After a weekend in which the positions of Test coaches were simultaneously shaken and shored up, Dave Rennie has three weeks before the Wallabies face a Pumas team on the up.
It will be a stern test for Rennie’s men, with his predecessor Michael Cheika most effective in the early years with his teams.
The Pumas fought back from a 15-point deficit to seal a 34-31 win against Scotland with a try at the death on Sunday, claiming a 2-1 series win. You sense Rennie - not to mention Wallabies fans - would have killed for Australia to have the same finishing class as Argentina.
The result will have further straightened the spines of Cheika’s players, who will be licking their lips for a match-up at home with their Rugby Championship cousins after a taxing two years playing away.
The Wallabies, conversely, will be wondering why they’re creating opportunities to score but failing to nail them.
Unlike All Blacks coach Ian Foster, who appears to be on shaky ground after presiding over New Zealand’s first series defeat at home since 1994, Rennie is not under immediate pressure.
But a 39 per cent win rate after one win from the past six Tests is not good. Rugby Australia has given the Wallabies program all available resources to make sure it succeeds, including allowing the team to set up camp in Queensland and fly in and out late from Test cities.
This carried a cost to the business in marketing and ticket sales, which would have been written off had England been sent packing, 2-1 losers, this month. They weren’t, so the pressure should be on.
The Wallabies were hampered by an unusually high number of injuries in key positions. They took their fourth-choice fullback, second-choice second-row pairing, and second-choice five-eighth into the decider, while prop James Slipper, who put in 80-minute performances between both sides of the scrum, did more than anyone could ask of one human over the series.
Although Rennie studiously avoids bringing up the side’s extraordinary injury toll this series, it is a factor that cannot be overlooked. Lolesio stepped up in the No.10 jersey and will continue to grow this season, but you would be forgiven for wondering what magic Quade Cooper might have conjured to get behind the defensive line at the SCG on Saturday.
The good news is that Cooper will be fit an available for the trip to Argentina, as well as fullback Jordan Petaia, and second-rower Darcy Swain. Rennie added that he hoped loosehead prop Scott Sio would also be ready to return.
Still out are Andrew Kellaway, Izaia Perese, Tom Banks, Cadeyrn Neville and Izack Rodda. Inside centre Samu Kerevi is expected to join the Australian sevens side in Birmingham for the Commonwealth Games, and there is a question mark over Angus Bell, who has a toe injury.
Second-rower Rory Arnold, back from France and yet to take up his Japanese deal, is a possibility, but it is understood he was factored in for the South Africa and New Zealand legs, not Argentina.
The most worrying aspect of Saturday’s loss to England was that by the time five-eighth Marcus Smith scored in the 55th minute, taking England’s lead out to 19-10, Australia’s performances in the first two Tests suggested there was no credible way back.
The hunch was borne out. Rennie’s bench re-energised Australia’s attack, Pete Samu, Bell and Tate McDermott all adding pace and punch, but the Wallabies could not find England’s jugular.
They narrowed a 21-10 margin to a tantalising four points after replacement hooker Folau Fainga’a scored in the 66th minute.
But with accuracy at the lowest point it was across the series, not even 18 phases on attack inside England’s half could break down the wall of white jerseys.
It was frustrating in the extreme, for Rennie too. There are good patches of Australia’s game, but not enough connective tissue to knit together a convincing win.
England weren’t an excellent team. They might be on their way - Eddie Jones’s cosy homecoming week in Sydney has surely topped up his reserves for the final push to next year’s World Cup - but these were two teams with growing pains.
It is hard to see the Wallabies beating Ireland or France in their current state, while South Africa and even New Zealand, despite their wobbles, would also punish Australian mistakes. If the Wallabies can’t sharpen their game, it will be a very long Rugby Championship.
Meanwhile, the All Blacks’ series loss triggered a wave of collective self-loathing across the ditch, with New Zealand Rugby branding it “not acceptable”.
“Congratulations to the Irish team for their well-deserved win last night but clearly the performance across the series for the All Blacks was not acceptable as we know they have reflected,” NZR boss Mark Robinson said.
“We all know there is a huge amount of work to do. Our focus now is to work with [coach Ian Foster] and his team to understand thoroughly in advance of the Rugby Championship what is needed to improve performance and where to from here.
“We will begin this work immediately.”
Rennie’s work also starts now.
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