It’s been a rough season for the Wallabies, but given the high standards they set for themselves year after year, it has to be viewed as serious disappointment. A decent autumn (outside of an initial loss at Twickenham) does not do much to soothe the agony of a lost Lions series, a dismal Rugby Championship campaign, and a trend of Australian players appearing in newspapers for the all the wrong reasons.
Their sole victory against the Lions is a candidate, but that win had as much to do with the Lions being poor, as it did Australia being good, and their two victories in the Rugby Championship came against very lacklustre Argentina sides. As such, the only suitable choice is their post-England form in the autumn internationals.
They were wasteful against England, and paid the price for it, but they looked good value for their wins against Italy, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but only when you take into consideration how poorly they had been playing previously. Though they thoroughly outplayed Ireland, who just didn’t show up on the day, their biggest success has to be their 30-26 victory against Wales at the Millennium Stadium. Both teams played the game at a high level for 80 minutes, but ultimately the best side on the day won, and on this occasion, that was Australia.
Everything would be a valid answer, but if you had to pick a single element, the lost Lions tour surely tops the list. Losing home and away, no pun intended, to South Africa and New Zealand, although painful to Australian pride, is not too unexpected given the relative strengths of their squads, but losing to a Lions squad that was anything but vintage, will have hurt even more. The Lions’ lineout was a shambles at times, the back row was constantly in flux, and injuries surely decimated Warren Gatland’s preferred first XV, and yet still Australia found a way to lose the series. The Wallabies, sans Quade Cooper, looked directionless at times, and apart from the electric Israel Folau, were almost all below-par this summer.
Player of the Year
I’ve opted for Quade Cooper, but those who think this should unquestionably go to Folau, do not despair, he does not go unrewarded. Cooper has had a fairly controversial career thus far, and when further incidents of ill-discipline in the Australian camp emerged this year, it was a huge relief to not hear Cooper’s name attached to them. Beyond putting his off-the-field issues behind him, Cooper has also played some sumptuous rugby since returning to the Wallaby fold, particularly in Australia’s European tour this autumn. If Cooper can continue to show his reliability, as well as undeniable ability, then Australia can rest assured that they have one of the most talented players in world rugby as their incumbent fly-half.
Emerging Player of the Year
Israel Folau has become such a star in his short time in Union, that it seems inconceivable that he is considered an ‘emerging player’, but let’s not forget, the fullback only made his international debut this year. Furthermore, at just 24, and still learning the intricacies of this code, Folau stands to be an even better player in 2014. It’s hard to imagine him being much more threatening offensively, but his increased experience in rugby union will improve him defensively, and there’s no reason why he can’t go on to become one of the very best players in the world (if you don’t already class him as one). Honourable mentions must go to Christian Leali’ifano and Tevita Kuridrani, who also made their debuts for the Wallabies in 2013, and although they definitely both impressed, neither stole the headlines like Folau.
What to expect in 2014
Australia may have finished their season on a high, beating a host of Northern Hemisphere sides, but there is no doubt that Head Coach Ewen McKenzie has his work cut out for him. Discipline remains as much of an issue for the Wallabies as their on-field performances, and McKenzie’s most important decisions revolve around selecting a team that can not only perform on the field, but that he can also trust off of it.
In the backs, Australia have plenty of playmakers at their disposal in the form of messrs Cooper, Folau, and Leali’ifano, but question marks abound in the pack, particularly in the tight five. The return of David Pocock from injury will provide McKenzie with a welcome selection dilemma, and could even lead to a dynamic pairing with Michael Hooper on the flanks. Australia are certainly a team on the rise, but McKenzie needs to weed out the causes of ill-discipline in his squad, and potentially revitalise his tight five, if he wants to ensure his side continue on their upward curve.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images