Losing 35-17 to the Springboks in Johannesburg, the Wallabies kicked off their 2019 Test season by extending a 56-year Ellis Park losing streak.
Predictably, yesterday’s headlines suggested that the Wallabies are cursed. And it’s true, they are.
But it’s got nothing to do with Ellis Park.
Try instead their inability to remain composed and clinical to finish off clear-cut scoring opportunities. Or captain Michael Hooper failing to demonstrate Test-match awareness, neglecting easy points when they were offered to him.
Or the Wallabies’ ball-runners consistently entering contact too upright, against an enveloping, fast-advancing defensive line known for favouring upright choke tackles.
Or the inability of Samu Kerevi and Dane Haylett-Petty to treasure possession in the third quarter, so as to help stem the Springbok tide and provide a platform to re-establish field position.
Ditto Taniela Tupou, whose biggest crime was not to fly into a prone Springbok to clean him off the ball, but his lack of situational awareness, failing to grasp that his side had already won the scrum and there was nothing further to be gained from once again drawing the attention of the match officials to his shoulder.
And what about Wallabies coach Michael Cheika reverting to type after the match, bemoaning Tupou’s yellow card, as if another disappointing loss – their tenth from their last 14 matches – was somehow down to referee Paul Williams.
Failing to look inwards and acknowledge one’s own deficiencies. Now that’s a heck of a curse.
Make no mistake, there were some good signs shown by the Wallabies. There is also the promise of emerging players below, while Scott Johnson and his man Dave Rennie wait their turn to chart a new course from 2020.
But for now, the die is cast. Quibble all you like about player selections here and there, but the Wallabies essentially contain all of Australia’s best players. And for as long as they stay in the World Cup, for the rest of this year they will continue to live or die by Cheika’s sword.
But too many of the usual hallmarks were there. After adjusting to the initial jolt of the Springboks’ rushing defence, the Wallabies twice failed to commit enough numbers to their attacking breakdown, the second one freeing up S’busiso Nkosi on the right edge, who calmly put debutant halfback Herschel Jantjies across for the opening score.
The reply should have come at 18 minutes, but Samu Kerevi inexplicably failed a basic draw-and-pass test, which would have seen Lukhan Salakaia-Loto stroll in under the posts instead of being the recipient of an obvious forward pass, which was easy pickings for TMO Rowan Kitt.
It was another trademark lack of urgency on the part of the Wallabies pack that led to the Springboks’ second try – too slow to form a defensive line after an attacking scrum broke up, allowing Pieter-Steph du Toit and Jantjies to split them open and Lood de Jager to burrow over.
The Wallabies finally struck back when Kerevi stayed strong in contact and a quick transfer enabled Haylett-Petty to scramble over on the corner. But Haylett-Petty turned villain five minutes later, fumbling a pick up and score with no opposition player in sight, after he and Bernard Foley had done well to work their way around the umbrella defence.
If there was cause for optimism at half-time – the Wallabies were only down 14-10 and had left 17 clear points on the park – it dissipated in the third quarter, with the Springboks dominating field position and territory, and the Wallabies were unable to impose any further imprint on the match until it was all but over.
To be sure, Tupou’s card didn’t help – the Springboks working the numerical advantage to put Nkosi over. But Jantjies’ second try was again an illustration of the Wallabies’ poor situational awareness, first Haylett-Petty and then Matt Toomua leaving the side door ajar.
Regaining his feet, Toomua only turned away for a split second, but this is Test match rugby, the margins are fine and good players exploit even the slightest weakness.
Jantjies certainly looked like a good player, enjoying a dream debut behind his monster pack, and coach Rassie Erasmus will be delighted that the confidence he extended to his squad players was rewarded with a strong win.
For the Wallabies, it tells a tale that their best – Nic White – still came second to his opposite on the night. Debutant Isi Naisarani fought hard to get some go-forward in the first half, and ring-in prop Harry Johnson-Holmes acquitted himself well on limited preparation.
Both Kurtley Beale and Will Genia added spark and class from the bench, but the game was already lost by the time they were introduced.
Beale poses an interesting selection poser for Cheika. A mercurial player, it was his opening-minute shocker that set the Wallabies on a downwards spiral in the equivalent fixture last year. Yet at his best, he can unlock any defence.
For now, Cheika seems comfortable using him as a finisher (is there a sillier term in the game?). But as the inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 discovered, while it is true that the ship was grossly under-fitted with lifeboats, the best way to have avoided a disaster was to not hit an iceberg in the first place.
No doubt that question and others will be addressed when Cheika sits down to study his opponent for next weekend. Oh, hang on a minute.
Assuming that Cheika’s claim (boast?) to eschew video analysis of opponents is actually true, whoever fills him in on the Pumas’ 20-16 loss to the All Blacks will tell him to prepare for a side that continues to grow in cohesion, has a world-class line-out, offers high intensity in defence, and – just like South Africa – has the strike power and speed to punish even the smallest lapses of concentration.
Over their short 34-year, 27-match history, Argentina has often been highly competitive against the All Blacks, only to fail to last the distance as the class and fitness differential kicked in late in the game.
Here, despite the All Blacks trying to crank up the pace of the game at every opportunity, the Pumas not only stuck to them but clearly had the better of the second half, despite coming up short on the scoreboard.
At their heart was the wonderful Pablo Matera, continuing his great Super Rugby form, and the always inventive Tomas Cubelli, in command of all the halfback skills and varying his game wonderfully.
In such a hard-fought and even match, it seemed incongruous that the difference was ultimately a soft try just before half-time, presented on a platter to Brodie Retallick by Nicolas Sanchez.
Earlier, Ngani Laumape had burrowed over after some impressive lead-up work by his pack and Aaron Smith, and going into half-time at 20-9 ahead, there was every reason for All Blacks fans to believe that opening match rust was – like players having a proper off-season to revitalise body and mind – a thing of the past.
But via a combination of their own impatience, ill-discipline and some wonderful Pumas defence, New Zealand never seriously threatened the try line again. In retrospect, if Sanchez probably kicked too much ball away in the first half, the All Blacks didn’t kick enough in the second, in the process losing the field position battle.
Nevertheless a win is a win, with a number of new players successfully introduced to Test rugby, including Sevu Reece, who hinted at exciting times ahead against any defence that allows him even the slightest latitude.
If there are concerns, they will be around lack of ball control at vital times and how Patrick Tuipulotu and Vaea Fifita failed to impose themselves on the match, although to be fair, Fifita’s line-out contribution was an important one.
There was also a curious tactical decision in the 77th minute when, after previously absorbing a lot of pressure on defence, the All Blacks elected to play wide into the collision zone from a scrum on halfway, when a more certain ball retention option may have been the safer route to take so close to full-time.
Almost inevitably a turnover and penalty resulted, offering the Pumas two final chances to win the match from a line-out maul. On the second they threw long but failed to get their blocks set tight, the maul falling in a heap, along with their chances of a first historic win against the All Blacks.
It was enough, however, to suggest that a win next weekend in Brisbane is not only possible but likely – particularly against a Wallabies side seemingly so cursed as this one is.
Time this week to finish with a competition, where readers are invited to submit their version of what they believe Beauden Barrett had scrawled on his wrist during the Buenos Aires Test.
Leading off, here are some possible contenders…
Keen rugby fans everywhere will know that only two of those things are true.