Australia’s tour of the northern hemisphere started promisingly but descended into disarray as the team suffered record losses to England and Scotland in quick succession. The irate face of Michael Cheika ranting and raving on the sidelines came to define the Wallabies’ time in Britain as he railed against refereeing decisions.
It was a disappointing international period for the team and represented a frustrating end to a year in which Australia beat the All Blacks and finished second in the Rugby Championship.
They will need to buck their ideas up ahead of big games against the likes of Ireland and South Africa in 2018, and they have plenty of soul searching to do over the coming weeks and months. Here are five things we learned from the Wallabies’ end of year internationals:
Michael Cheika is a very angry man
The Wallabies coach spent the majority of his team’s record 30-6 defeat at the hands of England doing his best impression of Bruce Banner. He was incandescent throughout, engaged in theatrical, sarcastic clapping of the TMO when Michael Hooper was denied a try and at one point appeared to mouth “f****** cheats”. It is great to have a passionate manager, but Cheika needs to channel it better and keep his cool.
Hollering at officials distracts from his team’s shortcomings and he should spend more time addressing those rather than making enemies of the most important referees in the world. His lack of discipline on the touchline feeds through to his players and influences their behaviour.
Australia need to improve their discipline
Which brings us to our next point: The Wallabies must improve their discipline as it will otherwise continue to turn victories into defeats. Hooper’s yellow card against England made him the most sin binned international and that is a worrying record for a captain to own. Like Cheika, you have to applaud his fiery passion, but he too must learn to channel it better.
Australia were reduced to 13 men at half-time against England, and that cost them. Meanwhile, Sekope Kepu’s red card totally changed the course of the game against Scotland.
At the time, the Wallabies were leading 12-10 and Kepu’s reckless diving shoulder tackle into Hamish Watson’s face in a ruck turned the match on its head. Kepu deserved to be sent off and badly let his team down. With 14 men on the pitch, the Wallabies were robbed of a chance to end their tour on a high note and duly crumbled, falling to a record 53-24 defeat.
Wallabies can learn from England’s uncanny ability to win games
England have lost just once in the past two years under Eddie Jones and he typically finds a way to see off opponents. If that means winning dirty, so be it. If it means sacrificing aesthetically pleasing rugby in favour of grinding out a win in a snooze fest, he’s up for that too. Winning is what matters and England have now beaten the Wallabies five times in a row, a run stretching back to the 2015 World Cup.
If you take a look at the odds for the next World Cup you will see it is England, not Australia, that are tipped as the most likely team to topple New Zealand. The Wallabies have a lot to learn in the build-up to the 2019 tournament and they could do worse than stealing a few tricks from Jones’ playbook.
Israel Folau is badly missed
Shock greeted the news that Folau would not join the Wallabies on their end of year international tour as he had been the shining light of 2017. Any team would miss the World Player of the Year nominee, whose powerful running was crucial as Australia overwhelmed the All Blacks earlier this year. He seems to be constantly improving, but he has played 62 tests since his 2013 debut and should return refreshed and revitalised ahead of greater challenges for the team.
Defeats should not overshadow progress
The Wallabies’ final two games of the year turned into shambolic defeats thanks to the aforementioned disciplinary issues. However, that should not be the dominant narrative as there were also plenty of positives to take from 2017.
After defying the odds to beat world champions New Zealand, Cheika’s men should fear nobody in 2018. He has blooded in some talented new players and now Australia have a strong core of established internationals, so Cheika can spend the next 18 months moulding them into an effective unit ahead of the World Cup.
Martin Green is an experienced sports writer and has been covering international rugby for several years.