For too long the Wallabies have lived under the narrative of a rebuilding team. They have dreamt of all the things that they could accomplish, of the teams they could be able to field, of the victories they could be able to win, after certain things go their way.
The Wallabies have architected their own demise in many ways over the years by falling into the trap of building for the long-term future at the cost of their performance in the short term. Hopes and dreams have been rested on the shoulders of young talents and debutants.
The supporter base has itself become short-sighted, demanding selection of rookies in the Super and national teams after good performances across periods as short as a couple of weeks or even after a performance in a single game, immersed by highlights reels and Super Rugby AU dominance.
The Dave Rennie era alone has seen the rise to prominence of Angus Bell, Fraser McReight, Harry Wilson, Rob Valetini, Lachlan Swinton, Tate McDermott, Noah Lolesio, Len Ikitau and Tom Banks, with Taniela Tupou and Jordan Petaia demanding selection in a similar way leading into the 2019 World Cup. All of these players are exciting prospects in their own right after promising Super Rugby form earning them their recent debuts.
But make no mistake, it was the experience of the Wallabies’ side on Sunday that got the Wallabies their victory over the reigning world champion Springboks. The injections of Izack Rodda, Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi by Rennie into the squad have proved successful in retrospect.
But with a reserves bench laden with Test experience, Australia finished the game with James Slipper, Allan Alaalatoa, Rodda, Pete Samu, Michael Hooper, Nic White, Cooper, Kerevi, Marika Koroibete and Reece Hodge all on the field together, all of whom have accumulated at least 25 Tests each and in many cases double, triple or quadruple that amount.
These players, who debuted in the early, mid and late 2010s, have battled through a challenging era under multiple coaches and carry scars, physical and mental, of many could haves, should haves and would haves in the gold jersey over the years.
Their fortitude and professionalism has been forged in the high pressure arena of Test rugby countless times more than their junior counterparts. In the dying minutes of the game they knew what was at stake each passage of play. These players executed a game plan purpose build to probe and nullify the Springboks’ juggernaut, confident in each other on both sides of the ball.
Not all of these players were perfect. In both of their 50th Tests, Alaalatoa will rue a costly knock on, and fans around the country will pretend they never witnessed Reece Hodge’s baffling midfield bomb in the final minutes of the game with his team down on the scoreboard. Captain Hooper was left wondering what could have been had he executed his break down the left touch line and short ball to Reece Hodge a little differently.
Cooper himself stole the show with a 100 per cent kicking record but it won’t be lost on him that several were gift penalties from almost right in front of the posts.
But these players collectively brought a sense of measure and confidence to a team that has looked exuberant but chaotic since 2020 with its injection of young debutants.
Nic White’s second half gave us the much needed exit option from the base of the ruck, and no one will forget the penalty he forced after the scrum disintegrated at the end of the game to give Cooper one last shot at goal.
Cooper took the reins of our attack, placing deft pop balls inside and out for his ball-running centres and forwards to charge onto through half gaps, crafting gain-line opportunities for his team. He brought a sense of poise and control with ball in hand that we have only experienced in dribs and drabs with Noah Lolesio pulling the strings in 2020 and 2021.
At the same time, a solid early tackle on Franco Mostert and smart tactical kicking showcase his much improved all-round game.
Journeyman Pete Samu demonstrated once again his value to the team, taking no time at all to make a meaningful involvement off the bench, linking with Kerevi to find space up the middle channel. Years of experience with the Crusaders, Brumbies and Wallabies have come to fruition, making Samu the exciting but reliable loose forward many expected him to become.
Kerevi himself linked with Cooper to generate front-foot ball for his team but demonstrated that he’s been doing more than running over Japanese men for the last two years with a long flat pass to Kellaway to assist the Wallabies’ first try.
These players have had long journeys leading to this victory and in many ways the significance of this win is greater than the points on the Rugby Championship table. This win has given Australian rugby a much needed boost after a gloomy Bledisloe series.
Dave Rennie’s selection boldness is only even considered so due to the quick to judge and easy to forget attitude of Australian fans, who are always calling for the next young player to be fast tracked into the national team to magically buy us the next era of Wallabies greatness. But against the Springboks, Rennie selected a 23 of his most experienced players and they repaid him with a mature and well engineered win.
Early Test debuts and the ‘pump and dump’ team selections through the Michael Cheika era and even arguably Rennie’s tenure also have come at the cost of the careers of many young talents the country has produced.
For example, the insistence on selection of Ned Hanigan, a decent second/back-rower at the Waratahs at the time, over the incumbent Scott Fardy ultimately resulted in him heading overseas after struggling to perform to the standard required, while also making his selection and performances for club and country comical and hence constantly targeted by the fans and media.
Calls for Fraser McReight to take the spot of captain Michael Hooper in the starting XV, and even to make him captain of the national team, which arose earlier in 2021 but have since been drowned out by Hooper’s world-class run of form, are reminiscent of this blind, club-based selection and are destined to come at the cost of his long-term career trajectory.
The promising young players who have earned their place in the fringe Wallabies squad, or in the match-day squad, are deserved but must be managed cautiously. An over reliance on the young players to rescue the Wallabies from their form slump has never really worked in the long term.
In the middle of a tough period for Australian rugby with Ewen McKenzie drama and Bledisloe beltings, Michael Cheika took the Wallabies to the World Cup final.
He was able to turn the team around after such a short period of time by selecting an experienced team full of leaders throughout the forwards and backs including Stephen Moore, Scott Fardy, David Pocock, Will Genia, Matt Giteau, Drew Mitchell and Adam Ashley-Cooper. Some of these players may have been considered too old or past it but together they unified this team in a way a less experienced squad may not have been able to.
Some of these impulsive selections of young, up-and-coming players are symptomatic of an over emphasis on building for the future, which has historically lead to poor performances in the short term as rapid changes to the team destabilise combinations and form, leading to blowout scores and destroyed confidence for the young players.
A hard fought, attritional victory over the reigning world champions, fresh off a British and Irish Lions series win, with a performance characterised by a relatively low error rate, physicality, and a rigid discipline to implement a clear game plan, with players resisting the temptation to take matters into their own hands and play high risk footy, was refreshing and inspiring for weary fans around the country.
An emotional Quade Cooper narrative was the cherry on top to wrap this match into the biggest game for the Wallabies under Dave Rennie so far.
After finally moving on from the hype, fans will remember that had South African flyhalf Handre Pollard remembered to bring his kicking boots to the Gold Coast, and had not left eight easy points on the paddock, we would not be sitting here talking about this inspirational Wallabies victory here this week.
But after many weeks of being the culprit of missed kicks at goal through the inconsistency of young Noah Lolesio, and after years of botched sitters and ricocheted kicks off the post through the Bernard Foley era, it only feels deserved that the goal-kicking luck finally swings Australia’s way for a change.
At the end of the day, the better team won on Sunday night. Luck has certainly had a hand in this victory, but credit is due to the resolute performances of the players on Saturday night, some of whom previously appeared gone from the team forever, and to coach Dave Rennie for ending his selection experiments, ceasing his rebuilding for the future, and for picking his best team on the day.