Sam Bruce and Greg Growden go head-to-head to review the Wallabies' 2017 season, identifying the positives, problem areas and their progress towards Rugby World Cup 2019.
Sam Bruce: So, Greg, you've just signed off from your 40-something odd Wallabies season. Twin losses to Scotland, two draws, but a win, nearly two, over the All Blacks; how do you sum up 2017?
Well, Sam the Man, it wasn't the worst Wallabies season I have witnessed, but it was still extremely frustrating. I still cannot believe that Australia lost twice to Scotland. Once upon a time Australia could beat Scotland in their sleep, but now they are continually being embarrassed by a team who have discovered, like the All Blacks and Ireland, that certain Australian players become pussycats if you get into their face. The mid-season loss in Sydney was dreadful but the Murrayfield defeat was even worse, especially as Scotland were nowhere near full strength.
As bewildering has been some of Michael Cheika's Test selections, and he deserves to be placed under serious scrutiny because the team too often is not responding. The two bright 2017 moments were the win over the All Blacks, and the rise of winger Marika Koroibete. My tip is that Koroibete will be a 2019 Rugby World Cup superstar.
Greg Growden: And Sam in between your very heavy social schedule you saw all of the Wallabies Tests. What was your highlight and lowlight?
Funnily enough they both fall in the Bledisloe Cup category, namely the first-half debacle in Sydney and then arguably their best showing since the World Cup in Brisbane. But let's go back to ANZ Stadium and the disaster that was Bledisloe I; I've never seen a Wallabies side so far off the pace. It was as if they only had 10 players on the field such was the ease in which the All Blacks cut them to pieces. The skill level was abhorrent while any side that concedes 27 clean breaks should expect to give up 54 points. The All Blacks dropped back down to second gear in the second half, which allowed the Wallabies to cross for four tries of their own. Thirty-five minutes in, I honestly thought the New Zealand would hit the ton.
Two months on, however, and we witnessed a Wallabies side far more assured in their approach and not frightened to get into the nitty-gritty with the world champions. But more importantly they were able to win the key moments, namely the final few minutes -- which they should have done, but couldn't, nail in Dunedin. The Wallabies' restarts and exit strategies were better while we saw Reece Hodge step up and deliver from the kicking tee when it mattered. Goal-kicking, however, remains a concern ahead of the World Cup.
Unfortunately, that Brisbane victory hasn't turned out to be the turning point many of us thought it would.
SB: You mentioned Koroibete as being a potential superstar but who else enhanced their reputation in 2017 and, conversely, who should be making other plans for September/October 2019?
I know I was highly critical of Israel Folau at the start of the season, because for too long he has been on cruise control. However, he did aim up for the Wallabies this season, and he was Australia's most consistent performer. At Test level, he put in. Under very trying circumstances, Michael Hooper showed he is maturing as a captain, but by the end of the northern hemisphere tour he had simply run out of fuel. Adam Coleman continues to show he has it as a Test lock, and he will be an important asset in the lead up to Japan 2019. Coleman is one of the few Wallabies who possesses menace.
As for those who won't be around the next World Cup, all I can say is that if Ned Hanigan is still the Wallabies No. 6 in two years' time then Australian rugby is in a complete mess. Hanigan has now had countless opportunities to make the Test blindside flanker position his, but he has failed to grasp the moment. He lacks penetration. He can talk it, but he can't walk it. Jack Dempsey showed more promise at No. 6, until he was seriously injured just before the European tour.
The dearth of good backrowers in Australian rugby is a serious concern, as is a lack of a consistent goalkicker. Cheika might have to give Hodge the kicking responsibilities because Foley too often gets the yips. Also Rob Simmons cannot be persevered with as a Test lock. The European tour confirmed he is now a mere passenger. No wonder there's little anger in Queensland that Simmons is heading to Sydney next season. A very poor recruitment decision by the Waratahs. I also believe Sam Kerevi will struggle to get to the World Cup because his midfield defence is too flaky.
GG: Okay Sam, what do you think is Wallabies' No. 1 problem area? And can they fix it in time for Japan?
From where I sit, the Wallabies have three main issues ahead of RWC 2019. They are the composition of their back-row, midfield partnership and goal-kicking. I would have said set-piece earlier in the year, but, while the scrum was poor against Scotland, I think significant improvements have been made both there and at the lineout this season.
Of those three areas I mentioned, the one that has me most concerned is the make-up of the back-row. Sean McMahon was superb this season while Michael Hooper -- some ill-discipline aside -- was also outstanding. And then there was the emergence of Jack Dempsey, before injury, which gave the Wallabies a more balanced trio. But it's the continued lack of a genuine ball-carrying No. 6 or No. 8, a big lump of a lad whose job it is to bend the line and, better yet, break it, that really worries me. The way the Wallabies were man-handled in the first 15 minutes in the 2015 RWC final has stuck with me.
There have been some suggestions that Lukhan Tui could morph into a No. 6 from lock, but that transition needs to start immediately and requires getting the Reds on board so he plays there in Super Rugby. The Wallabies will also get David Pocock back next year, which adds another spanner in the works -- as does McMahon's Japanese stint. Cheika has a few back-row balls in the air; just how he juggles them come Japan will be a major factor in how deep the Wallabies go into the tournament.
SB: Speaking of Cheika, Greg, just how much pressure is the Wallabies coach under? And is there a need for him to better manage his emotions; does he have the right support team in place?
The win over the All Blacks eased the pressure somewhat on Cheika, but a poor northern hemisphere tour has brought back tension. His success rate of 53.3 percent after 45 Tests is underwhelming -- and worse than Robbie Deans, John Connolly and Eddie Jones. Yes, he really needs to lift his standards, as a lot of people are getting sick and tired of his matchday theatrics.
What is most disconcerting is the fact that players are now seemingly taking their behavioural cues off the coach. They are now an ill-disciplined bunch, with an endless stream of players either being yellow or red carded. As well, too many players are arguing with the referee. Kurtley Beale's carry-on in the lead-up to him being sin-binned at Murrayfield was embarrassing, and a good coach would have immediately chastised him. But it appears Cheika encourages such behaviour. And that's wrong. The Wallabies supporters don't like this. Remember how the Australian public turned on the national cricket team during the time when they were a boorish, arrogant mob? The fans like Australian sporting teams that play with a sense of class and decorum. Not whingeing, aggressive upstarts.
It is also not a good look having the Wallabies team manager Pat Molihan sitting next to Cheika in the coach's box, and mimicking his actions. Whenever Cheika is blowing up about a refereeing decision, so too is Molihan. It's Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men stuff ... and it has to stop. The outstanding Australian team managers such as John McKay, Phil Thomson and Rob Egerton were instead situated on the sideline, doing important gameday work such as making sure the reserves bench and interchange of players was running smoothly. I never sighted them in the coach's box. The off-field standards of this outfit really needs to improve. Who is actually running Australian rugby?
GG: And Sam are you as concerned as me that the Wallabies are often having to scramble with 13 or 14 men in the field, especially as in a crucial Bledisloe Cup, Rugby Championship or World Cup game you need everyone on deck and performing to their peak to have any chance?
Massively. We've seen in the final two Tests of the year just how much damage a yellow -- or worse still a red -- card can do. Let's look at Sekope Kepu first; his actions at Murrayfield were nothing more than idiotic stupidity. What made his shoulder charge even worse was that it immediately followed Wallabies points, and a strong run from Sean McMahon that had set up what should have been a comfortable exit.
Michael Hooper's disciplinary record is also becoming a concern. There is no intent to injure in the Wallabies skipper's play, but repeated yellow cards for ruck infringements, off-side etc. are mounting and starting to stifle Australia. You don't want him to pull back in the way he plays, as he is one of Cheika's most prized assets, but perhaps there are some small tweaks he can make to leave himself less susceptible to the referee's wrath.
Rest assured, the Wallabies won't be able to pull off another 13-man miracle in Japan as they did against Wales in the pool phase of Rugby World Cup 2015. The 2019 edition is looking like the closest yet with the northern hemisphere nations lifting their game significantly in the past two years. Australia's next assignment, against Ireland in June 2018, will be intriguing viewing.