Painful defeat leaves wasteful Wallabies in a valley of darkness
The Wallabies are not in crisis, but they are at a crossroads. Despite enjoying 60% possession and dominating the running statistics, they failed to extinguish Eddie Jones’s England, losing a gripping decider 21-17 in front of 43,274 fans at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
The inaugural Ella-Mobbs Trophy now takes up residence in the northern hemisphere with Australia left to rue ill discipline, blown chances and a style of play they are yet to earn. Too often the men in gold opted for cute sleight of hand and expansive backline movements when they should have ground it out, settled and reset, before using their weapons out wide.
This series defeat hurts all the more because England arrived under pressure, at the end of a long season and without key personnel. Australia can point to a huge injury toll that forced more than a dozen changes to the starting side, but they are at the beginning of their international season and should have been fresher, faster and far better on home turf.
Instead of climbing new heights and charting brighter horizons, Michael Hooper’s men find themselves in a valley of darkness. And things could get worse before they improve. Australia have a tough run in the next 10 weeks: a trip to Argentina for two Tests against a dangerous Michael Cheika-coached Pumas side, then home games against South Africa in Adelaide and Sydney, before the challenge of stopping a 20th consecutive Bledisloe loss against an All Blacks team humiliated by Ireland and desperate to destroy all in their path.
Even the home Tests present little advantage. Brisbane’s Suncorp fortress was breached by the English marauders in game two, snapping a streak of 10 straight Test wins. They face South Africa in Adelaide, not exactly a feral rugby town, before entering the new and untested Sydney Football Stadium for the sequel. Then the All Blacks must be vanquished in the cavernous Melbourne Cricket Ground before a trudge across the ditch to Eden Park where the Wallabies haven’t drawn blood and won since 1986.
This should have been a glittering occasion, a return to the SCG, mecca of Sydney sport. Fans in gold jerseys arrived in a trickle, then a torrent. Young and old, male and female, husbands in green, wives in gold, kids in caps, nanas in hand-knitted scarves. They took their seats after passing statues of destroyers of English cricket cast in bronze: Stan McCabe rocking back to clip Harold Larwood off his brow, Steve Waugh triumphant after whipping Richard Dawson to the boundary, Richie Benaud cocking an eyebrow at Peter May.
They arrived confident. Australia had proved their mettle in Perth, blowing England away with only 14 men. Sure those familiar Wallaby wobbles had reappeared in Brisbane, silly mistakes leaving them 19-0 down and too much to do, but they’d fought to the last and set themselves up for the complete performance coach Dave Rennie has been promising.
Things started well. Nic White, playing his 50th test, led them out. Uncle Lloyd Walker, eight-Test Wallaby, hero to Mark Ella and owner of Matraville’s most magical hands, did the welcome to Gadigal country. Taniela Tupou almost blew a pectoral muscle belting out the anthem.
When the action got under way Australia’s tempo was high from the whistle. Nick Frost charged down an Owen Farrell kick and the crowd booed when he was tackled without the ball. Australia went wide and won a penalty but Noah Lolesio missed it. But then Farrell’s restart went out on the full and Hopper opted for a scrum in front of the sticks. White’s angled scoot created an overlap, only for Reece Hodge to lob the ball over the sideline.
The Wallabies backline looked fluent and potent, players looping inside and out and chasing space with long cutout passes. Time and again it put Marika Koroibiete away and everyone except the referee saw him barrel over two Englishmen to score. Instead Australia got a penalty they wasted when Tupou ran on to a great inside ball only to pass it to Frost’s feet. Then Tom Wright lost the ball in space and it all fell apart again.
Australia got it right a few minutes later, Koroibiete bumping one, drawing another and launching a long ball to Wright on the fly. Wright outpaced one, shot it inside to White who spat the pip back and the winger went over. Lolesio snuck it inside the right post to make it 7-3. When Hooper hared after Danny Care and forced a knock-on, it unleashed Koroibiete again. He trampled one and shrugged off another to win a penalty Lolesio converted for 10-3.
Australia were finding space, most of it in the fragile orbit of England’s new outside centre Guy Porter. A Farrell penalty closed the gap to four points but when a second penalty hit the post White chanced his hand too far and England drove in from the scrum. Twice they went close but when replacement half Jack van Poortvliet went to the short side, Freddie Steward wrongfooted Wright to cross. Farrell missed the sideline conversion leaving the teams going to the break with England ahead 11-10.
There were worrying signs for Australia after the break. Tupou’s flick pass out the back said plenty. A 130kg wrecking ball choosing not to charge into the gainline and instead playing jazz hands? Even Hooper made a costly clanger, the captain tackling the wrong man and conceding another penalty to Farrell’s rapier boot. Again and again Australia showed tantalising glimpses of the running rugby their fans crave only to squander it, conceding 13 turnovers to England’s seven, wasting a glut of possession and eventually nailing shut their own coffin by coughing up a cheap runaway try to Marcus Smith that ultimately proved the difference.
As he did in Sydney Folau Fainga’a found a way through where his teammates couldn’t to get it to 21-17 with 13 minutes on the clock. But though they battered the English line they didn’t break it as white jerseys roiled like maggots in the ruck and too often came up with the pigskin. The golden fusillade fizzled and then, with another flurry of mistakes, was snuffed.
Now comes the reckoning. Who stays and who goes? Where and how did it all go wrong?
Rennie will inevitably face questions about his team selection. Why was Angus Bell benched after two sterling Tests? Why did he hook Rob Valetini when he was just starting to thunder? Why did his finishing front row quiver when they should have been ascendant? Why was secret weapon Suliasi Vunivalu unleashed only for the last three minutes?
As Hooper strode around the outside of the pitch thanking the few fans that remained after full-time, the empty seats must have stung. Each departed ticket-holder represented an opportunity lost. Wallabies supporters now go back to the doldrums and their team goes back to the drawing board.