And so, as replacement goal-kicker Rhys Priestland split the posts from close range in the 82nd minute of the Australia-Wales Test match at Principality Stadium in Cardiff, that was it for Wallabies season 2021.
And all there remained was to pore over the entrails of the Covid-affected carcass of Australian rugby in which we, the sports fan, were (mostly) up and (occasionally, as usual) down in terms of feeling for our national rugby union team.
As Vinnie Jones said at the end of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels: “It’s been emotional”.
For the Wallabies’ play was, despite a 3-nil clean sweep by the All Blacks and the worst European tour in Australian rugby history, actually, mostly, pretty good, at least in relative terms to the last few years.
Promising colts bounded about, the Giteau Law was bent like a quaint notion from another time, and a former hot-stepping pole-cat came back to pilot the Good Ship Wallaby to wins over Argentina, France, Japan and the world champion Springboks.
The series loss to New Zealand was not unexpected (if infuriating) while you could suggest that if England, Scotland and Wales toured our hemisphere at the end of their season missing players the results would swing diametrically.
For all that, for mine, there was more upside than down.
Hunter Paisami had a breakout year capped by a super game in the No.12 against Wales. Deft grubbers, soft hands, stepping and/or bullocking running lines as required, he could be something indeed. He could be Samu Kerevi and we will talk more of him.
Len Ikitau outside Paisami looked good too, and they appear to have a tidy, burgeoning, incisive combination. Dave Rennie looks to have imbued both men with a mandate: have a go, express yourselves, enjoy your talents.
Another colt Noah Lolesio looks a tad raw while veteran James O’Connor appears a serviceable, safe option in the No.10. For mine, though, the flyhalf for Australia must be the irrepressible Quade Cooper who has parlayed more modest, yet more effective five-eighth play into tantalising possibilities, the best kind of possibilities.
Who’d have thought? Indeed had you suggested early this year that Cooper would make a comeback much less appear the Great Redeemer and Missing Link in the headless chook of the Wallabies back division you’d have been laughed out of assembly at Rugby School.
And yet, here we are.
Yes, yes, yes, he will turn 34 in April of 2022. But he remains fit as a trout and a better player – a better five-eighth, anyway – than he was ten years ago when he was smoking up the joint as the demon spawn of Benji Marshall, Carlos Spencer and Zebedee the Spring from the Magic Roundabout. (Google him, kids.)
Comeback stories abounded. Will Skelton came back. Rory Arnold came back. Izack Rodda came back. And thus with crazy-eyed colt Matt Philip, the Wallabies have big options in the lineout, big bodies standing midfield and repelling hard charges.
They’ll tell you size doesn’t matter but they would not know what they’re talking about.
And they would not have seen the thunder thighs of Samu Kerevi bullocking up guts for Australia. That a No.12 could give a team such go-forward is testament to his skill, balance and toughness, operating as he does in the cloistered central channels.
And whatever further tweaks, bending or outright abolition of the Giteau Law are required to get Kerevi in Wallabies gold whenever Rennie wants him, you’d say: make it happen, Suits.
Giteau Law? Come 2023, at least, for mine, it’s toast. Coach Rennie will want Australia’s best players to play in Australia’s best team. Notions of preserving the sanctity of the Super Rugby competition, and the relative strength of the provinces, franchises, whatever we call them, well … what for?
The flagship team for rugby in this country needs to win.
And that’s just it.
Rugby in Australia needs winning Wallabies. It needs a gutsy, passionate, entertaining showing in a Rugby World Cup semi-final – at the absolute very least – in France in 2023 to bring in sports fans, bandwagon jumpers and the greater public.
Australia may not have massive depth in terms of world-class rugby players but there is enough. Marika Koroibete didn’t go to Europe, one of a glut of players who didn’t play Test matches to welcome new children.
Suli Vunivalu’s hamstrings must come good, surely, though is he any lock with the form of Andrew Kellaway? Or does Kellaway go back to fullback or is it Reece Hodge, Tom Banks or another 32-year-old and reclaimed man of the sea, Kurtley Beale?
Or maybe there’s another NRL star who might fancy himself auditioning for the crazy Frenchman’s coin in Biarritz…
Discipline, though, remains an issue. It killed the Wallabies in Cardiff. Rob Valetini rushed up on Welsh lock Adam Beard to put that team-lifting “big shot” on. And he did. But as with any slightly reckless manoeuvre, there was risk – to himself, to the other guy, to the team.
And the head clash that followed was, according to the rules of engagement under which Valetini was operating, illegal. And off the field he went.
Valetini has much in his game that you’d suggest he don’t go changin’. I like the hard charges, the tough work in tight, the big hair. But the tackling style, it just can’t be. He must go lower. Bend knees, aim guts, work up to sternum. Channel Ili Tabua, human skewer. Google him if he must.
Because with that same style, he’s a liability. And will cost Australia Test matches.
Almost forgot… Taniela Tupou! The prop was nicknamed “Tongan Thor” while wreaking havoc in schools rugby and he’s living up to the moniker now.
His hard charges into the meat of the Welsh midfield, along with ballast in the scrum and all the rest of the dark arts … the man’s among the most valuable men in gold, or in green as was the case Saturday night in Cardiff.
The Wallabies scrum was as good as anyone’s. It won crucial penalties with scrum-popping beast moves. The lineout throwing, as ever, needs work, though hitting Paisami over the back is a cracker of a party move.
But then every Test team needs work. The Wallabies remain a work in progress as do the Welsh. And English. And French, All Blacks, Boks, all of them.
And we do judge our national team harshly, particularly given New Zealand lost two on the trot and South Africa lost to England and beat Young Wales by just three.
And here we are, Little Australia, a small fish in a big pond punching above our weight given the athletes who gravitate to rugby league and Australian rules and whatever else.
And, right now, on the world rugby stage, it’s actually a pretty open field. It’s a Melbourne Cup with six to eight favourites from $6-$12.
And, best team on the park, there’s value in Australia.