Australia’s European tour was a rollercoaster ride but it points to a bright future
The Wallabies fell short in lots of ways on their spring tour. They tasted defeat in three Tests and were lucky not to lose a fourth. They finished the international season with only five victories and nine losses and never won back-to-back. The injury toll was horrendous: 40 Wallabies battered or broken. And they are still no closer to locking in a 9-10 playmaking dynamic to spark their erratic attack.
And yet, this year they defeated England, South Africa, Argentina, Scotland and Wales and went within a whisker of vanquishing France, Ireland and New Zealand, the top three sides in the world. And on Sunday, by overturning a 21-point deficit in 23 minutes in Cardiff, the men in gold showed the never-say-die fortitude that will give Wallabies supporters hope for the 2023 World Cup in France.
With only 25 of the 36-man touring squad available, it was an Australia B/C side that took on Wales. Many stars likely to start against the Welsh in Pool C on September 24 in Lyon were either at home, in hospital, playing overseas or retired hurt. So the Wallabies ran out a ragged rookie outfit, seven of them yet to earn 10 caps, but still finished 40 bone-sapping days on the road with an important victory.
Important because, after a winless 2021 spring tour, the 2022 Wallabies this time left Europe with two scalps, a climb in the world rugby rankings from nine to six, and a pass mark for coach Dave Rennie. But most important of all, it was a win for Australia’s Generation Next and a massive confidence boost to the future Wallabies’ chances at the 2027 World Cup tournament to be staged on home soil.
In the void left by fallen stars, a constellation of new young heroes burst into World Cup calculations. Foremost was two-Test winger Mark Nawaqanitawase. The 22-year-old flyer started this tour as bolter, a Kid Dynamite drafted into the squad after making merry with Australia’s sevens side. He finished it as the spark for the Cardiff comeback, scoring two sensational tries and setting up the clincher.
Nawaqanitawase is a big unit (190cm, 100kg) and brilliant in the air. He is also fast and evasive, with a sidestep that bamboozles first defenders (he broke eight tackles against Wales) and a hunger for the ball that shames most wingers. Marika Koroibete has his wing partner for the big dance in September.
In the forward pack, flanker Fraser McReight and lock Nick Frost proved themselves match winners. Both are 23 years old and fearless, with a feral edge and tactical nous often lacking in Rennie’s side.
Stepping up for Michael Hooper with identical vim, McReight spearheaded the barnstorming win over the Springboks in Adelaide and led the tackle count against Wales. Hooper’s heir is officially blooded.
Frost stands 206cm and weighs 120kgs. His lineout dominance and impact in contact was decisive in the Murrayfield win. If Rennie pairs him with another man-mountain in Will Skelton, who rumbled into life against France, it could be truly epic. And with Rob Valetini, the Wallabies best this year, at No 8 and Pete Samu and Langi Gleeson detonating off the bench, it’s a backrow with genuine fear factor.
When Angus Bell, 22, at loosehead and Taniela Tupou, 26, on the tight side, return the Wallabies will have a young gun frontrow to go toe-to-toe with any pack on the planet in 2023 and dominate in 2027.
Yet the combination that matters most is still in flux. The 9-10 alchemy will be the axis of every attack but Australia’s next generation of playmakers and field marshals have yet to announce themselves. The key to unlocking the talent up front and out wide rests in the 9-10 Rennie picks as team conduits.
At 35, Quade Cooper seems Rennie’s preferred World Cup option at 10, despite not playing a Test all season. Bernard Foley, 34, has again proven an assured deputy but neither Noah Lolesio, 22, or Ben Donaldson, 23, showed enough in their Tests against Italy and Wales to firm as master’s apprentice.
Rennie must wear some blame for this. Lolesio has started 13 Tests across three seasons but is no closer to a long run in the job. After showing a cool head to lead the first Test defeat of England back in July, he deserved to be backed. Donaldson’s debut, brought on at the death against Italy only to miss a conversion that lost Australia the game, became a scar of dented confidence against Wales.
Incumbent No 9 Nic White bristles like his moustache and bounces like a bantamweight but the potency of a scything pass dimmed when deputy Tate McDermott’s sniping ripped holes in France. With Jake Gordon, this three-way battle for halfback honours must be decided in the Super Rugby season.
For all the chopping and changing this season – Rennie played a record 51 Wallabies across 14 Tests – Australia’s stars appear to be aligning. Will Australia’s blaze to glory be written at World Cup 2023… or must we wait four more years?