The Wallabies are in Japan already, and they have a massive chance to finish the 2021 season in the strongest fashion we’ve seen in way too many years.
With a record of six wins and four losses right now, the Wallabies face the Brave Blossoms for the first time since 2017 this Saturday afternoon in Oita, before heading to the UK to take on Scotland, England, and Wales in consecutive weekends from November 7.
But the Wallabies haven’t traditionally finished seasons well in recent years. The last two Rugby World Cups obviously finished on losing notes, and so too have the last three straight Spring Tours, noting that there hasn’t been one since 2018.
2016 was hugely underwhelming. The Wallabies headed north with a 3 and 7 record, and promptly beat Wales, Scotland, and France in consecutive weekends to bring the prospect of a winning season firmly back in the frame. After the 3-0 June sweep at the hands of England, we fans and supporters could hardly believe it.
Instead, it was a three-point loss to Ireland and a fourth-straight loss to England for the year, putting a disappointing full stop on the 2016 season.
In 2017, the Wallabies arrived in Japan with a 5 and 3 record (with two draws) and beat the hosts at the RWC venue before registering a fourth-straight win over Wales in Cardiff. This was the last time the Wallabies won four games on the trot prior to this current run they’re on.
Seven wins, three losses, and two draws should have set up a strong finish to the year. Instead, it another Twickenham thumping, followed by a record loss at Murrayfield to give Scotland two straight wins over Australia in the same season.
It was a rough end to a rough year, with no Australian teams shining in Super Rugby, either.
But somehow, 2018 was worse. The Wallabies arrived in Cardiff with a 3 and 7 record, but lost 9-6 to end a ten-game winning streak against Wales. A 26-7 win over Italy was then followed by a demoralising 37-18 defeat to England at Twickers.
“…it’s clear that the methods employed in 2018 have delivered nothing. The Wallabies are effectively in the same place they were at the end of the hapless 2016 season, which in turn seemed so far removed from the highs of the 2015 RWC Final,” I wrote at the time.
One year out from the RWC, the chorus of voices already calling for Michael Cheika’s head only got louder.
With six wins and four losses at the end of The Rugby Championship this year, the Wallabies delivering a winning season from here would be massive. It could be the first time in all these years that Australian rugby had a good feel about it going into the next year.
The Japan match – with due respect to the Brave Blossoms – loomed as the obvious chance to try a few things out. And particularly with a few injury clouds looming over the team. This game might have been the chance to Michael Hooper let come off the bench, if not sit it out completely.
But that can’t and won’t happen for several reasons. The big one being that Sean McMahon isn’t currently in the squad after leaving the squad bubble to return to his family in Japan. Wallabies coach Dave Rennie confirmed on Sunday that McMahon won’t be available this weekend coming, and obviously Fraser McReight was left at home to get a full pre-season in.
So unless Rennie wanted to give Pete Samu a run in the No.7 jersey, the captain is playing.
Samu Kerevi remains in doubt with the syndesmosis injury he picked up in the final TRC match, and Rennie also confirmed on Sunday that Marika Koroibete will not tour at all, instead remaining home with his young family.
So, there will have to be some shuffling in the backline at the very least, but experimentation has been ruled out.
“We’ll put in the best side available. They are a genuine threat, and we are treating it as that,” Rennie said.
“They’re a different beast to what we’re going to face in Europe, with regards to how they’re going to play, but that’s great from our perspective.
“They play a very high-speed, high-skill type of game. That’s no surprise with Jamie (Joseph) and Tony (Brown) in the mix.”
The next pressing priority will be working out where and how and if Rory Arnold, Will Skelton, and Tolu Tatu fit into the match day 23 in time for the Scotland game.
The ‘where’ and ‘how’ might take a bit longer, but you’d imagine the ‘if’ would be a definitive ‘yes’. I can imagine their French club presidents would be thrilled at losing their players after Rugby Australia took some liberties with their own eligibility rules and then the Wallabies didn’t pick them. Bound to go down well.
But it’s going to be important to work this out, because Scotland will be fancying their chances. They’ll have fond memories of the twin wins in 2017, and they’ll be full of confidence after a strong showing in the Six Nations year.
There’s a train of thought the Scotland game represents the absolute must-win game of the tour. The presumption being that the Wallabies will beat Japan, and that a win over the Scots means the pressure is lessened heading into the England and Wales games.
And it is a reasonable argument. You wouldn’t want to be heading into England and Wales needing to win both games to resurrect a decent record from the tour.
Rennie’s comment about playing his best team against Japan suggests he subscribes to the theory, too.
He knows the importance of this tour for this playing group, and that there’s a real chance to change the public perception around the Wallabies. That’s already happening with the way they speak now, and the way they generally carry themselves as a playing group.
All that counts for nothing if the team isn’t winning, but already there’s a sense this squad knows that.
Having finished the home portion of the international season so well, it’s now up to the Wallabies to produce the performances and results away from home to match.
There’s a very different feel to this Wallabies squad entering a northern international tour. We just have to hope it ends in a similarly different way, rather than like the last few ventures to the north.