It is proving quite difficult to get an accurate fix on where Australia are at the moment, despite the fact that last Saturday’s defeat to France at the Stade de France was their 12th Test since last June in addition to their uncapped tour opener against the Barbarians.
Over that period, their form has fluctuated from the sublime to the ridiculous. While playing New Zealand seems to bring the best out of the Wallabies, the three tests against each other over the summer reflect perfectly the variances in their performance.
Opening their Rugby Championship campaign with a 12-12 draw against New Zealand in Sydney, they succumbed to a 51-20 demolition to the same opposition a week later in Auckland, before completing preparations for this tour with an agonising 29-28 Bledisloe Cup defeat in the last play of the game against their greatest rivals in Brisbane.
At times they can be quite brilliant but more often than not, they appear unconvincing.
Their instability on the field reflects the indiscipline off it that has followed this Wallaby squad for some time now and has seen them operate under three different coaching regimes over the last 17 months. To be fair, it appears as if a few bad eggs are giving a very decent and hard working group of players a bad name.
Prior to the Lions tour last season, Quade Cooper referred to a toxic atmosphere within the Wallaby camp under New Zealander Robbie Deans, and was subsequently ignored by the management for the three-test series against the tourists.
The irony for Deans was that the player he stood by to fill Cooper’s No 10 jersey throughout the series, the enigmatic James O’Connor, not only failed in his primary duty of directing operations behind the scrum but also incurred the wrath of his team-mates by staying out until the early hours of the morning days before the crucial second test in Melbourne.
Once again they were attracting headlines for the wrong reasons.
It was made clear to me on that sojourn that not everyone on the Wallaby coaching ticket was in favour with playing O’Connor out of position. Some of the senior players weren’t exactly enamoured by his presence in the side either. Coaches have to live with those decisions and Deans paid the price with his job before many in the Lions tour party had even made it back home.
The well-publicised Kurtley Beale fallout that led to the resignation of Wallaby operations manager Di Patston and subsequent departure of Deans’ replacement Ewan McKenzie prior to this tour has heaped even more pressure on everyone associated with the team.
Australia is a sporting mecca with competition between the various professional sports for bums on seats at fever pitch. The Australian Rugby Union is under intense pressure to balance the books and the players have had to agree to a reduction in their match fees to help matters recently.
The $18 million (€12.5m) the ARU netted from the Lions tour helped reduce a massive deficit but with the Lions not scheduled to return for another 11 years, the pressure is on to attract new money into the game. There is even a suggestion that the ARU are trying to piggyback on the Lions tour to New Zealand in 2017, recognising that even one game against the tourists would offer a financial windfall.
At least the Wallaby faithful who turned up to their recent games have seen their team win five of their seven home tests this season. It is their away form that is the issue, having lost all three games on the road in the Rugby Championship with Argentina’s first ever championship win in Mendoza particularly damaging.
Despite all the upheaval, history has shown the Aussies are a resilient bunch. It has also helped that McKenzie’s exit has opened the door for former Leinster supremo Michael Cheika to step in ahead of schedule.
His heroics with the Waratahs over the last two seasons, culminating in a first ever Super rugby title this season when they pipped great New Zealand rivals Crusaders in a marvellous final, made it a certainty that he was a Wallaby coach in waiting.
The manner of his appointment only days before the tour party departed left him with little or no time to put his preferred coaching ticket together, with former Wallaby great Stephen Larkham and 1999 World Cup winning hooker Michael Foley declining Cheika’s invitation, for the time being at least, to join his management team.
In the circumstances, Australia did well to win their opening two games but it looked as if the ravages of a very long and traumatic season were beginning to catch up with them in Paris last weekend. Their lineout looked distinctly ordinary and while the scrum coped for long periods, once the French introduced a fresh front row in the second half Australia struggled to cope.
Most worrying of all for Cheika, the spark seemed to have deserted them behind the scrum, as they failed to cope with the line speed of the French in defence. I suspect that a contributory factor here was the fact Australia destroyed the French over the three Test series last June, scoring 12 tries in the process. This was a game the French simply had to win and they were far more physically committed than at any stage during that summer series.
The warning signs were there however for Joe Schmidt in that once the French began to tire over the closing period, the Wallabies chased a 10-point deficit and almost turned things around before losing by three points. Even the brilliant Israel Folau caught the general malaise in Paris, though once the French showed signs of vulnerability, he was the one to find the gaps and ignite the fightback.
He will require a lot of watching.
Chances are that with yet another Test against England outside the IRB window the following week — those two additional tour fixtures against the Barbarians and England at Twickenham have been taken on purely for financial reasons — Cheika will more than likely introduce fresh legs against Ireland.
He may well opt to recall the multi-capped Queensland Reds pair of Will Genia and Quade Cooper with a heavy recent workload placed on the Waratahs half-back pairing of Nick Phibbs and Bernard Foley. The risk here is that Foley is by far and away Australia’s most consistent place kicker. Cheika may also be tempted to promote Henry Speight. The Brumbies winger has just become eligible and looked a class act against the Barbarians.
As for Cheika’s replacement at Leinster, Joe Schmidt is in a very strong position, having exposed 33 players to international rugby over the last fortnight, with Rory Best likely to add to that mix now he has recovered from his calf strain. Despite all the injuries Ireland carried into this series, they are now in a very strong position to close the deal with a clean sweep. The one caveat is that with Cheika’s inside knowledge of the Irish game and the personnel involved, he is in the perfect position to spoil the party.