Five weeks ago, when Blair Kinghorn hoofed a ball high into the frosty Edinburgh air, five consecutive Tests in five different countries for Dave Rennie’s Wallabies seemed like a good idea. His team had blown hot and cold during the Rugby Championship and had shown glimpses of their potential in a 2-1 series loss to England. This end of year tour would complete the Six Nations set to go along with their regular bouts with the southern hemisphere giants. Less than a year out from the World Cup, all stones would be turned.
Now, the best thing we can say about this European adventure is that it’s over. Not every member of the squad who jetted across the world more than a month ago reached the finish line. The Wallabies’ injury list is now up to 40. Mid-tour casualties include Nic White, Rob Valetini, Andrew Kellaway, Hunter Paisami, Bernard Foley, Dave Porcecki and Michael Hooper. Add to the mix Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi, Scott Sio and Tom Banks. We could go on.
Rennie had 25 fit players heading into this match against Wales. It was a good thing he only had to select 23 of them for an international fixture that fell outside of World Rugby’s Test window. From the moment Adam Beard spilled the kick-off, this felt like an event lacking in context. It was a game neither team needed but one that neither could afford to lose. In the end, the Wallabies triumphed at the death, claiming a 39-34 win on a torn-up pitch that looked like it could also do with a break from rugby.
So Rennie has his win. Two from five is perhaps below par given he lost to Italy, but commendable performances against the two best teams in the world – Ireland and France – means he leaves this hemisphere with some credit in the bank.
But the question must be asked: What exactly was the point of this Wales Test? The answer is obvious and rather depressing. Elite rugby is a business and the income generated from the spectacle is not impacted by the quality of the product. All stakeholders, from the broadcasters to the sponsors to the boards, will get their pound of flesh. But in an age in which player welfare has never been taken more seriously, it was difficult watching the men in gold charge into the maw of another gruelling and meaningless collision.
At least make their sacrifice worth something. At least create a sense of occasion. At least give them a reason to risk their bodies and their brains for their country and their sport. These 80 minutes in Cardiff might have existed in an alternate dimension, one where chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) doesn’t exist and bone-healing serums are available at every corner store.
There were some positives. Admittedly, it was actually quite a bit of fun.
Masochistic, traumatic, meaningless fun. Australia were 34-13 behind with less than half an hour to go. Then the breathtaking Mark Nawaqanitawase scored two eye-catching tries – one by wriggling through a half-gap in the corner, the other by running a superb line from deep to scythe through the midfield against the grain – and the Wallabies driving maul earned a penalty try with only six minutes on the clock. That saw Wales reduced to 13 men, just like Australia in the first half. Wales couldn’t score with their man advantage. Could Australia complete the comeback? Indeed they would. Nawaqanitawase’s burst down the left created the space.
The ball was shovelled down the line towards the right before the replacement hooker Lachlan Lonergan pounced on a loose ball and cantered through for the matchwinning score. A Wales maul after the final hooter was defended and meaty arms in tight-fitting golden jumpers raised clenched fists skyward.
Here’s another question: What did we learn? We already knew that the Wallabies, on their day, can beat anyone in the world. We already knew that their attack is largely built around vibes and energetic gallops from individuals bursting with talent. We already knew the set-piece is inconstant, that the scrum is a worry and that the tight exchanges heavily rely on the work of Hooper and Valetini.
Maybe the lesson is that Australia’s depth isn’t so thin. Seven of the starters have yet to earn their 10th Test cap. Ben Donaldson, who missed the decisive kick against Italy on his debut, was solid at No 10 without too much front-foot ball. Fraser McReight carried more than any other Australian forward and Tate McDermott’s introduction off the bench injected some much-needed fizz at a crucial stage in the game.
More than any of that, though, is the lesson that this Australia team can’t be written off. They’ll be dark horses at the World Cup next year, but they’re in the race. That is, if they can get enough of their injured players off the treatment table and back in gold.