Leaving Eden Park last weekend, Australia’s crushing 36-0 defeat to the All Blacks surely left head coach Michael Cheika more questions than answers.
Seven days previously, the Wallabies waltzed to a record 47-26 win over the world champions in Perth and, heading into the return fixture, looked on course to clinch a first Bledisloe Cup in 17 years.
Where everything the Wallabies touched in Perth turned to gold, it blew up in their faces in Auckland.
And for Cheika, that has unfortunately been the theme of his managerial reign after leading an ill-regarded Wallabies squad to the World Cup finals in 2015.
A promising performance, always followed by one poor display.
Aside from last Saturday’s assassination against New Zealand, Cheika’s side are in a much better place compared to nine months ago when they were coming off their worst season in 60 years. Nine defeats in 13 Tests left them sitting sixth in the world rankings and low on confidence.
But, in truth, it has been a fairly poor four years for the Wallabies since reaching the World Cup finals, with 18 victories and two draws from 46 matches.
If there is anything to give them belief ahead of Japan, it is the two-time champions do tend to perform better at World Cups regardless of pre-tournament form. This is something that other teams will no doubt be wary of.
The Australians have enough quality through the likes of Reece Hodge, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete, Michael Hooper and David Pocock to pose a threat on the grand stage. But a consistent 80-minute performance against quality opposition has looked increasingly beyond them.
Ill-discipline has contributed to the view of a wounded set-up, but what hurts Wallabies fans most is the sight of their backs approaching the defensive line with little idea of how to breach it.
With Fiji, Wales and Georgia to play before their World Cup opener on September 21, it is too late for the coaching ticket to be coming up with new game plans and styles. Instead, these three warm-up matches need to be used for Cheika to find his best XV while also showing consistency and hunger in their play.
Australia have always been about playing an expansive brand of rugby that relies heavily on their skillful backs, with Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor showing flashes of their old magic in recent weeks. Out wide, the elusive Hodges has three tries from three matches in the Rugby Championship and looks lethal with ball in hand.
At half-back, Nic White and Lealiifano have emerged as solid options if Cheika opts for them ahead of the experienced duo of Will Genia and Bernard Foley. Both can orchestrate proceedings and have the intelligence and pace to put the Wallabies on the front foot.
The Wallabies, though, will have their work cut out to reproduce a repeat of 2015 when Cheika transformed an average squad into World Cup finalists.
Drawn in Pool C with Wales, Georgia, Fiji and Uruguay, the Wallabies should emerge as runners-up from the group which will pit them against England in the last eight.
Their encounter against Wales on September 29 is likely to be the pool decider, but the Dragons are the form team in the world and should have too much class for Australia.
A quarter-final finish may match the Wallabies worst ever finish at rugby’s global showpiece, but unfortunately, it is their glass ceiling at the moment.
Fit-again Mako Vunipola is approaching the best shape of his career – but try telling that to the lady who had to wheel the 122kg prop through Los Angeles airport back in June.
Vunipola has finally recovered from the torn hamstring tendon he suffered in Saracens’ Champions Cup final victory in May, and could feature in England’s clash with Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday.
The 28-year-old could not straighten his leg after surgery to fix the tendon back onto the bone, and so had to use crutches and a wheelchair en route to brother Billy’s wedding back in Tonga.
While the British and Irish Lions prop enjoyed his convalescence, he admitted some of those enlisted to help his mobility had their work cut out.
“In terms of bodyweight I’m near enough the lightest I’ve ever been,” said the elder Vunipola brother.
“I feel good about that. Body conditioning-wise it’s one of those constant things for me, I’ve just got to keep working on that.
“In terms of fitness I feel very good. Match fitness is something different. We’ll see how I go on the weekend if I get the chance.
“I weigh 122kg now, and the lightest I’ve ever been was 121kg, in Australia in 2016.
“I tore the tendon at the top of hamstring so the muscle became detached from the bone, so they had to go back in and attach that back on.
“For two weeks I was not allowed to strain my hamstring.
“Unfortunately I went to Tonga in those two weeks so it was hard going round on crutches and watching what I eat. Luckily my family helped me through that.
“I could bend my knee but I couldn’t lie straight with it. The airport staff looked after me in Los Angeles on the way.
“I was in a wheelchair and some poor lady had to push me. She was struggling a bit!
“I asked, ‘Are you OK?’, and I owed her a big thank you.”
Vunipola is itching to get going after his latest injury setback, and now has the chance to chase full match sharpness, with England launching their World Cup campaign against Tonga on September 22.
Happy to joke about his experiences now, the combative front-rower also knows full well how injuries can quickly alter a mood.
“I had to put pillows underneath my leg: it was ideal because it gave me an excuse not to leave bed,” joked Vunipola.
“I don’t need much excuse. I was in bed constantly apart from when I needed to go to the bathroom or the kitchen.
“I had a pretty good setup with the TV and Playstation. For me, it was pretty much heaven. I was ready to get out of bed by the end of it though.
“I needed to move and get the hamstring moving, but I also felt very sloppy by the end of those two weeks.
“You get bigger and you lose muscle – not that you can really tell the difference.”
Asked what he weighed at the end of that fortnight off his feet, Vunipola joked he avoided the scales – to stay out of trouble with head coach Eddie Jones.
He added: “I didn’t even want to get on the scales. I don’t want to say either. I don’t want Eddie finding out!
“I’m excited about being back playing, it’s been tough the last four to five weeks training by myself.
“We have talked about not wanting to take anything for granted.
“Every time I think I am alright, something else happens. It might be luck, it might be something else, but every day and every time I am training I have to make sure I am doing my best to improve and every time I play, play like it’s my last game.”
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Ken Owens says Wales need to “keep building and improving” after a red-letter day saw them beat England and become world number one.
Wales’ 13-6 World Cup warm-up success in Cardiff meant they ended New Zealand’s unbroken 10-year reign as rugby union’s ranking leaders.
They also achieved it less than five weeks before the World Cup starts in Japan, with Wales having won 15 of their last 16 Tests.
Owens, though, joined Wales head coach Warren Gatland in keeping his feet firmly on the ground following such a landmark statistical feat.
“I would prefer to be there (number one) at the start of November (when the World Cup ends), but it is now just a table and something to talk about,” Wales hooker Owens said.
“We were a lot better this week,” he added, in reference to Wales’ 33-19 defeat to England at Twickenham last Sunday.
“We spoke about the need to start a lot better. The first 20 minutes last week cost us the game. We spoke about our line speed defensively and our accuracy in attack, and I think we delivered that.
“We dug in and got the job done. We delivered, which is a huge tick in the box for us.
“We have got to be on the money now. We’ve had probably our poor performance out of the system, that slow start people talk about, and we have got to keep building and improving. We can’t let that standard drop.”
Wales have two more preparation fixtures – home and away against Ireland – and a warm-weather training camp in Turkey before they leave for Japan next month.
And they have a solid foundation to build on after extending an unbeaten home record to 11 games which stretches back to November 2017.
“There were lots of pressure moments out there, especially towards the last five or 10 minutes,” Owens added.
“In fairness, the boys came up with some big plays. Dillon Lewis turned a maul over, which is a big strength of England’s.
“It (Turkey) is a good nine days to get away and get a little bit more training in away from everything.
“We can just concentrate on the rugby again and get our combinations working and get more time on the training field in full rugby situations. We want to get ready to peak for the two games against Ireland to come.”