“Cleveland, this is for you.”
I know you’re probably thinking: what does LeBron James have anything to do with a Wallabies series win against the French?
Well, when James said this to his home-town fans after winning the NBA championship in 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. He looked more relieved than ecstatic.
He’d walked out on his city a few years earlier to go win a few championships with the Miami Heat only to return and accomplish what he said he always would.
It ended the Cavaliers’ NBA championship drought and it ensured he delivered on his promise when drafted that he would bring success back to his home town and to repay the faith that the city had in him.
What we saw on Saturday night at Suncorp reminded me in some weird way of this moment. There seemed to be a feeling of relief.
Michael Hooper spoke to the Queensland crowd post match about how much their support meant to his side, and he implored the fans to stick by them and to start believing again.
Dave Rennie looked comfortable and happy in an interview for the first time since he’d taken on the tough task of turning the Wallabies’ fortunes around. This is a team who have stuck strong when most had given up and hopefully it’s a sign of what’s to come.
It wasn’t all perfect though, as we all know. The Wallabies won the series after going down to 14 men early in the game. They dug deep, defended for each other and played right until the end.
They were able to move the French around with ball in hand despite the man-down difference and provided enough scoring opportunities to get the job done.
The sides traded the lead a few times throughout the match and although both teams played some great footy at times, both will walk away feeling they have a lot of improvement left in their performances.
The Wallabies didn’t need to win perfectly, they just needed to win. Yes, as Michael Hooper said for the fans and the nation to believe, but more importantly for the men wearing the gold jersey to start believing in themselves.
A lot has been said about the under-strength French side and this cannot be argued, but when Test rugby is being played there isn’t a huge difference between the best or third best players.
Yes, Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack would have made a difference, but the Wallabies had this French team to play and beat, and it’s this French team they’ve played and beaten.
As we know all too well, things move pretty quickly in Test rugby and we’ll have no better chance to see just how much this group has grown than in three weeks’ time.
The Wallabies take on the All Blacks in the Bledisloe Cup. The All Blacks will come into it as heavy favourites, and rightly so. They’ve had three comprehensive victories over Tonga and Fiji.
Fiji tested them physically but once the All Blacks are able find their rhythm and adjust to the challenges their opponent is throwing at them, they are almost unstoppable.
Multiple-time World Rugby player of the year Beauden Barrett may find himself on the bench such is the form of Richie Mo’unga. In the recent Test against Fiji, Will Jordan had to go off with a hamstring strain and they were able to bring on Rieko Ioane.
They have players across their squad of 35 who would walk into most international starting 15s. An embarrassment of riches will arrive in this All Blacks squad and the Wallabies will have to improve from the French series if they want to be any match for the men in black.
There was a lot to like about the 2021 Wallabies though, and I wanted to talk about some here and I’d love to know what you think.
They’re able to learn from their mistakes. In the first two Tests, the Wallabies were comprehensively beaten at the breakdown, which stifled their attack.
In the third Test the Wallabies were a lot more accurate in this area, which allowed them to get their phases and find their shape.
A great example was Tate McDermott’s try. The Wallabies looked good and were able to hold their shape going through multiple phases. It’s clear they want to be a side that is good at holding onto the ball and playing from their half.
The breakdown will have to continue to be a focus if we want to keep getting pay from this attacking style. Their kick chase improved and their discipline was strong. They look like a team focused on process and doing their roles.
They’re incredibly fit. I’d heard their recent camp at Sanctuary Cove was one of the hardest some players had been involved with. They were up at 6am with multiple sessions through out the day, while some days only finished at 6pm.
Rennie spoke of wanting to harden his men, both physically and mentally and we definitely saw this throughout the series. There were strong carries, strong goal-line defence and we’d finished strong in all three Tests.
A fit team can stick to their plans and structures and make clearer decision as opposed to when an unfit team can lose their way and make plenty of errors.
We do have some depth. This series showed that we do have some players in each position who can do a job at Test level.
They might not be world beaters just yet but they proved they belonged. Angus Bell, Darcy Swain, Rob Valetini, Tate McDermott, Noah Lolesio and Len Ikitau are a few of the youngsters we’d seen be successful at playing Super Rugby and wondered if they could translate form that to the Test arena.
We’ve now seen they can, and each of them will be be more comfortable within the squad and at that level for the experience. With some big names to come back in, Dave Rennie finally has some decisions to make with players putting their hands up from 1-15, although I’m still not sold on Tom Banks and the balance of our back three.
Our pack is something to be reckoned with. The scrum was strong and the Wallabies had good success in both maul attack and defence.
It must be said the Wallabies were up against a big French pack who would put a lot of international sides under pressure. There’s a good balance in the front row with whatever way they choose to go. I was a big advocate for Taniela Tupou starting but maybe he is more lethal coming on with 35 to go.
Michael Hooper’s our captain and he’s a damn good one at that. Yes, there were some decisions throughout the series I’m sure he’d like again, such as maybe taking the three points rather than kick to touch.
It seems it’s just who he is and he plays the game to back his gut and back the guys around him. His effort on effort plays are unmatched in most matches and it boggles my mind that some criticise him as a player.
You only have to listen to his own teammates and coaches as well as opposing players and coaches to see just how well respected he is and how he’s held in such high regard.
Our attack looks promising. We’ve seen some really good indications that this is a Wallabies team that knows how they want to play and are understanding how they can play and create opportunities within the structures provided by Scott Wisemantel’s framework. It is an attacking shape that requires a lot of players in motion and good skill sets from 1-15.
They were able to find space on the edges and make easy metres to work their way up the field from their own half. When required, they punched holes in tight and played to space around the edges of the ruck.
When playing out the back of a forward pod to a ball player they got the desired result on a number of occasions.
They still won’t be happy with the decision making from some of the backs, who looked to throw the ‘hail Mary’ passes too often over a rushing French winger and they’re still working out the right balance between when to run and when to exit through a kick. On the whole the coaching staff will be very happy with the strides made from this series.
The main thing I learned though is that the Australian fans are still here and are ready for this Wallabies side to be successful.
People who wouldn’t usually talk union are now talking about it again. I’ve had mates who are rugby league purists message me about how great the games were and how good it was to have it on free-to-air television. Hopefully this side can continue to win back the public and the game can get back to where it needs to be.
Australia needs and wants the Wallabies to be successful. We’ve been waiting for a Wallabies team to just do their job, as Darcy Swain put it post match.
Hopefully the world opens up soon enough, so we can fill the stands and get behind these men. I’ve got a feeling it could be a pretty cool ride.