With the June internationals now done and dusted, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Next up, Australia.
A 3-0 series defeat at home can’t be glossed over, especially when dished out by bitter rivals England, but for Australia it’s not all doom and gloom.
June’s run of three defeats have seen Australia slide down to fourth in the world and Michael Cheika’s honeymoon in the Wallabies hotseat come to an immediate end.
The record books looking back on this series will show that Australia were well beaten, and rightly so, but this was far from a humbling, even if the weaknesses in their high-tempo running attack were exposed by Eddie Jones and England’s exceptionally hard-working back row.
Regarding that tactic, it undoubtedly works better with Matt Toomua shredding out miss passes and offering Australia another set of hands in midfield to work with Bernard Foley.
Selecting that tandem, or even better Foley and his Waratahs team-mate Kurtley Beale, gives the Wallabies more wide runners to attack the outside channels, giving the back three spearheaded by Israel Folau more space to unlock defences.
At the same time, constantly playing that way in Test rugby is dangerous. Back in the second Test in Melbourne as England racked up those enormous tackle counts was the time that the Wallabies needed to not only kick their points, but to also control the game better through their tactical kicking and by shoring up those areas of ill-discipline that were hurting them.
There’s a need for balance, to play a bit smarter, although expect Cheika to stick to his guns. “I’ll always get back up and as a team we’ll come back and try and play that style of footy,” were his words in the aftermath of the third Test.
Perhaps if Australia were a conservative unimaginative outfit we’d be more critical, but it’s hard to knock their level of enterprise. When the handling errors and turnovers start building up though is when a Plan B has to be called upon.
There are reasons to be positive. Michael Hooper had a fine series. Sean McMahon’s power in Sydney showed just how much he can offer in big Test matches. Whilst the goalkicking of Foley looked flimsy compared to Owen Farrell, he still knows how to get the best out of Australia’s attack.
Samu Kerevi won’t be scarred from his opening run-outs in Test rugby, nor Rory Arnold, while Dane Haylett-Petty was up there with Faf de Klerk as the international find of the month – proof that good form really can translate up a level from Super Rugby to Test rugby.
Not forgetting the return of some key veterans. Matt Giteau, Will Genia, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Drew Mitchell will all be available for the Rugby Championship as they return from France, all adding valuable experience. Kane Douglas and Rob Simmons, the lineout pairing from the Rugby World Cup Final, should return to full fitness in time for the August start date.
The Wallabies will therefore be wiser, but also fitter. One telling comment from Cheika in the Sydney post-mortem was that his side weren’t fit enough to play the style he’s implemented.
“If we want to play this much footy, we’ve got to be a little fitter.” That suggests a gruelling few weeks for those selected in the build-up to the tournament. Or a tactical overhaul, and that seems unlikely.
Starting the year with three successive home losses for the first time since 1971 is a tough old blow on the nose for Cheika and his side.
They are far better placed however to pose a threat to New Zealand in the Rugby Championship than either South Africa or Argentina, although even then, the gap between the Wallabies and All Blacks feels wide indeed.
Read the rest of our State of the Nation pieces following the June Tests right here.