Samu Kerevi said it best a couple of years back, with his memorable promise to “learn the learnings”, and – after a 2021 season that delivered plenty of lessons – it’s time for the Wallabies to do the same.
The Test season kicked off with a thrilling, close-fought series against a French team at a similarly early stage in its development.
A deflating Bledisloe ‘blackwash’ followed, before a surprise turn of fortune and form propelled the Wallabies to four Rugby Championship wins on the trot.
Finally, just as supporters were daring to dream, a poorly planned Spring Tour saw the Wallabies given a Euro-style kick in the rump.
So what should we take away from the year that was?
1. True 10s are worth their weight in gold
The restoration of Quade Cooper during the Rugby Championship reminded us what a real playmaking game-manager looks like.
The maverick five-eighth has always had talent to burn but the years have brought greater maturity and a willingness to serve the team rather than star in it.
His instincts and experience in the position – the ability to call the shots, to see and create space, and to make (mostly) the right decisions – put him clearly ahead of the promising Noah Lolesio and utility James O’Connor.
Australian rugby has enjoyed a wealth of gifted five-eighths, from Mark Ella to Michael Lynagh to Stephen Larkham, each conveniently arriving as his predecessor was departing, or soon after. Cooper and Bernard Foley (for all the partisan commentary) have both made significant contributions and Cooper’s five winning performances for the Wallabies in 2021 revived a Test career that most thought had drifted to a disappointing conclusion in 2017.
At 33, however, Cooper is not a long-term option and while a major role at the 2023 Rugby World Cup is conceivable, succession planning demands that we identify and develop his heir-apparent without delay.
Unfortunately, a generation was lost and those who should now be in their prime never reached it for one reason or another. The good news is that all five Australian Super Rugby sides have youthful five-eighths lining up to make an impression.
Of the young guns, the Brumbies’ Lolesio (under the tutelage of Larkham from 2023) is the front-runner but does he genuinely have the instincts and authority to direct the Wallabies against top opposition?
In 2022, all eyes will be on the Rebels’ Carter Gordon, along with Waratahs trio Will Harrison, Ben Donaldson and Tane Edmed, plus teens Reesjan Pasitoa and Tom Lynagh should they get opportunities at the Force and Reds, respectively.
Who will rise above the crowd? Both Donaldson and Gordon caught the eye this year but, whoever it is, a chosen one must announce himself. The Wallabies’ long-term success depends on it.
2. Unleash the intensity
Former Test captain Nick Farr-Jones used to say that if the Wallabies played with urgency and enthusiasm, the scoreboard would look after itself. The message is as relevant today as it was in amateur times, and certainly the Wallabies’ best game of 2021 – the second Test against the Springboks in Brisbane – was notable for the intensity of the men in gold.
The slow starts of the French series and Bledisloe black-spots were nowhere to be seen. In fact, at the death and with the game already won, the team defended as though their very honour was at stake. A series of turnovers and a defensive maul driven powerfully over the sideline were celebrated as fiercely as the team’s four tries.
Intensity isn’t a quality that can simply be summoned at will, or conjured by the genius of a single x-factor player. It’s a product of a connected, cohesive team, in which each player understands his role and is committed to giving it full focus for as long as he’s on the field. Trust and resilience are crucial.
In the second Bledisloe, the Wallabies were hot on the heels of the 14-man All Blacks when they lost an attacking lineout deep in Kiwi territory. A moment that should have turned the game in favour of Australia fizzled but it needn’t have if Australia had simply doubled down and maintained their intensity.
Two of the Aussies’ more impressive games in 2021 came after – and perhaps as a result of – losing players to red cards. Down to 14 men for the majority of both the third Test against France and the final match of the season against Wales, the team pulled together magnificently, albeit without the composure to close out the latter after they’d pulled ahead.
There’s a positive lesson to take here: when the Wallabies can find and maintain their intensity, they’re hard to beat.
3. Demonstrate discipline on and off the field
Coach Dave Rennie may be regretting asking the Wallabies to find their dark side early in the season. Whatever he meant, the team interpreted it as pushing the boundaries of the laws and the limits of referee patience.
Some of the worst calls against them were later publicly or privately overturned, including Marika Koroibete’s red card and Allan Ala’alatoa’s yellow. Regardless, the team now has a reputation for ill-discipline that means they’re not getting the benefit of the doubt.
Sometimes, referees seem to penalise them purely on suspicion of wrongdoing. As much as a dynamic sport allows, the Wallabies need to become the choirboys of rugby and Nic White should let his rugby, not his mouth, do the talking.
Of course, poor discipline begins way before the team reaches the field. It was in Michael Cheika’s second full year, 2016, that squad selections started to drift off the rails, followed progressively by everything else.
Squeezed by Australia’s limited playing resources and the need to win, has Rennie fallen into the same trap of trialling player after player in search of the Holy Grail and becoming muddled in the process?
The Spring tour was marked by confusion and chaos. Regular squad members were left at home or ignored while players contracted to Japanese clubs opted out at the last moment. Meanwhile, Europe-based players were thrown a gold jersey a day after joining the squad, including international man of mystery Ollie Hoskins, a player so under the radar that many of us had to google him.
Despite the players’ fortitude, results reflected inadequacies in squad selection and, not surprisingly, a lack of cohesion. A Spring tour is a challenging undertaking without inviting drama by not taking a reserve openside flanker, for example, or a back-up tighthead prop. Whatever one’s views on eligibility, many supporters who view the gold jersey as sacred would also be uneasy at using Test matches to trial players and combinations.
By the end of the tour, Rennie’s frustrations erupted in a somewhat Cheika-esque critique of refereeing inconsistencies.
On reflection, though, he’ll surely acknowledge that there’s a lesson to be learnt about the relationship between settled teams and disciplined teams.
So, there we are – three lessons to take into 2022. Will the Wallabies learn the learnings of an alternately exciting and exasperating year? If they do, the future stands to be as bright as their jerseys.