Dave Rennie embarked on this five-Test European tour with some key questions that needed answering. One, perhaps the most important one, concerned the depth of his squad. Winning would always be a key performance indicator, but bolstering a team capable of mixing it with the best at next year’s World Cup would always loom largest in the Wallabies coach’s in-tray.
They were second best for much of their match against Italy in Florence and rightly ended on the losing side. Debutant Ben Donaldson, who had been on the pitch for only five minutes, had the chance to change the result with the final kick of the game, but his conversion attempt following Cadeyrn Neville’s burrowing try after the hooter was pushed past the posts.
It was a just end. A win would have allowed Rennie to talk about getting the job done despite his team not being at their best. Instead he must face the fact that his Wallabies are far too over reliant on a handful of stars.
That, of course, is just one half of the story. Kieran Crowley’s young Italian side crackled with an intensity that belied their lowly ranking of 12th on World Rugby’s metrics. They married zeal with sharpness and provided fodder for fans who consume the sport through highlights alone.
Ange Capuozzo’s two tries will be worth revisiting more than once. His first, which came seven minutes after Pierre Bruno dotted down in the right corner, seemed to involve every Italian in Tuscany. A sublime move that was sparked by Montanna Ioane straightening from deep ended with a bamboozling dummy from the jet-heeled Capuozzo. His second score just after the hour mark was just as good and proved that his jaw-dropping run that broke Welsh hearts earlier in the year was no rare feat.
Were it not for an acrobatic finish from Tom Wright on 30 minutes, as well as a wayward kick from the otherwise excellent generalissimo Tommaso Allan, Australia would have been further adrift at the break. As it was they limped into the shed with the score reading 17-8 against them.
Any analysis of this contest must acknowledge the dozen changes that Rennie made from the previous week. Seven days ago the men in gold glittered against a blockbuster French outfit in Paris where they came agonisingly close to beating one of the giants of the game. Along with their scrappy victory over Scotland last month, as well as a memorable triumph over the South African Springboks in the Rugby Championship, it supplied enough evidence to suggest that this sleeping giant had finally brushed the crust from its eyes.
How would the second stringers fare? Would they be able to step up in a World Cup knockout game if called upon? Rennie would find out against a team Australia had beaten in each of their previous 18 encounters.
Will Skelton, all 135kg of him, started his first Test since 2015. He offered heft in the tight channels and around the ruck, bulking the second row and posing a unique challenge on either side of the ball. But an ordinarily mobile pack looked ponderous compared with the buzzing Italians who thrummed at a higher frequency.
Australia failed to control the breakdown. Italy’s skipper Michele Lamaro, 24-years-young, had much to do with this. As did Lorenzo Cannone who won two turnovers from No 8. But fingers will be pointed at an Aussie back row that lacked the penetrating runs of Rob Valetini and the dynamism of Michael Hooper.
As a consequence, Noah Lolesio was mostly gathering the ball on his heels rather than his toes. He might have a greater collection of tricks and flicks than Bernard Foley, but this relatively disjointed show underlines his position in the pecking order for the No 10 jersey. To be fair to him, his pass to Wright in the first half was inch perfect.
Darcy Swain’s return to the side – after serving a six-week suspension for a dangerous clean out of the All Black Quinn Tupaea – was a highlight. It was his intervention at an Italian lineout that led to possession changing hands and resulted in a try from replacement prop Tom Robinson to take the score to 25-20 with 13 minutes remaining.
But every glimmer of hope was doused by ineptitude somewhere else on the pitch. Their lineout was mostly a mess and they conceded 16 penalties. They might have got away with it had Donaldson signed off on his inaugural Test with a fairytale ending. It wasn’t to be.
That may prove to be a blessing for Australia and for Rennie who can at least look to rebuild with an honest appraisal of his side’s shortcomings.