The Wallabies rode a roller-coaster through 2021.
The highs were heady, with a thrilling series win over France and twice toppling world champions South Africa. Unfortunately those results were balanced by the barely watchable lament against England at Twickenham, another pantsing from the All Blacks at Eden Park and the winless run in Europe.
By November the season read seven wins, seven losses and nearly as many cards (five) for ill-discipline at the European end of the year as the Springboks (three), All Blacks (two), England (one), Ireland (none) and Scotland (none) combined during the same spring block of Tests.
The cards are another story. Here we are going to have a crack at some player ratings for 2021.
So many players featured for the Wallabies this year that we’d be rating 60 per cent of the regular Super Rugby starters in the country.
Not many players hit the runway with humble six-out-of-ten expectations from fans and deliver a strong eight-out-of-ten season. The ginger winger was superb beyond his nine tries. He didn’t make mistakes. He bobbed up in the right spots, he caught high balls and he was composed. In a nutshell, he proved himself a Test footballer in all 13 matches he played. He scored a hat-trick of tries against Argentina. A breakout performer.
You can’t do more in a bid for a rails run at the 2023 World Cup than slide in for five Tests and win the lot. Cooper had superb back-to-back performances in the wins over South Africa, two 80-minute showings in his first Test minutes for four years. His nerveless penalty goal on full-time beat them on the Gold Coast, but his cool control with no 50-50 gambles on passes was just as important. He sets the depth of the backs better than anyone, like in the second Len Ikitau try against the Boks at Suncorp Stadium. Fitness? Tick. Skill? Tick. New life balance? Tick. All Blacks? We’ll see in 2022.
The blockbusting centre plays a lot of good Tests, but 18 wins and 18 losses mean it doesn’t always mean victory. His partnership with Quade Cooper was huge. It had a beautiful balance with Cooper inside but also because it made Ikitau more potent on the outside. Kerevi has developed his game in Japan. He’s passing much better, and he just rampaged at times against the Boks.
This was a breakout year for the Brumbies backrower, who found his home at No. 8. He whacked hard in tackles, he punched through the line to set up an Andrew Kellaway try against Argentina and his work rate was way up. He is a real force and secure in a back-row spot.
He’s a quiet achiever who proved himself to be Test class at outside centre in his debut season. He played 13 Tests in all, none better than his two-try effort against the Springboks at Suncorp Stadium. That prop and step to score his first try is the deception he can bring with neat footwork. He’s even better when Kerevi is inside him.
This was a herculean effort again from the skipper. He played big minutes, he played strongly and he was almost error free in just about every Test. He had a mighty third Test against France when he made a burst and put Tate McDermott over. He almost had to miss that Test against Wales to show he wasn’t indestructible.
The most recognisable moustache in Australian rugby was never quiet the whole season. It yapped, encouraged, gave the refs advice and kept the energy up non-stop. The halfback played well too
– a try against All Blacks and a 50-22 with the boot against the Boks, and he was always better when he sniped as a runner. He’s got to be rated this highly for winning a Test against the world champions – think of that hard-on-the-ball work at the tackle at the death to force a penalty on the Gold Coast.
Just a standout world-class winger. His 15 runs for 181 metres in the second Test against France was a crazy read on the intensity of his work rate, and that doesn’t even count his 100 per cent commitment to chase kicks. He’ll be sorely missed, but expect him to be a wildcard brought back for the 2023 World Cup challenge. The Wallabies are a lesser side without him.
He probably lost more ground than any other senior player in 2021. He was a frontline starter at inside centre to open the season, threw some awful floaty long passes for the Rebels and Wallabies and lacked the physical edge he’s had in the past. Has he another bounce-back from injury in him?
Sure, the winger had some good moments, but there were blemishes too. His low-percentage dances on the sideline ended up in touch too often, he had a few poor moments in defence, and generally the Wallabies need much more from a replacement for Koroibete.
There was so much opportunity for a hooker to stand tall for the Wallabies this year. Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Folau Fainga’a, Connal McInerney, Feleti Kaitu’u, Lachie Lonergan and Tolu Latu all pushed stronger cases.
Rating: Not enough game time to judge
He’s the aggressive type we all want in a Test pack, but he does attract a card. He dropped down the back row pecking order.
He kept being picked in squads, but niggles and poor timing meant we never got to see the giant prop.
He’s had hamstring issues and missed all of what should have been a valuable first season with the Wallabies.
We spotted him on the bench briefly, but a specialist openside to back up Michael Hooper was never sustainable, which is why the more versatile Pete Samu got all the sub roles.
Andy Muirhead, Nick Frost, Ryan Lonergan, Michael Wells and Sitaleki Timani were also in squads but never earned a chance.
The Wallabies blooded ten debutants in 2021 and were rewarded with four standouts: Andrew Kellaway, Len Ikitau, Rob Leota and Darcy Swain.
We’ve mentioned Michael Hooper and Rob Valetini already, but there were some outstanding Tests played by Wallabies forwards in mixed-bag seasons.
His second Test against South Africa at Suncorp Stadium was best-in-the-world stuff from a tighthead prop. Big gallops set up two tries, and there was that classy one-handed pass for the Koroibete try. He’s just so much fun to watch. Did we mention he mashed the Boks scrum at the death when it really mattered on the Gold Coast?
The wild mullet from Melbourne got better and better as he found his timing to get more and more involved in Tests. He ran more times than any other Australian forward against Wales, he scored a try against Scotland and he was generally one of the best things to come out of the European tour. He can catch the footy, which puts him above Lachie Swinton at blindside flanker.
Rory Arnold, Will Skelton, Sean Mcmahon and Tolu Latu
The forwards drafted from overseas clubs had mixed impacts. Lock Skelton’s knack to get his giant hands on the ball at the tackle to force a late penalty against Wales should have been a matchwinning play. That skill makes him a sound investment for more time in 2022.
Sean McMahon played so few minutes no-one could get a read on him, but coach Dave Rennie will have seen him at training. Latu is in the race with all the hookers, and lock Arnold will be tracked into squads next year too.
It’s very hard to make an impression as a young lock in your first season of Test rugby, but he definitely did with the range of his skills. His harassment at the final lineout allowed the great escape in the first Test against the French. He charged down a kick, he disrupted mauls and he won lineouts. A fine start to a Test career.
He was more reliable at scrum time. He wasn’t perfect, but there were definite gains there. He trucks the ball up with purpose. Always.
I really thought the hooker was in the same steady rut until the final ten minutes against Wales when he produced three super-low tackles and real energy.
He started in the first eight Tests of the year before a broken bone grounded him. He played bursts of his best Test rugby during that time and hinted that he might be the Test fullback we are looking for.
His best moments were exhilarating, and few can cause the All Blacks problems like he did with his darts. He did a great job to win a Test against France with his belief at the death in Brisbane. He has a top attitude for Test rugby. He needs to improve his pass to be a regular Test starter.
Rating: nudging 7
Nerveless penalty goals to twice beat the French in Brisbane were the high moments, and that flat pass to put Michael Hooper into a hole to set up a try for McDermott in the decider was a delight. He’s definitely growing. He made some poor kick and pass choices at other times, and that’s why he’s a Test flyhalf still on L plates.
The big 2021 shift put in by veteran prop James Slipper culminated in him being honoured with the captaincy against Wales. He was part of that huge last scrum against the Springboks on the Gold Coast that enabled the Wallabies to force a last-gasp win. Allan Alaalatoa was solid as always.
He’s a terrific workhorse, and workhorses shouldn’t throw intercept passes.
The elongated lock said playing a season of Top 14 in France had added some physicality to his game. He was a reliable and efficient worker as always. A good bankable Test lock who will be an asset in familiar surroundings come RWC 2023.
When we finally got to see him, his tackle-busting ways easily transferred to Test level. He beat two defenders to set up the Leota try against the Scots. Wing is his only possible Test position until he sharpens his defence and passing.
Too many errors cost him his Queensland spot. His acrobatic finish for a great team try against Wales was Daugunu at his best. A higher work rate is needed.
He had a brilliant ten-out-of-ten first half against the All Blacks at Eden Park and a super Test against Wales. The wasteful intercept pass, dropped ball and one-dimensional stuff at other times was poor. Give us the good Paisami every time.
That good, strong Test against Argentina was more like it. He just doesn’t seem to be able to get consistent, week-to-week footy under his belt. The European tour could have been a terrific chance to cement a spot, and it was wiped out by injury. He’s too good not to be a big part of 2022-23 when his body is stronger.
He played only four Tests in the back row this year before the script changed to how upgrades would improve a fine player for 2022. A huge heart, skills and size. More footwork at the line will really help him in attack.
He had a late start to the Test season through injury and took until the final Test against Wales to show a bit more polish after scratchy Tests against Scotland and England.
He was a rare standout in that awful Waratahs season. He was snookered behind two halfbacks who offered more.
He’ll be forever glad that stupidly kicking away possession in the closing minutes against South Africa on the Gold Coast was forgotten once Cooper kicked that matchwinning penalty goal. His big boot is an asset, but he was searching for his best most of the year.
First-time fatherhood and quarantine restrictions meant he played in only the first five Tests of the year. Rennie played him as a lock. There is a traffic jam to jostle through to regain a place in 2022.
We have seen the last of Naisarani in a Wallabies jersey now he’s headed offshore. He got a look in with three Tests against France and then was unused after that.
What a story. Even the prop himself couldn’t believe it when the call from the clouds came to play for the Wallabies against England when two tighthead props went down injured – at a packed Twickenham no less. You’ve got to love these stories in sport. They were 13 priceless minutes – great stuff. You might think it a one-off, but Greg Holmes leant a hand too against Argentina with a final cameo at 38.