With the November Tests now done and dusted, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Last up, Australia.
On the face of their record alone this has been an oddly disappointing year for the Wallabies, rounding off 2016 withf six wins from 15 Tests, which is a far cry from the optimism that surrounded Michael Cheika’s side when they reached the Rugby World Cup final a year before.
A 40 percent record really should be unacceptable, although it reads a little prettier once four games with England and three with New Zealand, the top two sides in the world are factored in. Losing to South Africa’s “feed Morné” tactics however was a bum note.
No other team played five Tests in November, with the decision to do so when Australia were running out of steam at Twickenham looked far from worth it.
Consider how the year started, with five straight defeats, to where the Wallabies stood after six wins from eight games after putting away France, and this year has been some rollercoaster.
New caps have been handed out at speed and even though nine starters returned to Twickenham from the side that faced the All Blacks in last year’s final this has been the year of the Australian newcomer, with foreign currency still holding sway when it comes to where Australia’s best players choose to ply their trade. Getting Will Genia back home is a must after his good form.
Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge, Sefa Naivalu and Lopeti Timani are now all established Wallabies having started the year way off the radar – interestingly, three of that quarter ply their trade with the Rebels. Adam Coleman’s arrival at lock should not be forgotten either. Andrew Ready, still uncapped, is living up to his name too.
Cheika’s message after defeat at Twickenham was far from the barbs traded in the run-up.
Instead he laid a coherent explanation of the reasoning for trying so many players in 2016, and what it all means for the future. Playing an attractive style as well is both something the Wallabies need to do to succeed, and to increase interest back home.
“We had a massive turnover in our squad and as much as tonight was disappointing, we finished last year in the same dressing room after a loss so we’ve had two disappointing finishes to ’15 and ’16,” he said.
“We’ve improved a lot as a team and have given some young lads good experience. We’ll continue to grow our group so we have a good selection to choose from by 2018 and can narrow that down.
“Seeing the improvements, we are scoring tries that we wouldn’t have scored last year. There’s a different approach to coaching our players around the skill base and that’s going to take a bit of time to hammer home.
“We’ll work hard with provinces to coach that up. We’re making the investments that we should have made in 2008-2009, getting a clear idea of how everyone needs to play with a certain skill level if we want to play this style of game.
“Because you see what happens when you load up your attack and make one mistake, the other guys will kick the ball 40 metres down the field. That’s what can happen.
“You need to work hard to get it right and that’s how we and our supporters want us to play the game.”
Australia aren’t alone in wanting to replicate New Zealand’s national formula of every player and team singing from the same hymn sheet, except they seem far more likely to put it into action quicker than South Africa.
Cheika’s long-term vision is sound and the attacking masterclass served up in the opening November win over Wales is the blueprint, with Bernard Foley back at his creative best being good news for the Waratahs and Wallabies too.
Fighting from behind to win at Murrayfield showed plenty of character and considering the absentees against France, at full strength, that victory in Paris was another positive even if Camille Lopez nearly snatched it away with his late drop goal attempt.
The losses to Ireland and England will sting, mainly because in the first half in Dublin and second half at Twickenham the Wallabies paid for their own mistakes and lost control of the contest.
A more dominant 2017 and beyond will mean that the last few weeks and the year as a whole will be looked back on more favourably; a necessary rebuild paving the way for future success. At least, that’s the idea.