As we head into the opening round of the Rugby Championship this weekend we preview each of the four competing nations. New Zealand have dominated the tournament winning five of the six incarnations since Argentina were added to the enlarged Tri-Nations in 2012, but can the Wallabies, Springboks or the Pumas break the All Blacks’ dominance this year?
The Wallabies have had many false dawns over the last four years. After their superb run at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, where they reached the final, many thought this was the start of a new golden era for Australian rugby. But sadly that was not the case as they struggled to just six wins the following year, losing nine along the way for a 40% win record. The Wallabies seem to have all the elements on paper but just can’t put it together consistently on the field – yet.
David Pocock took a year-long sabbatical from Australian rugby last year, studying in the UK and playing half a season with the Panasonic Wild Knights in Japan. But the 30-year-old flanker was right back to his best in the series against Ireland, dominating the first Test when he single-handedly took on the No2 pack in the world – and won. Ireland found a way to move the immoveable object in the second and third Test but if the Wallabies are to have any chance Pocock must dominate like he did in the opener against Ireland.
Much was spoken about the ‘Tongan Thor’ Taniela Tupou when he first burst on to the scene as a teenager via some impressive highlight reels on YouTube. His mobility and explosiveness were never in doubt but questions existed around his technique at scrum time. To his credit the now 22-year-old went away and worked hard at his Super Rugby side Queensland, first with Nick Stiles and then Brad Thorn, and has emerged a more mature and complete player ready to fight for a starting spot.
Viewed as individual pieces the Wallabies look a quality team – the flair of Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau out wide, Will Genia and Bernard Foley close to the scrum base and some quality back rowers in captain Michael Hooper and David Pocock. But they still have failed to gel as a unit and tend to go walkabout mentally at vital times in games, switching off in winning positions and lacking the “ruthlessness” that George Gregan for one has called for.
If the Men of Gold have an Achilles heel it is their tight five, which apart from world class lock Adam Coleman, still has lingering doubts about not being up to it when the heat is really on. Indeed the bench players Tolu Latu, Taniela Tupou and Allan Alaalatoa are on a par, if not better, than the starters. The Wallabies have the backline to destroy any team but the tight five need to lay the platform first. To date they have failed to do that.
The curious Mr Michael Cheika. The former Stade Francais, Waratahs and Leinster boss is a difficult man to read and predict. He keeps a comfortable distance between himself and the media though he seems to foster a very tight knit team spirit behind the scenes. Time is running out for the rugged 51-year-old whose guiding of Australia to the Rugby World Cup final in 2015 is still his only achievement of note. Cheika is well liked in rugby circles, at all levels, and people want him to bring the big one home – but will he?
WHAT THEY SAID
“Let’s look at game one first of all. Let’s not even think about the Rugby Championship.
“Just think about the first game and connect together, learn to trust each other more and be really aligned around what we believe so we can get our energy pointing in the right direction for game one.” – Michael Cheika, coach
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RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP RECORD
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