Call it rust, call it not playing a game for three weeks, call it back-in-the-bubble fatigue, call it whatever you like.
Whatever it was, the Wallabies suffered from it while finding a way to run in a five-tries-to-two win over Japan in Oita on Saturday.
Dave Rennie was quick to call it rust, and that’s probably the easiest and simplest explanation.
But it certainly needs to be acknowledged that Japan played exceptionally well, pressured the Wallabies into unforced errors, and defended stoutly – to the point that plenty of Australian players were guilty of over-playing their hand at times.
There were certainly moments and passages where the Wallabies forgot things that had worked very well for them during their strong finish to the Rugby Championship.
“We played a lot of good footy, but we just didn’t kick the ball enough,” Rennie said post-match, elaborating on the immediate response of “rust”.
“There was a lot of space where we could apply pressure, but we tended to over play. We got some good go-forward but almost got sucked in to going more phases when they had no cover in the back field. That was disappointing and we ended up putting ourselves under pressure because of it.
“We played a lot of rugby in between the ten metres and certainly late in the game we got penalised a fair bit around there and even the intercept we’ve got a four on one, we’ve just to give to the guy next to us.
“We’re happy to win, we will be better for that game, and they were a good side.
“Every time we gave them a bit of a sniff, they hurt us.”
The stats sheets, interestingly enough, give a view of a pretty solid win: 59 per cent possession, 56 per cent territory, and increased shares of both in the second half. Excellent ruck and maul, strong set-piece numbers, and a once-again excellent tackle effectiveness of 95 per cent. Twenty-one defenders beaten, nine clean breaks, and nine offloads in attack.
Yet we all saw it for ourselves. Passes were pushed, poor options were taken, and opportunities were missed. Go-forward was lacking, and the attacking breakdown work was once again and too often half a second too late.
It’s also true that Japan didn’t really look like breaking the Wallabies’ defensive line, with a cross-kick after a turnover creating the first try, and yet another intercept producing the second.
And in fairness, if the Wallabies were rusty, then what were the Brave Blossoms, playing just their third international in two full seasons, and their first match since causing plenty of trouble for both Ireland and the British and Irish Lions mid-year?
Japan’s star on the international stage is clearly rising, and that’s a major plus that speaks to their continued improvement under Jamie Joseph.
It’s a point Rennie was at pains to reinforce at every given opportunity last week, and it’s why he had no hesitation – Michael Hooper had earlier said it was above his pay grade to answer – to add further voice to their pursuit of TRC inclusion.
“They’re worthy of where they’re sitting in the world and certainly grateful to be playing a lot of tier one nations now compared to a few years ago,” he said.
So, it sort of leaves us with the conclusion that the Wallabies’ win was solid if not spectacular. And that’s okay.
All the champion teams over the history of whatever sport you’d care to throw up as an example would have had scratchy performances, and won games they were probably lucky to get away with, but the common denominator in all those teams was that they found a way to win in spite of the way they played.
Make no mistake, the Wallabies did a lot of things well in Oita and did play some very good rugby. But they’re the first to admit that the Japan win gives them a good platform from which to improve, with Scotland at Murrayfield now less than a fortnight away.
“There’s still a lot to go, and a lot to grow for us, for sure, but having the ability to change players in and out and guys still putting in really solid performances is certainly an aspect of the team that’s really pleasing,” Michael Hooper said last thing in the post-match on Saturday night.
“Today was really nice to get that result, and we showed a couple of areas that we can improve, but also still tick over a win there. We’ll take that up north and take on some of these European teams.”
And that all makes perfect sense.
The Wallabies’ impressive winning streak doesn’t need false narratives to be impressive.
It bugged me last week in the lead-up to the game, and it bugged me even more when it popped up several times during the broadcast on Saturday afternoon.
‘The win is the first time since 2008 the Wallabies have won five games on the trot in a non-World Cup year…’
It sounds impressive, but it’s a completely false construct designed solely for the purpose of creating distance, whereas even just a little closer inspection could have resulted in a storyline maybe even better than what the Wallabies have managed over the last five games.
Since 2000, the Wallabies winning five or more games on the bounce has happened just six times. Two of them were from one season to the next; six wins from 2004 into 2005, and seven wins from 2013 into 2014. The most recent was seven straight wins up to the 2015 World Cup semi-final win, which started with the USA warm-up game.
This year, the fourth win of the Rugby Championship, the second win over Argentina, was the first time since 2017 the Wallabies had recorded four straight wins, and it was rightly celebrated for the achievement it was.
But in finding a fifth straight win, the architects of this madness decided to overlook the 2015 World Cup and the 2013-14 streak in order to get to 2008, which included wins over whatever Ireland and France sent out in June and the first two games of the Tri-Nations.
Why did they overlook 2015? Presumably because of the presence of the 65-3 win over Uruguay in the second pool match. It didn’t matter that the next win was the super impressive 33-13 win over England, or that the 15-6 win over Wales to top the pool followed – the game where they defended their try line with 13 men late in the second half.
The 35-34 win over Scotland in the quarter-final – a game that still comes up six years later – and the 29-15 win over Argentina in a semi were similarly absurdly deemed unworthy. Just so the narrative could get to 2008.
And what happened? The essential ‘in a non-World Cup year’ qualifier was left off at different points during the broadcast on Saturday, leaving us with ‘the first time the Wallabies have won five straight since 2008’.
That is, a frankly bullshit construct had now created commentary mistakes.
It was completely unnecessary. That 2015 run was incredible and doesn’t for any reason need to be forgotten about or glossed over just because of the way it started.
But sadly, strangely, elements of the game felt this was necessary, because of a crazy notion that winning five straight games for just the seventh time in two decades needed a little something extra to pump it up.
Honestly, this game does my head in sometimes.