2020 will go down as one of the strangest in Wallabies history, and not just because of COVID-19.
Half the side’s Tests ended in draws. A third of them featured red cards. Three different starting flyhalves were used in six matches. There was a new coach. And the side, while only winning a single, lone game, did show distinct signs of promise.
So let’s try to make sense of the side’s efforts in 2020.
Defence was probably the area of the Wallabies’ play with the most significant improvement from the year before.
The merry-go-round which saw backline players shifting all around the park without the ball under Michael Cheika was gone – albeit with some notable, ugly exceptions in Sydney against the All Blacks which ended all too predictably.
Indeed, that seemed to be a key tenet of Rennie’s selections: picking playmakers who can defend in the line. James O’Connor did it quite well, Reece Hodge even more so. Similarly, there was an emphasis on hard-hitting centre pairings.
Look at the raw numbers, and that resulted in the Wallabies’ best year from a defensive standpoint since 2015.
Yes, the improvement in points conceded per game was marginal, but it’s worth keeping in mind the opposition this year: four of the six Tests were against the lethal All Blacks, whereas in 2019 there were just two such clashes. Last season also featured matches against the likes of Samoa, Georgia and Uruguay. Had Rennie’s side faced a similar calibre of opposition in 2020, that number would have been in the teens.
The real issue with defence was a fairly basic one: inaccuracy in the tackle. That was evident in Auckland, when after a trademark surge early in the second half by New Zealand, the Wallabies walked off Eden Park having missed a quarter of their attempts and conceded 25 clean breaks. There was a similar display of tackling apathy during Argentina’s lone try last weekend, while the Sydney loss was punctuated by a series of bad defensive reads.
Still, 2014 was the last time Australia held the All Blacks to fewer than the 16 points they managed in Wellington, and Argentina never really looked like scoring against the men in gold aside from Bautista Delguy’s breakaway effort on Saturday night.
There’s still ample room for further improvement, but this was still the best Wallabies defence we’ve seen for a while – not that that’s saying a great deal.
If the defence improved, then the attack went in entirely the wrong direction. The Wallabies averaged fewer than 14 points per game in 2020. Fourteen!
Take that on face value, and it’s a fairly pathetic effort. As always, though, there’s a bit more to it than an arbitrary number.
In a year full of asterisks, the biggest one in regards to the Wallabies sits next to their attack, due to the injuries to James O’Connor and Matt To’omua.
To’omua managed less than three halves of Test rugby, going down shortly before the break in Bledisloe 2 with a groin/adductor injury. O’Connor managed to play out that match, but a knee complaint kept him out for the subsequent three matches, and he didn’t look quite back to his usual self against Argentina on Saturday.
With those two on the field, the Wallabies went try-for-try with the All Blacks. After To’omua went off, they were outscored 88-29, twelve tries to three, in two-and-a-half Tests (the centre’s absence can also explain the side’s aforementioned defensive lapses, too).
Playing at 12, To’omua was doing much of the organising in attack, and he and O’Connor swapped in and out of first receiver regardless of the numbers on their backs.
Without them, the Wallabies switched to running the bulk of their attack off nine. It made plenty of sense, particularly for the two matches when Reece Hodge and Hunter Paisami, neither of whom are natural playmakers, were the starting 10-12 combination. But it was really a stop-gap solution necessitated by injury to the side’s two main attacking fulcrums.
Truth told, it was always going to be a tricky year in attack for the Wallabies. The change of coach and assistants meant a new attacking system would be implemented, but Rennie and his new attack coach, Scott Wisemantel, were hamstrung by the lack of proper preparation caused by the pandemic.
There was something of a departure from the run-at-all-costs approach of the Cheika era, with more of an emphasis on tactical kicking under Rennie. That in itself is a positive, but there were also occasions when it backfired with aimless, senseless cases of putting boot to ball. Again, the Eden Park loss featured plenty of such examples, and Jordan Petaia also strayed from his natural running game a few times against Argentina with some poor kicks.
The most maddening aspect of the Wallabies attack, though, was the side’s inability to convert good field position into scoreboard pressure. They had more ball in 2020 than either of their Tri Nations opponents, and more of it in the right areas of the park.
However, too often ball was turned over when Australia were deep in attack, either through handling errors or inaccuracy at the breakdown. Again, had To’omua and O’Connor – or even just one of them – been fit for the entire season, the side would have been far more efficient, but instead they were profligate.
Given their inability to find the tryline, it was puzzling how frequently the Wallabies opted to go for touch when given the opportunity to take the three, particularly against Los Pumas (and especially so given the Bledisloe 4 win came on the back of Reece Hodge’s boot, when Australia scored fewer tries but still won).
Had they been more willing to build scoreboard pressure in threes instead of non-existent sevens, it would have led to more opportunities as their opponents were forced into chasing the game, and also avoided the need for Hodge to take difficult shots at goal late on to try to snatch a win. Make no mistake, the draws against Argentina didn’t come because the Rebel missed a long-range attempt in the dying minutes in both, they came because far more kickable opportunities earlier on were ignored.
As such, one can only hope Michael Hooper has been kept back after class, Bart Simpson-style:
All in all, a bad year in attack, albeit with some very mitigating circumstances.
It was a mixed year on the set-piece front.
The scrum was steady, with only three of 33 own feeds going the opposition’s way, and two of those losses came in the first Test of the year. With Taniela Tupou on the field, Australia enjoyed periods of dominance when the forwards packed down, and the scrum was a key factor in the Bledisloe 4 win in Brisbane.
The Wallabies’ lineout fortunes fluctuated wildly throughout the six matches. It was a real issue in the season opener in Wellington, particularly in the first half when Folau Fainga’a had a hard time hitting his jumpers.
It improved with Brandon Paenga-Amosa’s introduction in Bledisloe 2, and ended being reliable enough for the rest of the year – aside from when Guido Petti did what Guido Petti does and caused havoc in Newcastle. It was no coincidence that, with the classy lock missing the second encounter between Argentina and Australia, the Wallabies’ lineout success rate jumped from 82 per cent to 95.
Much like the rest of the Wallabies’ play, it has room for further improvement, and there are questions over how it will fare with Rob Simmons heading overseas. The much-maligned lock was strong this year, particularly once put in the starting XV, and has always been an excellent lineout caller.
One set-piece area which struggled was the maul, or, to be specific, maul defence. The All Blacks exploited it ruthlessly in their big Bledisloe 3 win, using the drive as an effective attacking platform in just about every area of the field. Argentina found out it could be effective inside their own 22, too, trundling the ball a long way up in the maul on Saturday in the lead-up to Delguy’s try.
That will need attention in 2021, but the overall set-piece picture this year wasn’t too bad.
Reasons for optimism
One of the more pleasing aspects of the Wallabies’ play this year was the side’s character. In all four games against New Zealand they trailed at some stage, and in three of them they either bounced back into the lead (Games 1 and 4) or responded quickly to an opposition try with one of their own (Game 2).
Bledisloe 3 was obviously a disappointing outlier on that front, but even then they burst out from halftime with an early try after a woeful opening stanza. And on Saturday against Argentina, they responded strongly to Lukhan Salakaia-Loto’s red card to level the scores.
“Staying competitive” is admittedly an awfully low bar to jump over, but given how frequently Australia have been blown out in years prior (off the top of my head there were three games last year they fell away badly in), it’s a notable improvement.
There were also promising individual performances over the six matches. Harry Wilson didn’t look like a Test rookie in his first year of international rugby, and is going to earn a lot of Wallabies caps by the time he retires. Ditto for Angus Bell.
Matt Philip also started each match and looked at home in the gold jumper, and Ned Hanigan played the best footy of his Test career.
The biggest surprise came in the form of Hunter Paisami. Ask any Australian rugby fan at the start of the year and few if any would have had the Reds midfielder in their Wallabies squad. He ended up playing in every Test and, even though he hadn’t played at inside centre for Queensland, looks to have the tools to develop into an accomplished, hard-running 12.
Tom Wright also had some strong outings in his debut Test season, and Filipo Daugunu showed in his first Wallabies appearance he can be an outstanding winger – if he can cut out the ill-discipline which marred his subsequent performances.
What about the youngsters?
In a year when there was so much talk about the next generation of Wallabies, it was surprising to see so few of those highly-touted youngsters given much of a run.
Such a task was made harder first by the Springboks’ withdrawal from the Rugby Championship, then by Argentina being considerably more competitive than expected, but even so, there were chances to blood youngsters which went unused.
Trevor Hosea is the most obvious example here: with so few locks to choose from, Rennie would have been well within his rights to throw a debut to the Melbourne Rebel. Instead, Philip, Simmons and Salakaia-Loto between them took up just about every available second-row minute for the year.
Noah Lolesio also went underused. For all Rennie’s talk of “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough”, the Brumbies flyhalf made just two appearances, and lingered on the bench as an unused substitute twice. Sure, his lone start was a torrid introduction to Test rugby, but he helped close out Bledisloe 4 with a nice cameo off the bench. Why not hand him a similar role against Argentina, or even a start against Los Pumas?
It’d be foolish to argue with Rennie’s focus on making his charges earn the right to play, but his tendency to favour experience over youth in borderline selection calls seems to be at odds with the claim that his is a four-year campaign, not a one- or two-season one.
If this really is a four-year project, wouldn’t it have made sense to throw more minutes to players who will be in their prime in four years? Had the side won more frequently, there would have been a valid counterargument about the value of winning now, but three draws and two losses from six Tests negates that.
Hosea, Lolesio, Fraser McReight, Tate McDermott and Will Harrison all have the makings of Test-quality starters, and some may end up being genuine world-class players. They’re not going to develop properly from the bench or outside the matchday squad though.
On that topic, there are few areas where we’re closer to knowing the Wallabies’ best XV than we were at the start of the year. Wilson has locked away number eight, and Philip will have first dibs on a second-row spot, but other than that the status quo in each position hasn’t changed much.
Paisami could quite reasonably argue he deserves first crack at inside centre, but the side was better with To’omua playing there. O’Connor and Michael Hooper are the best options at flyhalf and openside right now, but there’s no guarantee that’ll still be the case in two or three years.
Then there are some positions which could go a number of different ways. Fullback is still a long way from being settled, with all of Tom Banks, Dane Haylett-Petty and Hodge starting there but none nailing it down.
Blindside flanker is even more of a headache. The forward pack needs a defensive enforcer, which could give Lachie Swinton the edge, but he barely lasted a half-hour in Test rugby before being red-carded. For all their qualities in other areas, neither Hanigan nor Liam Wright quite bring the same physical impact.
Rob Valetini was strong when he came off the bench against Argentina, and will surely come into contention for a starting role next year.
Ultimately, with a schedule of just six Tests following an unusually short preparation and disjointed domestic season, expecting Rennie to already know his best XV is unfair. He’s given some players a good introduction to international rugby, and in an unforgiving, All Blacks-dominated schedule.
Assuming next 2021 has a much greater degree of normality than this season – and that’s no guarantee – there’ll be more opportunities to give generation-next a proper run. The building blocks have started to be laid. This time next year, they should just about all be in place, and we should have far fewer questions about what the Wallabies’ best XV is.