State of the Nation: Wallabies moving in the right direction despite wretched luck with injuries

David Skippers
Wallabies players during anthem v Wales 2022 - PA.jpg

Now that the 2022 international season has been wrapped up, we delve into the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Next up, Australia.

After another underwhelming Rugby Championship campaign – in which they finished in third position from the four participating countries in the competition – the Wallabies were determined to show improvement on their five-Test end-of-year tour to Europe.

Despite losing the services of players like Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi, Matt Philip, Izaia Perese, Angus Bell and Rob Leota to long-term injuries, head coach Dave Rennie still named an exciting 36-man squad for their Tests against Scotland, France, Italy, Ireland and Wales, with a good mix of experience and youth included.

The Wallabies also received a shot in the arm when veteran back-row and former skipper Michael Hooper was included in the group, after taking a mental health break on the eve of the Rugby Championship.

In the end, Australia only managed to win two of their five Tests – against Scotland and Wales – but apart from the Test against Italy, which they were expected to win, they gave a good account of themselves in all of the games and Rennie would have gained more positives than negatives from the tour.

Tough tour

If truth be told, Australia came into this tour with some trepidation as they had really underperformed in 2022. Apart from their poor form in the Rugby Championship, where they only won two out of six matches, they had also suffered a 2-1 series defeat to England in July.

Most of that trepidation stemmed from the fact that they had to face the world’s top ranked team Ireland in Dublin and France, who are ranked second in the world.

They opened their campaign rather fortuitously when Scotland fly-half Blair Kinghorn failed to slot a match-winning penalty in that game’s dying moments, which meant Australia started the tour on a positive note with a 16-15 triumph at Murrayfield.

That gave them some confidence as they went into their next clash, in Paris against France – a team they had not faced since 2016 – and it showed as the Wallabies took the fight to their more fancied hosts and were on course for an unlikely victory until Damian Penaud broke their hearts with a try in that game’s dying moments to secure a 30-29 win for France.

Rennie rang the changes for the next encounter, in Florence against Italy, who were viewed as the weakest opposition on the tour, with Waratahs backline duo Mark Nawaqantiawase and Ben Donaldson making their Test debuts. There were 11 alterations in all, with most of the first choice players rested, but that tactic backfired as the Wallabies suffered a 28-27 defeat with Donaldson failing to convert a Cadeyrn Neville try at the death which would’ve sealed a Wallabies win.

That was Australia’s first-ever defeat to the Azzurri but despite that setback, they delivered a much-improved performance in a dour clash against Ireland, who eventually sealed a narrow 13-10 triumph in Dublin.

That meant that the Wallabies went into their final match of the year – against Wales – in a desperate mood and they were under the pump for long periods, with their hosts racing into a 34-13 lead midway into the second half, before the Wallabies launched a superb fightback to clinch a 39-24 triumph.

That victory meant the Wallabies won just five out of 14 matches in 2022, which is a 35.7 winning per cent for the year, but despite losing more matches than what they’ve won, the way they fought back in that last fixture will boost morale in their ranks, especially with the 2023 Rugby World Cup looming on the horizon.

More injury woes

Australia started their tour without the services of several key players like Cooper, Kerevi, Philip and Perese, who were all sidelined through injury and that situation worsened as their tour progressed.

2022 was an annus horribilis on the injury front for Australia as they struggled throughout the year with players being crocked and according to a Sydney Morning Herald report, Rugby Australia chief executive Andy Marinos revealed an injury toll of over 40 separate incidents throughout the year will be reviewed now that the season is over.

The injury nightmare continued during the Autumn Nations Series with Tom Banks, who had already broken an arm earlier in the year, leaving the tour with an ankle injury, while Allan Alaalatoa suffered from concussion after the Scotland match.

The situation worsened in the following game when Lalakai Foketi was sidelined for the rest of the Autumn Nations Series Tests after sustaining a shin injury against France, but nothing prepared them for what was to come in their next Test against Ireland.

The clash with the men from the Emerald Isle proved to be an attritional affair as the Wallabies lost the services of former captain Hooper, Andrew Kellaway, Hunter Paisami, Dave Porecki, Taniela Tupou, Rob Valetini and Nic White in that encounter.

Such a high injury count left Rennie scrambling for players ahead of the final Test with Wales and he only had 25 players to select his 23-man matchday squad from for that Test.

The excessive injuries – during the Autumn Nations Series campaign and for the year – certainly played a role in Australia’s poor run of results and it will be interesting to see what comes from the review into the matter ahead of a busy season in 2023.

Head coach in the firing line

The Wallabies’ record of winning just five out 14 Tests in 2022 is a poor return in anybody’s book and with a win rate at just 35.7 per cent for the year and at 38 per cent from 34 Tests since taking over the coaching reins after the 2019 World Cup, there have been questions raised about Rennie’s position.

However, despite losing more matches than they have won, the Wallabies were competitive in all of their matches on their end-of-year tour and although they could not pull off wins – against all odds – when facing France and Ireland, they exceeded pre-match expectations in those fixtures and came agonisingly close to upsetting the apple cart on both occasions.

The Wallabies’ high injury toll on their tour must also be taken into consideration and running sides like France and Ireland close, and clinching a brilliant come-from-behind win in their last match against Wales helped them finish the year in sixth position in the World Rugby rankings – after they started their tour languishing in ninth spot.

Rennie should also be commended for unearthing new Test stars like Nawaqanitawase and Jock Campbell, who impressed after making their international debuts.

READ MORE: Wallabies: Dave Rennie’s men ‘could upset a few people’ at the Rugby World Cup