In the first Bledlisloe test of 2018 Michael Cheika has the chance to start anew. To create a new narrative around his coaching of the Wallabies and to restore faith in both the team and in his coaching.
The resignation of Ewen McKenzie led to a rupturing amongst Australian fans in their opinion about McKenzie, the Wallabies and Michael Cheika as the new coach.
Cheika’s fantastic results in 2015, getting Australia to its first World Cup final since 2003, momentarily eased a lot of the negativity of the fans.
When results started to sour in 2016 the negativity regarding Cheika returned.
I, more than some, am guilty of being unduly negative about the team or about certain players in the previous two years, which is something I cannot take back, but I can try and rectify in the future.
Since the England series in June 2016 Michael Cheika has in my mind been rightly criticised for both his selections and game plan at times.
There were periods in which Cheika’s favoured players were very out of form but continually selected, or when performing players were mysteriously dropped.
There was also the issue that it seemed at times that Cheika’s Wallabies were intent on trying to play a form of unlimited phased rugby league.
At the same time there were external factors as well. The results of the Super Rugby teams in 2016 declined from 2015 and reached their nadir in 2017.
All of these things contributed to the poor results of the previous two years.
On this fixture 12 months ago the Wallabies were at their lowest point. The 54-34 loss was so crushing that many fans lost all faith in Cheika and began calling for resignations.
Nonetheless, aside from a hiccup on the Spring Tour results improved from then and the Wallabies even won the third Bledisloe test.
In 2018, despite losing the series to Ireland 2-1 most fans, while unhappy with the loss, were cautiously optimistic about the seeming improvement in form.
With the more time that has passed and with the pain of the loss failing it is easier to recognise that the side had vastly improved from only six months previous.
Australia’s scrum held its own and was even dominant at times.
The forwards were much more effective at the breakdown and in terms of tight ball-carrying.
Despite playing both Michael Hooper and David Pocock Australia’s line out functioned well during the series.
The midfield defence of Bernard Foley at 10, Kurtley Beale at 12 and Samu Kerevi at 13 was strong, as was Australia’s cover defence.
Most importantly, from the first test Australia demonstrated a newfound willingness to kick tactically in order to gain field advantage, to utilise Folau or even to score tries.
There were issues, of course. After the first Test Australia’s tactics did not sufficiently evolve, and the kicks that had been so effective early on were handled relatively easily by the Irish.
Without Will Genia the attack often lacked spark.
Nevertheless, the Wallabies were vastly improved on their performances 6 or 12 months previous, and have a lot to build on.
12 months later the Wallabies are up against the best team in the world. The All Blacks won their series 3-0 against France, are on a 15-year winning streak and will be at virtually full strength, but there are reasons to be optimistic as a fan:
1. Despite being an inferior team in the Bledisloe Cup last year also the Wallabies won the third Test and pushed New Zealand to the limit in the second – the Wallabies do not need to be the better team overall, just to play better on the night
2. Bernard Foley, Australia’s 10, is in the best form he has been in since at least 2015 and has vastly improved his kicking, which means the Wallabies are unlikely to lose through leaving free points on the field
3. David Pocock, Australia’s best player, has returned and will combine with Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale and Will Genia for the first time since the Rugby World Cup
4. Australia has a scrum that should be able to hold firm against the All Black starters and may even improve when Taniela Tupou
5. For the first time since the World Cup most Wallaby fans are in agreement about most positions, or, at the very least, are not opposed to the incumbents – an indication that Cheika has done a great job in improving his selection.
A win would be a fantastic result for Cheika, and would likely turn around the opinions of many of those fans critical to him.
However, even if the Wallabies do not earn a famous upset win, I believe most fans are simply hoping to see a continued improvement in skills, an expansion in tactics and an intention to prioritise both defence and kicking.