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.
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