James O’Connor has returned to the Wallabies’ flyhalf jersey for the side’s final Test of the year against Argentina this Saturday.
The Wallabies are praying for a long-shot draw between New Zealand and Argentina as their best hope of staying in the Tri Nations title race after blowing it big time once again.
Just when it appeared they had one hand on the trophy, the Wallabies let it slip in a 15-15 stalemate with the Pumas that has put Argentina in the box seat to snare some elusive silverware of their own.
The Wallabies conceded three penalties in the final 25 minutes before No.10 Reece Hodge pushed his own shot wide that would have clinched victory for Australia at McDonald Jones Stadium.
Newcastle continues to be a graveyard for Australian teams – the Wallabies slumped to a shock defeat to Scotland in 2012 in Michael Hooper’s Test debut, while the captain’s NSW Waratahs suffered a diabolical Super Rugby loss to the lowly Sunwolves last year at the venue.
But this latest setback could prove the most costly of all.
The Wallabies are no longer the masters of their own destiny, with the winners of Saturday night’s All Blacks-Pumas clash in Newcastle to emerge from a three-way tie in the competition and claim the lead heading into the final round.
Unless, of course, there’s another twist in a tournament that continued to throw up surprises.
First, the Wallabies rebounded from their biggest-ever loss to New Zealand with a 24-22 win over the All Blacks a week later.
Then, the Pumas scored their first-ever victory over three-time world champions New Zealand, before backing that up to split the points with the Wallabies.
When it was suggested that another Pumas win over the All Blacks might be the best result for the Wallabies, who face the South Americans in the final game of the tournament, halfback Nic White offered up a more unlikely but even better become.
“Maybe if they draw? Isn’t that a great result? A draw would be alright,” White said.
He wasn’t wrong.
A draw would leave the Wallabies needing to beat the Pumas in their return bout in Sydney in two weeks to be assured of winning their first silverware since the 2015 Rugby Championship.
“There will be plenty of motivation there alone to put things right,” White said.
“It’s been an interesting year.
“We’d love to send it out on a high so hopefully it’s all there for us going into that last game and the carrot is there that we go out there;we learn from this and put on an absolute cracker and you guys will forget about what’s happened here.”
In reality, the Pumas and All Blacks now have control of the Wallabies’ fate.
Argentina coach Mario Ledesma, though, is refusing to get ahead of himself, knowing a bonus-point win for the All Blacks on Saturday will dash his side’s title hopes.
“Look, we’re going to recover and think very carefully about how we’re moving forward,” Ledesma said, citing fatigue in the squad as the Pumas’ biggest concern.
“For sure, there’s going to be changes because there’s injuries.
“We need a freshen up.”