The Lineout’s Annual Report Cards for 2017 – Part 6 – Australia

Posted: January 18, 2018 in General Commentary
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As always we start the New Year looking back over the past twelve months and handing out our verdict on the top ten teams, as well as Canada, and a first for this year the USA and Georgia. We try to figure out what they got out of the year on a score out of ten. We start off in the Americas looking at our own backyard, then move South of the Equator to the “Big Three”. We then journey back North in July to look at the Six Nations Competitors as the Northern Hemisphere season ends.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2018. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2017 as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2018. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in part 6 where we once more head South of the Equator and take a look at how Australia fared.

Australia – 6/10

Not the easiest year for Australia with some real lows at times, but also one in which the side showed some genuine character and made some solid progress from 2016 , a year which the Wallabies like the Springboks would for the most part want to forget. While both sides were clearly in transition this year, Australia by the end of it has had a lot more success in developing a clear idea of where they are going and how to get there. The situation was not helped by the chaos surrounding the state of domestic rugby in Australia, but despite this the team managed to rise above the distraction and achieve some memorable results, most importantly their first win against the All Blacks since 2015, and in doing so ended a seven match losing streak against New Zealand. Unfortunately their season started on a low with a loss to Scotland at home, and the misery of this defeat was compounded when they were annihilated by the Scots at Murrayfield in their last Test of the year. However, in between there had been some moments where this Wallaby side showed some real character in adversity as well as the nucleus of an exciting team that can start to focus on the challenge of the World Cup in eighteen months time. In short, while Coach Michael Cheika and his charges have plenty of work to do between now and September 2019, this past year demonstrated that he is fortunate in having a fairly solid foundation to work with.

Australia’s season got off to a rough start as they looked out of shape and relatively unprepared for what lay ahead of them in a three match series at home in June which saw them get wins over Fiji and Italy, but lose to Scotland at home for the first time in history. In their opening match against Fiji they looked sluggish particularly in the second half and struggled to contain a Fijian side growing in confidence. Next up was the historic defeat to Scotland who simply outplayed them physically and mentally in a close match. Australia redeemed themselves against Italy, but once more at times struggled to contain the Italians in an error strewn performance. The Wallabies reflected on their opening rounds of 2017 with more than just a little concern as they headed into the Rugby Championship. Their defense was a shambles and poor discipline and execution seemed to continue to haunt them as a hangover from 2016.

The Rugby Championship was up next and while Australia may not be overly pleased with the fact that they only won two matches and finished a distant second place well behind New Zealand and only a point ahead of South Africa, they can take heart from the fact that some real character was discovered in this Wallaby side during the course of the tournament. Furthermore, their skill set in defence and attack underwent a complete transformation since the June Tests, and Australia once more demonstrated that they are able to produce some of Test rugby’s most gifted and exciting backs in the vein of Wallaby sides of old. The opening match against New Zealand saw the Wallabies play probably the worst 40 minutes of rugby they have played in a long time as a rampant New Zealand side led 40-6 at half time. The second half however could have not been more different. Australia came back onto the pitch at full throttle and proceeded to run in three superb tries in the space of ten minutes. Their defence tightened up, and despite the final scoreline of 54-34 to New Zealand, Australia were clearly back and meant business.

The return fixture the following weekend against the All Blacks in Dunedin, was one of the Wallabies best performances all year. The Wallabies had essentially been written off leading up to the match, especially in Dunedin which is a notoriously difficult ground on which to claim an All Black scalp. They then proceeded to turn the form book on its head by dominating New Zealand and scoring three outstanding tries in the first 15 minutes. For the rest of a thrilling Test Match the lead alternated between the two Trans Tasman rivals in a ten try epic. Australia took the lead with four minutes left on the clock but New Zealand once more showed why they are still the best at closing out big games at the death. Australia were gutted but left the field knowing that they had made a statement to the rest of the world that the Wallabies were back as a world class side.

The rest of the Rugby Championship was a frustrating experience for the Wallabies as they would beat Argentina comfortably twice, but experience two frustrating draws against the Springboks. As a result although they finished second they will be disappointed by the fact that they were so far behind New Zealand on the points table.

It was the third and final Bledisloe Cup match before they headed to Europe for their end of year tour, that really showed how dramatically the Wallabies had managed to turn themselves around in the space of a mere three months. An extraordinary Test match unfolded that left all of us on the edge of our seats till the final whistle. It was a solid performance from Australia that kept the All Blacks at bay till the end. Once more there was some silky back play from the Wallabies that was reminiscent of the glory days of the Campese era. The Wallabies were well deserved winners in a very hard-fought match, and it was a much-needed confidence boost for a team that had struggled to rise above the ugly distractions affecting the domestic game all year.

Australia’s end of year tour however took a lot of the shine of what was looking like a promising rebuilding process. Nevertheless despite the disappointments there is no denying that Australia will have learnt a lot from the tour, and have found a squad that boasts some world-class talent once it starts to click consistently. They dispatched Japan comfortably, but were taken aback by a Welsh side that pressed them hard. Once more the Wallabies’ fitness levels looked suspect as fatigue set in and with it, annoying breakdowns in discipline. One of the most anticipated Tests of the year against England, saw the Wallabies start to crack. Although they played some superb rugby at times especially in the first half, they simply could not break the English defence. The sheer toll of throwing themselves repeatedly at England was clear to see as the English began to pull away and Australian defences struggled to keep up. England walked away comfortable winners 30-6.

Australia sought redemption and revenge against Scotland after their defeat in June, but sadly put in their worst performance of the year as the Scots simply ran rings around them in the second half. Out of gas and out of ideas, Australia limped out of Edinburgh and onto the plane home with much to think about.

The two losses to Scotland and the one to England were clearly the low points of a season that ultimately proved to be a mixed bag for Australia. However, despite that they played some of their best rugby for a long time against their traditional rivals New Zealand and in the process put some outstanding talent on show. Australia are blessed with some of the best backs in Test Rugby right now who are only going to get better. Add to that the fact that they once more have a competitive scrum and some exceptional forwards, then it is surely only a question of time before they are once again reckoned to be serious contenders to lift the Webb Ellis trophy in Japan in 2019. If Australia can continue to improve their discipline and find solutions to the questions lingering over their depth in the scrum and fly half positions, then this is clearly a very dangerous side once more on the rise. We very much doubt that we’ll be giving them such a low score when we revisit this process at the end of this year.

Match of the year – Australia vs New Zealand – October 21st – Brisbane – Australia 23/New Zealand 18. The match that finally broke the Wallabies seven match losing streak to New Zealand was a classic, and saw the Wallabies hang on to the very end to snatch a long overdue win. It was a tense match that showed both skill and character from a very composed Wallaby team and one which signaled a return to the type of performances we’re accustomed to seeing from Australia.

Player of the year – Reece Hodge. Given the displays by Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau this year for the Wallabies, you might be surprised to see us hand this recognition to Hodge. However, for us it was his overall value to Australia at key moments that makes us give him top honors. Ferocious in defence and lethal in open space with ball in hand, the Australian utility back was a real asset to the Wallabies in 2017. His ability to boot the ball between the posts from some incredible distances, saved Australia’s bacon on more than one occasion in a year where their regular kicker Bernard Foley was off target with alarming regularity.

Player to watch in 2018 – Marika Koroibete. The Rugby League convert turned heads from the first time he pulled on a Wallaby jersey this year. While there were some questions around his defensive abilities we are fairly confident these will be sorted as the 2018 season unfolds. However, it was his pace, strength and speed with ball in hand that made us sit up and take notice in every match he played for the Wallabies last year. We expect to see Koroiboite as one of Test Rugby’s leading try scorers in 2018.

We end this report card with highlights from the Wallabies best performance of 2018, the third and final Bledisloe Cup match in Brisbane. If they play like this consistently in 2018, then come the World Cup in Japan in eighteen months time they will clearly be in it to win it!

To be continued – up next New Zealand!

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