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It was a rough-ish weekend for our national teams here in Australia.
The Socceroos left it until literally the last minute to find an equaliser against Korea, while at the same time, the Australian men’s cricket team were going to extraordinary lengths to prove that their terrible shot selection and match awareness could indeed be utilised in the innovative new international format of two-hours-of-rain-and-ten-overs-a-side.
Then on Sunday morning, the women’s side (and why, oh why can’t we just keep calling them the Southern Stars?) had their first loss of the World Twenty20 marred by the sickening fielding collision between wicketkeeper Alyssa Healy and opening bowler Megan Schutt. At the time of writing, the results of scans were still being waited on, to determine whether Healy can take her place behind the stumps in Friday morning’s semi-final against hosts, the West Indies.
So in between that, and even ignoring their 2018 form for just a minute, it probably wasn’t such a surprise to see the Wallabies turn in a convincingly unconvincing 26-7 win over Italy in Padua.
In many ways, the match was the perfect illustration of Wallabies wins in 2018 – with the obvious exception being the quality showing over Ireland in the first Test of the year back in June (which now seems like so much longer ago than just five months).
There were some really good signs, no doubt. There were some really ordinary signs, too, sadly. There always are.
Yet despite that, the Wallabies never really looked in danger of losing the game once they got out to the 14-0 lead they took into halftime. Italy are an honest side, a gutsy one even, but perhaps the most damning thing to say about the Azzurri is that they’re even more limited than the Wallabies.
Up front, it was great to see Taniela Tupou have the same kind of impact at the start of the game that we’ve become used to him bringing off the bench. And behind him, it’s genuinely heartening to think of how much Izack Rodda has developed as a Test lock in little more than twelve months.
I can still recall a humble Rodda telling me at the start of the 2016 NRC season that he just wanted to spend as much time learning off then Queensland Country teammate, and now Reds coach, Brad Thorn. So well and so quickly did he rise through the ranks that Rodda didn’t play much of the 2017 NRC; he was already a Wallaby.
To see him wreaking all kinds of havoc on the Italian lineout was wonderful to see, but he’s been one of the few Wallabies who have actually improved as 2018 has gone on. At the start of the year, at the start of the Rugby Championship even, Adam Coleman’s second-row partner was a discussion worth having.
Now it’s not even a contest.
Matt Toomua was serviceable at flyhalf, and Wallabies fans can probably rest somewhat easier in knowing that finally an alternate to Bernard Foley has been found. Mind you, for much of the first half, Foley spent so much time at first receiver that it was hard to see what the point of Toomua being named at – and wearing – no.10 was.
Further out, Samu Kerevi was incredible, and a deserving player of the match. Since his return from injury, Kerevi has been the consistent attack-straightener, line-bender, and tackle-buster in a Wallabies backline that remains more guilty of overplaying its hand than a glove retailer desperate for a sale.
And though the inclusion of Adam Ashley-Cooper was rightly questioned, he also put in a performance that showed he does still have a bit to offer the Wallabies.
In fact, of those three players, I have to agree with the suggestion made on thee pages on Sunday afternoon that Toomua, Kerevi, and Ashley-Cooper are probably the in-form Wallabies backs. And while I don’t think he’ll do it, I think Michael Cheika could do a lot worse than play that trio as a very direct 10-12-13 midfield unit against England at headquarters this weekend.
And this perhaps is the biggest takeaway from the Italy win: there were, once again, more awkward questions raised than definitive resolutions found.
Japan’s pack were surprisingly effective at asking questions of England on Saturday, but is the Wallabies’ good enough and disciplined enough to pick up that baton? Are they going to be smart enough technically to not present the kind of scrum picture at Twickenham that Pascal Gauzere guessed his way through in Padua?
What is the best attack to counter the likely English rush defence? And have we seen it in 2018?
This final Test of the year, as a result of everything else that has come before it, be the Wallabies’ biggest Test this season. Results over the last fortnight has seen a definitive top four – Ireland, England, New Zealand and South Africa, in no particular order – emerge in the international game, and this is the last chance the Wallabies will get before next July to see how close (or otherwise) they are to that pack.
Worryingly, and curiously, who Cheika will pick to answer that challenge is both the $64 question and anyone’s guess.