Wales with aplomb, and despite England’s Grand Slam effort at the start of this year, coupled with the less than impressive performances of the Australian Super Rugby franchises, Australia were expecting at least a series victory over them in June.

As it turned out, they were in for a rude shock.

The two defining aspects of the season for the Wallabies was their inferiority to two of their biggest rivals – New Zealand and England, and the early signs of this playing out occurred in Super Rugby against the Kiwi franchises.

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Generally, the most successful Super Rugby franchise from Australia has been the Brumbies, but in recent years the Waratahs have challenged the claim of being the best Australian team with their fabled triumph in 2014.

The Reds and Western Force have been woeful over the past few years, and this year was no different. The Melbourne Rebels now seem to be showing signs of promise but are still far from being true challengers.

The year started with a most impressive win by the Brumbies over the previous season’s finalists, and this year’s ultimate champions, the Hurricanes. The Brumbies dominated the Canes up front and gave them a thorough schooling, scoring seven tries in a 52-10 demolition.

But this proved a false dawn, as victories over Kiwi sides were at a premium for the Aussie franchises. Due to the format tweak, all the Australian and New Zealand franchises played each other, which meant 25 trans-Tasman duels this season.

Along with the aforementioned victory for the Brumbies, there were only be three victories and one draw for the Australian franchises from these 25 fixtures, with surprisingly the Reds being the most successful, taking one win and a draw.

The New Zealanders, on the other hand, routinely thrashed the Aussies, with the Rebels and Force being on the end of some real spankings. The Crusaders’ 85-26 win over the Rebels in Christchurch broke the spirit of the Melbourne side, and their hopes of making the finals faded soon after.

The Waratahs paid for some early defeats in matches they should have won, leaving it too late for their charge for the finals.

With the Kiwi franchises dominating everyone, it was clear that the only way an Australian side could qualify for the finals was by way of topping the Australian conference, and the Brumbies had too much of a head-start in that regard, which meant that the team from Canberra qualified despite a poor finish to the season.

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They then fell at the first hurdle to the Highlanders, ending all Australian participation in Super Rugby for 2016.

That trend of playing second fiddle to New Zealand continued into the national side, but before that, the Wallabies began their season with a three-match series against England, and oh how well it all began. Only for the first 20 minutes.

The Wallabies, with Bernard Foley, new boy Dane Haylett-Petty and Israel Folau, tore the English defence to shreds with tries to Michael Hooper and Folau. However, that was as good as it got.

England made a change in the centres, bringing on George Ford for Luther Burrell, and won penalty after penalty to crawl back into the match.

After a calamitous error from Folau gifted Jonathan Joseph a try, the English had the ascendancy. Once they took the lead, they never looked back, and won the match 39-28, scoring the most points by an English side against the Wallabies.

The second Test was all about resilient English defence and one-dimensional Australian attack.

Wallaby inside centre Matt Toomua

The Wallabies ended the first half with over 20 phases of attack a mere five metres from the tryline, but without any points to show for it.

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England, on the other hand, were the ultimate opportunists, with a late try to Owen Farrell coming from a counter attack initiated by the forwards and ending with a try assist to hooker Jamie George through a grubber kick.

Although the series was lost, England coach Eddie Jones wanted to rub salt into the wounds of his former employers and his former Randwick teammate Michael Cheika by whitewashing the Wallabies 3-0.

That is exactly what he got in a pulsating try-fest that saw England triumph by the mind-boggling scoreline of 44-40. Once more the Wallabies had outscored England in terms of tries, but would have nothing to take from that.

Australia had been whitewashed for the first time in 45 years at home.

It was with this dashed confidence that the Wallabies faced their arch enemy in the opening rounds of the Rugby Championship.

The All Blacks continued from where they left off against Wales in their last Test, running rings around the Wallaby defence in Sydney, scoring four first-half tries in a 42-8 mauling. Australia barely threatened the All Black line, only scoring a late try to Nick Phipps, while their defence was continually exposed out wide and through the middle.

The second Test in Wellington saw some improvement from the Wallabies, but they still didn’t have enough in the tank to keep the All Blacks out, letting in four tries in a 29-9 defeat, their sixth in a row.

The Bledisloe Cup was lost for the 14th year in a row.

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This made the following Test in Brisbane against the Springboks a must win. The Wallabies had not won in six matches and the Boks were also going through a mini-crisis of their own.

Their respective fortunes interchanged after this match, as the Wallabies climbed out of the hole they found themselves in, while the Springboks began to resemble a person thrashing against quicksand.

The Wallabies fought back from 14-3 down to grind out a hard-fought 23-17 win.

The next week they continued their mini-revival with a fast start in Perth against Argentina that was enough to give them a 36-20 win, much in the vein of their World Cup semi-final victory over the same opposition.

However, there was another little stumbling block on their road to recovery, as the Aussies went down at Loftus Versfeld, a place they’ve never won, to South Africa. They scored the only try of the match, a wonderful front-rowers-playing-like-backs effort from Scott Sio, but could not get past the suffocating Springbok defence from there on, failing to register any more points, losing 18-10.

They ended the tournament with another comfortable win over the Pumas away from home in London, before another date with The Darkness.

This was not one of the usual Bledisloe dead rubbers, a lot was riding on this match as an All Black win would see them breaking the record for most consecutive Test wins by a tier one side.

The Wallabies had nothing to lose, and played pretty much like that, giving the All Blacks a good test for around 50 minutes, but were unable to keep the All Black dam from bursting, ending with a 37-10 victory and keeping the Wallabies winless against the All Blacks at Eden Park once more.

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In a way, that match was a turning point of sorts for Australia’s season, as they now gained a bit of confidence from their showing in Auckland, plus they knew that they would not face the All Blacks anymore in 2016, thus relaxing a bit and getting a more freedom of expression into their rugby as they geared up for a long tour of Europe.

This tour started off with a confident and comfortable win over a listless Wales, in which they showed off some of their best attacking moves in a long time. A 32-8 victory was actually flattering to the Welsh, as the Wallabies’ performance was worthy of 50 points at least.

Their next test was a tough fixture against the team they vanquished in the quarter-finals of the World Cup, Scotland.

The Scots proved to be just as tough opponents as a year ago, leading up until the dying stages when Tevita Kuridrani broke through the line and reached out for a memorable solo try, giving the Wallabies a one-point win.

The Grand Slam took a break following that, as the Aussies travelled to Paris to play France.

In another exciting match, the Wallabies and Les Bleus shared three tries each, but France were a wide Camille Lopez drop goal short of snatching the victory. The Wallabies winning 25-23.

The French got a win over an Australian side midweek though, as the French Barbarians played and beat Australia in a non-Test match that saw former Wallabies Mark Gerrard and Ben Mowen suit up in the green and gold once more.

The final two weeks of the Wallabies season had fans murmuring of a Grand Slam, but would ultimately end in disappointment.

They first went to face Ireland in Dublin. The Irish had just played their hearts out against New Zealand the week before and were pretty much the walking wounded. They still put up a courageous fight in the first half, keeping the Wallabies down 17-0 for half an hour until Dane Haylett-Petty got on the end of another brilliant backline move to bring the Wallabies back into the match.

Australia took control in the second half through tries to Tevita Kuridrani and Sefanaia Naivalu, but just when they were about to run away with the game, Keith Earls scored the match-winning try for Ireland.

A 27-24 win put paid to any hopes of a second ever Wallaby Grand Slam.

And so the Wallabies season ended as it begun – with a match against England.

Eddie Jones’ men were on the cusp of becoming only the second side ever to go a year unbeaten, a party which Michael Cheika’s men would only have been too glad to spoil. They started brilliantly to that effect as well.

Just like in Brisbane in the first Test of the year, they got off to a rollicking start, leading 10-0 inside a quarter of an hour. The first half eerily resembled the first half in Brisbane though when Nick Phipps and Sekope Kepu conspired to gift Jonathan Joseph a try that brought England back into the match.

The second half though, in contrast to Brisbane, was all England, as the Wallabies were pinned in their own half by a masterful performance from Ben Youngs. The match ended 37-21 and England’s dominance over Australia was complete.

Bernard Foley Wallabies Australia Rugby Union Test Championship 2016

To summarise
Thus ended an at times miserable, at times magnificent, and never monotonous season for the Wallabies. At the end of the day, they did lose a total of nine Test matches out of 15, with seven of these being against New Zealand and England, so clearly there is a lot to learn for Michael Cheika and his troops.

The positives
While they may have been at sixes and sevens in the first half of the year, the Wallabies definitely improved in the second half of the season, beginning with the victory over the Springboks in Brisbane.

They showed a growing confidence with each game, and even though they could not get over the line in a few of them, their displays were good enough to dispel the doom and gloom that had accumulated from June to August.

The attack also clicked into gear with devastating effect in the spring tour, with the Wallabies scoring some truly mesmerising team tries. In fact, crossing the whitewash has not been a problem at all for the Wallabies in 2016, with them regularly scoring as many, if not more tries than their opposition.

The Wallabies also gave plenty of opportunities to their youth this year, and almost all of them impressed, giving the Wallabies reason not to take advantage of the “Giteau law” in many a position.

Only the halves are where they don’t have a clear and obvious backup that is up to Test standard, maybe a debut to Nic Stirzaker in 2017 will give us a clue about that.

The negatives
There really is no better place to start than the Wallabies’ massive defeats to England and New Zealand.

In both cases, Australia lost the battle on and off the field as they were dominated physically, tactically, and mentally by the best two sides in the world.

In the June series, they resembled headless chickens at times, especially in the second Test as they simply ran straight into the brick wall that England’s defence provided. Before the series, Eddie Jones’ constant talk about “Bodyline” also clearly influenced Michael Cheika’s selections in the centres.

Ultimately, both sides were forced to change their centre combinations and the match was swung by the ‘little men’ rather than the big behemoths. In any case, Australia’s forwards were dominated too.

They were also prone to making absolute howlers. In the first Test, it was Israel Folau who ballooned a pass infield that allowed Jonathan Joseph to score and give England the lead.

In the third Test, Nick Phipps needlessly scooped up a pass when he didn’t need to, and a couple of phases later, Jamie George had sealed a 3-0 whitewash for England. In the last Test of the year as well there was a massive brain fade from Phipps and Sekope Kepu which gave England the lead and control of the match.

Such errors also tied into a lack of discipline, with the Wallabies conceding a huge number of penalties per game. Stephen Moore was always on the wrong side of the referee, with Romain Poîte even refusing to talk to him during the Wellington Test match.

The Wallabies also defended poorly against the All Blacks, as the 16 tries conceded in three matches can clearly attest to. The Sydney Test was the nadir, with 40 missed tackles prompting massive changes to the Wallaby line-up.

Wallabies Australia Rugby Union Test Championship 2016

And lastly, Michael Cheika.

It was a rough year for the former Waratahs coach, as he was bested by his two long-time rivals on the pitch and in the mind as well. While Eddie Jones’ sledging did seem to go too far by the end of the year, Steve Hansen’s remarks about the bugging allegations at the start of the Rugby Championship, and then the “hijacking” of the All Blacks’ record-breaking celebrations after the whole “Clowngate” controversy, clearly got under Cheika’s skin.

It didn’t help that Cheika routinely befuddled fans and pundits alike with his puzzling selections and persisting with players like Dean Mumm and Henry Speight despite them not being up to the grade.

His persistence on requiring to run the ball out from every kickoff, no matter how deep they are, also backfired at times, as witnessed in Dublin. Thus Cheika will need to take a long hard look at where his Wallabies stand and what direction he wants to lead them in. The talent is there, they just need to be honed and fitted into a smart gameplan.

Also, it would do well, as Wallabies fans, to know the Wallabies’ place, putting it bluntly.

Australia pines for the Bledisloe Cup, but beating the All Blacks in two Test matches is not going to happen overnight. Recognising the fact that the Wallabies have a long way to go to cultivate the skills required to be at a level anywhere near the All Blacks, and even still in terms of their execution and mentality, maybe keeping the expectations low will do Australia the world of good.

This does not mean give up before the year begins, but just inculcate a bit of humility, it’s better than being humbled on the pitch every time.

And to round things up, Super Rugby was also a tale of misery for Australian franchises. Each and every one of them had problems on the field, off the field, or both.

The Waratahs are the best bet for Australia to win the competition, factoring in the talent they have. But they showed wildly inconsistent form and were deservingly absent from the finals.

The Reds were the Reds, lurching from one pathetic display to the next, with their star signing Ayumu Goromaru being a total flop, and coach Richard Graham finally being sacked. The Rebels were always on the edge of becoming the great underdog story, Australia’s answer to the Lions if you will, but that ended with a spectacular 80 plus point drubbing at the hands of the Crusaders.

The Western Force and Brumbies were beseeched by problems off the field, with the ARU’s takeover of the Force and the Brumbies saga with Michael Jones being two big stories.

Sadly the Force hardly challenged on the field, and while the Brumbies topped the Australian conference, they did so with lesser points than six other teams. They also had to deal with the loss of Ita Vaea and Christian Leali’ifano.

Vaea announced his retirement due to health issues relating to the heart, and Leali’ifano was given the heart-breaking news that he had leukaemia mere months after becoming a father and getting back into the Wallabies fold. Here’s wishing both all the strength in the world in their respective fights.

Player of the year
The Wallabies handed out quite a few debuts this season, and really these youngsters were the standout performers in a green and gold jersey.

Among the old heads, Will Genia always made his experience count whenever he was freed from his Stade Français commitments, while Michael Hooper and David Pocock were always at their industrious best, and Israel Folau too was a constant menace in attack, even if the tries have dried up since his early days in a Wallaby jumper.

The question remains as to whether he will be moved from fullback, and much of that is down to the impressive performances of Dane Haylett-Petty.

The South African-born Western Force man impressed in Super Rugby and was rightfully called up for the series against England, wherein he impressed from the get-go. His season may have ended with a harsh sin-binning, but he was a vital cog of the Wallabies backline.

Another Western Force player to have made an impact with the Wallabies was second rower Adam Coleman. The towering lock formed made a formidable partnership with fellow giant Rory Arnold and together they showed signs of being the long term pairing the Wallabies need in the second row. His absence was clearly felt in the last Tests of the year.

Another debutant who impressed was Reds centre Samu Kerevi.

Having been one of Super Rugby’s most exciting players in 2015, and following that up with great performances in a floundering team this year, it was only a matter of time before he was called up to the national squad.

He has not disappointed, scoring tries and keeping defences honest with his strong, direct game at outside centre. He does have a tendency to be a bit selfish though, not unlike his outside centre competitor Tevita Kuridrani, but he is still only 23-years-old.

Reece Hodge was also called up to the squad ahead of the second Bledisloe Cup match, and he instantly proved to be a revelation, with his big boot coming in handy on more than a few occasions, while his hard running lines made him a perfect fit for the inside-centre role after the “Fooper” experiment was abandoned.

But for his consistency and hard work, I’d give the player of the year gong to Dane Haylett-Petty.

Having had to wait for a while before getting the call-up, the fullback has done a great job filling in on the right wing and should be a mainstay of the Wallaby team for a good few years.

Try of the year
While the Wallabies may have their failings in many departments, crafting out wonderful, free flowing backline moves is their forte, especially on the end-of-year tour, they scored some magnificent tries.

While Tevita Kuridrani’s fabulous finishes against Scotland and France are worth mentioning, I’m going to give the try of the year to this magnificent move finished off by Reece Hodge against Wales.

Performance of the year
And while we’re at it, that Test match against Wales also saw the Wallabies at their most dominant, despite the fact that Wales were utterly ill-prepared. If anything, the Wallabies should have scored more tries, but the four that they scored were just reward for their endeavour and dominance, with not one player putting a foot wrong.

Looking ahead
This has been a tough year for the Wallabies, and they would have undoubtedly found being second best to both New Zealand and England a really bitter pill to swallow.

But 2017 offers a chance of a better year, as the June Tests will be against the second-tier opposition in the form of Fiji, Italy and Scotland.

While they best not be complacent, these are manageable fixtures. The real challenge lies beyond, and that is as much a challenge of rugby skills as it is of mental preparation.

Too often the Wallabies either get carried away with talk of their own prowess and too often they get demoralised (mostly after a defeat to New Zealand). They need to acknowledge where they stand, own up to it and take things one match at a time.

The verdict
The Wallabies illusions of grandeur have well and truly been laid to rest, and while the spring tour may have restored some pride, the fact remains that they were clearly one rung below the trailblazers of 2016, even if they were well above the cellar-dwellers.

The final verdict: SANZAAR 2016
Admittedly, after the highs of 2015 which saw all four SANZAAR nations make the Rugby World Cup semifinals, this year seems to have been a bit of a downer for the SANZAAR nations as a whole.

Yes, the All Blacks went on their merry winning ways for much of the year, breaking records, shattering them in fact, but even their season had one massive blip in the form of a first ever defeat to Ireland.

This year was the first that showed true signs that the gulf that used to exist between the Six Nations and the Tri-Nations is well and truly a thing of the past, and maybe that is for the betterment of rugby as a whole.

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