The Wallabies’ shock victory against the once indomitable All Blacks in Perth last week tore the rugby form book to shreds, what remained of it anyway. Common logic was the Wallabies were finished, that the Folau nonsense had cast a cloud over Rugby Australia that would not lift, and the game in Australia more generally was on the brink. Suddenly, after a record win, all that was nonsense and they became contenders again. They now have a chance to consolidate that status.
Blediscoe Cup victory against the All Blacks has evaded them for 17 years, and their great rivals have won the last two World Cups, defeating Australia on the way in both. The Wallabies, who have much of the same squad that was beaten by the All Blacks in the 2015 final, and have flattered to deceive in the intervening four years, now they have their best opportunity to win the Blediscoe in nearly two decades. What has changed?
Well, they appear to have finally settled on a half back pairing. Nic White and Christian Leali’fano have been composed, understated and quietly excellent. They also crucially possess the game management skills to allow more electric talent to thrive elsewhere. Although a star in 2015, Bernard Foley has been unable to rediscover that form and the team look for fluent with Leali’fano’s steady hand at the helm.
Samu Kerevi has the capacity to provide regular front foot ball from 12, and in Hodge, the revitalised O’Connor and Kurtley Beale they have genuine ball players in the wide channels. Marika Koroibete on the other hand is an electric runner, more unpredictable than the others but deadly with ball in hand.
What is distinctive about this Wallabies backline is the fact that the faces are so familiar. Many featured in 2015 and, in the case of Beale and O’Connor, 2011. Yet they appear to have matured significantly. O’Connor and Beale remain game breakers, but they now have the control and discipline to match.
Whisper it, but they have the potential to be two of the great stories of this World Cup. Who would have thought we’d be saying that when O’Connor was arrested just two years ago on suspicion of attempting to buy cocaine?
This backline is built upon a strong, aggressive pack, led by nuisance-in-chief Michael Hooper. They are now able to match the All Blacks, in fact dominate them, physically. Rory Arnold has emerged as a totemic figure in the second row, Taniela Tupou is raw and explosive and with David Pocock set to return, they look intimidating up front at last.
One must be wary to proclaim Australia as contenders, but then again people (this writer included) were far too quick to write them off in the first place. They have the team to beat anyone, whether they can sustain a string of performances is the key question. Regardless, the Aussies will be a threat, and, whether they manage to beat the All Blacks at Eden Park or not, they have reemerged as a major player once more.
Written by Joe Ronan