So the autumn nations series, the November internationals, the spring tour are all nearly done barring two more money-spinning games this weekend in Cardiff and at Twickers.
But what do we know about our teams now that maybe we didn’t six weeks ago? Or what did we fear that has absolutely come home to roost? Have the Rugby World Cup sweats started already, a year out?
We’ll be back next week to conclude the tour and the rugby year of 2022, so this week it’s time for the lessons learned.
And yes, ‘lessons’, kids. ‘Learnings’ is not a word.
Unfortunately we’ve learned nothing about the Wallabies we didn’t already know.
They’re still giving away way too many penalties in general and far too many brain-dead, stupid penalties. And they’re still going at worse than a card a game.
They’re still going pretty well at the set piece, which has probably kept them in a number of games if we’re honest. But the attacking maul has all but disappeared – they’ve not scored a maul try since Folau Fainga’a barged over in the first Test against England in Perth, in early July – and I cannot work out why.
Yes, a misfiring lineout on this tour has been a factor, but I can’t remember when they last attempted a lineout drive in the corner. Every other team seems to have a functional attacking maul, but I’ll say it again: the Wallabies haven’t scored a maul try since the first weekend in July. That one was their second of the season, and they’ve bagged 30 more since then.
It’s hard to read what the team is trying to do because of the selection carousel, and who knows what we’ll get for Wales this weekend. Who knows who’s left fit and available.
Which I suppose is a long way of saying that we’ve learned the Wallabies are still consistently inconsistent.
Or inconsistently consistent. There may or may not be a difference.
At times I feel quite frustrated. as an 80-minute performance continues to elude this All Blacks side.
But at the same time, taking the full season into account, there are reasons for optimism, as very real changes have been made to the side’s approach and significant improvements have been made to both personal and strategy, particularly in the forwards, which has provided a far more positive outlook for bigger challenges to come in 2023.
The All Blacks are far from favourites for the big dance, but their upward trend on this tour suggests some rewards are ahead.
And while there is still plenty to work on, such as game management and bench selection, this tour has shown me that this side is heading in the right direction.
It’s clear that the All Blacks aren’t anywhere near as bad as many people were claiming, but they’re not anywhere as good as they need to be either. The set piece is solid, and when they are on – that is, when their cleanout is in synch and Aaron Smith is put on the front foot – the scoring potential is still there and they are as good as, if not better than, any side in the world.
However, when they are off, they forget to go direct, lose their connectedness in attack and become too passive in defence, and they can look very ordinary.
I maintain that the fade-out against England will serve New Zealand well as a reminder of how narrow the margins are at the top and that nothing less than complete 80-minute efforts will do.
We also learned that halfback depth is a real issue. I like the look of Cam Roigard, and he has an opportunity during Super Rugby to take a big step forward.
For the Wallabies, it’s clear that some players haven’t learned anything when it comes to maintaining discipline. The rest of us have learned – or had it confirmed – that despite all of the injuries and self-implosions, this team isn’t too far off the mark.
The loss to Italy was hugely disappointing, but this was mostly the ‘development’ side. The first-choice side – still with a number of high-class players to add back in – is where we need to be looking, and their performances against France and Ireland, both matches that easily could have been won, show the Wallabies in a slightly more positive light.
Clearly they’re a long way off winning a World Cup, but for as long as a gap between the top-ranked and ninth-ranked teams stays as tight as it is and recidivist individuals pay a real price for failures in discipline, the lesson for Wallabies fans is to keep the faith.
I’ve relearned the value of Willie le Roux as a space organizer, coach on the pitch, try-creator, passer of many styles and competitive driver.
I’ve learned the Springboks pack is still the hardest in world rugby. France is close, but not yet as hard. I’ve learned there is depth in all positions except No. 10.
I’ve noticed how much Lukhanyo Am is missed in the red zone.
Los Pumas fail to maintain concentration and energy after facing a Tier 1 team again and Michael Cheika refuses to rotate some players from one week to the next.
The most important issue lies in Nos. 8, 9, and 10.
It is difficult to understand why Pablo Matera is playing in a position not natural for him while a player like Facundo Isa, a natural No. 8, starts only from the bench later in the game in the blind side.
The problem at No. 9 lies in the strategy chosen to play. Gonzalo Bertranou does not have a reliable kick to either the sideline or the box. He is also a bit slow with his pass. There are not many solutions to this position since the alternative, Tomas Cubelli, has been injured for quite some time. His issue of playing in a team has not been solved, and if he does not achieve that, it would not make much sense to take him to a World Cup.
The alternative today is Lautaro Bazan Velez with extensive experience in rugby sevens but almost zero in 15s.
The flyhalf issue is not something new; it comes from the time of Mario Ledesma, who decided to experiment with Santiago Carreras in that position. The very talented player left his natural position as fullback or wing to participate in this experiment that continued into the Cheika era with less than satisfactory results.
What will become of the life of Domingo Miotti, Tomás Albornoz or the experienced Benjamín Urdapilleta, who cannot find playing minutes with Los Pumas? At this point it is preferable to have a player who is not so talented but who does not make so many mistakes in decision-making or execution. Are Cheika and co. thinking of taking Nicolás Sánchez to the World Cup?
It would be a very risky bet considering the physical fragility that the player has been outlining in a string of injuries.
The truth is that these experiments are not giving results and perhaps the players should be played in their natural positions where they play every weekend in the most important leagues in Europe. Los Pumas players do not have much time together to train that many options. For players playing in very different systems, oiling the basics becomes even more difficult.
It seems that Argentina pretends to play the way they did in the Rugby World Cup in 2007, but a word of advice to Felipe Contepomi and Juan Martín Fernandez Lobbe: These Pumas do not have players on the likes of Agustín Pichot and Juan Martín Hernández driving the team.
Nick Frost is an obvious Wallabies standout on this tour, and I’ve been impressed with Jed Holloway’s big improvements around work rate as this series of Tests has gone on. I absolutely endorse what you’re about to read from Geoff for this question too.
But I’m going to throw up Michael Hooper as the surprise standout, and it might raise a few eyebrows, but just run with me here.
I’m sure I wasn’t alone in worrying about him being thrown straight into starting his first Test back in the squad, and with no rugby under his belt since he left Argentina. There were plenty of comments and suggestions around here thinking a bench return was the best option for the Scotland Test – if indeed he was ready to play at all – and even more when he was named to start.
But he was one of the Wallabies’ best that night, has been most nights since and has just got better every week.
He was absolutely magnificent last weekend in Dublin, and I think we rugby writers and Wallabies fans alike have maybe become so used to Hooper standing out that we were probably guilty of underselling him last weekend.
To have made the tough call to leave the national squad was one thing, but the way Hooper has come back has been even more impressive.
Which makes his being ruled out of the Wales game earlier this week all the more disappointing.
Certainly players in the older brigade, Aaron Smith in particular, have stood out. They’ve shown their class and worth to the side still. It’s ever so important to have that experience firing and in form.
Tyrel Lomax continues to impress at tighthead. His transformation has been quite stunning.
But I would probably suggest Jordie Barrett overall has impressed me the most. While I have wanted to see him at No. 12 for some time, I thought it was a mistake to move him there at this level and would have preferred a full season in Super Rugby before attempting the transition to Test level.
But he has taken to it like a duck to water, looking assured with and without the ball. He will only get better the more games he has, and that is a big plus in what has been a difficult position recently for the All Blacks.
The surprise for the All Blacks was the emergence of Mark Telea from nowhere to first-choice right wing. It’s not unusual for a new Test winger to make a splash on arrival; the harder job is to kick on and take things to a new level without the element of surprise. But these are promising early signs.
It’s a similar story for the Wallabies, with a winger stepping up as the big surprise packet. This time a year ago Mark Nawaqanitawase was light years away from Wallabies selection, seemingly having gone backwards with the Waratahs in the 2021 season.
What’s apparent today is that his apparent timidness and drop in pace were injury-related, and now, restored to full fitness and with confidence levels rising, we are seeing the real footballer emerge.
Credit also to the Waratahs program under Darren Coleman and to the Wallabies A program, which has provided a stepping stone for players like Nawaqanitawase to transition into Test rugby.
Kurt-Lee Arendse has been brilliant.
He is strong in the air against bigger men, fast to the gap, clever with the boot and bravely technical in the tackle.
The props Eduardo Bello and Thomas Gallo have been a pleasant surprise in positions where Los Pumas have been suffering for quite some time. They looked very solid in the scrum and in defence.
Another player I liked despite not playing for a long time was hooker Ignacio Ruiz. At first it caught my attention that Santiago Socino was not selected for that position due to his great moment in Gloucester, but Ruiz more than justified his inclusion.
Over to you
What have you learned about your team this series?
And who’s been your surprise player on tour this autumn nations series?