The Wallabies’ challenge before the 2019 World Cup is turning a group of players from grossly under-performing Super Rugby teams into a dynamic, world-beating unit.
Luckily, Michael Cheika can start building this unit while the Wallabies enjoy the easiest June international Test schedule in recent memory, facing Test sides all below the top four in the world.
But, as we were reminded last year, the first steps on a long journey can sometimes be the ones where you are most likely to fall.
Starting from square one again
After a brilliant run into the 2015 World Cup final, the Wallabies’ 2016 campaign was a failure, winning six out of 15 games for a success rate of 40 per cent. This isn’t good enough if you are expecting to win another World Cup.
Sure, three of those games were against New Zealand and four against England, who are the number one and two teams in the world respectively, but you have to be able to beat the best in order to be the best. And the average losing margin was 19 points across the seven Tests, which is more than a fair gap to close against teams that are continually pushing their standards higher.
After Australia’s win against France in November last year, Cheika spoke to AFP about how he hadn’t got the mental buy-in from new players right after his stable of experienced stalwarts like Matt Giteau and Adam Ashley-Cooper retired from international rugby following the 2015 World Cup.
“When the new guys started coming in from a mental perspective maybe I tried to continue on and didn’t understand that maybe they and the other players who had gone back to their Super Rugby sides had to be either reminded of the project or introduced to it for the first time,” Cheika said.
“Maybe I went on ahead with too many different themes and tried to evolve those as opposed to understanding there were a lot of new guys and it was best to restart from zero and rebuild.”
For Cheika, 2016 was a learning experience. It was the first time he had faced a large group of experienced, core players retiring and a new group of youngsters joining the mix. All up, there were 13 debutants in 2016, the most in a season since 2012. Cheika assumed that the messages he worked so hard to instil in the 2014 and 2015 Wallabies would naturally flow onto these new players. He was wrong.
He now knows that he has to start at square one when introducing new players into the Wallabies culture, something the coach is sure to do this time around.
After a woeful 2016 against quality opposition, the ARU has opted for a less daunting June schedule, with one thing in mind: win.
The Wallabies need to get back to winning ways and should back themselves to secure three wins from three Tests this time around – although by no means will this be a walk in the park.
The Test window is as follows:
Saturday June 10: Wallabies vs Fiji – AAMI Park, Melbourne
Saturday June 17: Wallabies vs Scotland – Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Saturday June 24: Wallabies vs Italy – Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Fiji are currently ranked tenth in the world, which should allow the Wallabies to tinker with their formula and make a few mistakes – but not too many, especially if the likes of Nemani Nadolo and Ben Volavola are on song.
Fiji could be so much more if countries from all over the world, including Australia, stopped poaching its top talent. Still, under the tutelage of their New Zealand-born coach John McKee, they represent a significant threat if the Wallabies are not resolute in defence, sharp in attack and strong in the set piece.
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Scotland are now ranked fifth in the world, making this a Test that should have Cheika worried. A team on the rise, in the Six Nations the Scots beat Ireland, Wales and Italy, but were let down by a close loss to France and an absolute drubbing at the hands of England.
They’re a better side than the 61-21 scoreline against England shows, but it is probably this result which saw only two players, Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour, initially selected for the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand, with Greig Laidlaw joining later due to injury.
Australia have won the last three straight against Scotland, but the two most recent Tests were by a margin of only one point, while the last time Scotland played in Australia they won 6-9 in cyclonic conditions in Newcastle.
The relatively light draw on their team for the Lions tour means the Scots still have a strong squad. The forwards are where Scotland can do most of the damage, with no players selected for the Lions. Their locking combination is a particularly good, with brothers Richie and Johnny Gray going from strength to strength in the Six Nations. Their battle with Wallabies incumbents Rory Arnold and Adam Coleman looks to be worth the price of admission alone.
The Aussies should account for Italy without too much difficulty, as they did not win a Test in this year’s Six Nations, and are currently ranked 15th in the world.
However, a lax approach must not be taken into this game, as Italy can throw out a few surprises. Against England in the Six Nations, the Italians did not commit players to the ruck and hence could successfully stifle English passing from the ruck base, as no offside line had been formed.
It was a smart tactic that had Eddie Jones delightfully flustered at halftime, although it was never going to work for the full 80.