Beaten 2-1 by England last month, the Wallabies open their Rugby Championship away to Argentina in Mendoza in front of what will no doubt be a hostile crowd.
The South Americans, too, are buoyant after a series victory over Scotland, the 2-1 triumph clinched in dramatic fashion after the final siren to give coach Michael Cheika a winning start in his latest fulltime role.
Australia, meanwhile, continue to be rocked by injury. After a wretched run with multiple soft tissue and concussion blows leading up to, and throughout the England series, the Wallabies have now also seen Samu Kerevi and Dave Porecki sidelined.
Still, the Wallabies will want to win at least one of their two Tests in Argentina with far sterner challenges against the Springboks, and then later the All Blacks, to come.
Here are some of the key talking points ahead of this weekend’s Test in Mendoza.
CAN QUADE PERFORM WITHOUT KEREVI ALONGSIDE HIM?
Quade Cooper’s sensational reincarnation at Test level was arguably the story of Australian rugby in 2021. After three years in the international wilderness, Cooper asked Wallabies coach Dave Rennie for a chance to train with the squad – and then later found himself back in the No. 10 jersey.
With Cooper at the helm, the Wallabies won five straight Tests, before the unfortunate Giteau Law debacle saw a breakdown in communication between all key parties and the veteran playmaker, alongside Kerevi and Sean McMahon, played no part in the U.K. leg of the spring tour as a result.
But with that resolved, Cooper and Kerevi were all set to go in the first Test against England in Perth. That was until injury struck Cooper in the warm-up, and he played no part in the series thereafter.
Jump forward a month and Cooper is fit, but Kerevi is now gone for the season after he tore his ACL while on sevens duty at the Commonwealth Games. While Kerevi was to play no part against the Pumas, he was due to return for the Tests against the Springboks.
And so Cooper must now prepare for an entire Rugby Championship without his chief ball-carrier running off his left and right hip.
“He’s trained really well,” Rennie said of Cooper after naming his team on Friday morning [AEST]. “His experience, the quality of his skill set is really evident when we train as well and the young fellas outside him have really enjoyed the week as well.
“We’ve got a clear plan of how we want to play and while Hunter [Paisami] and Lenny [Ikitau] are less experienced than someone like Samu, they’ve been around a while now and have played a fair bit of footy together. They’re no longer rookies and that’s the expectation of them. We expect them to deliver and they’re good players who have prepared well.”
While Cooper played a far more understated role in four straight victories over the Springboks and Pumas last year than he had done earlier in his career, there was evidence in the Wallabies’ win over Japan – which Kerevi wasn’t a part of – that he was at risk of slipping back into old habits.
When Cooper got into trouble during the Rugby Championship, he simply handed the ball to Kerevi and any potential problem was averted. Without such a dominant ball-carrier, the spinning, twisting, flick-passing Cooper was back in action in Asia.
Still, Rennie believes Cooper has the maturity to succeed and a handle on the game plan in place against the Pumas.
“That was the impressive thing about Quade last year, we had a plan going into the game and he implemented it really well,” the Wallabies coach said. “We’ve got a clear plan this time as well.
“Maybe as a young man, it was important for him to play well and dominate the game, but he’s doing it in different ways now.”
FULLBACK SCRAMBLE CONTINUES
It’s long been clear that Australia’s biggest problem area in the run to next year’s Rugby World Cup is fullback.
Tom Banks’ looming departure to Japan has only further muddied the waters; so too his and Andrew Kellaway’s injury in the first Test against England, followed by Jordie Petaia’s concussion in Brisbane and then Reece Hodge’s unconvincing effort in Sydney.
And so Tom Wright has been given an opportunity this weekend in Mendoza, making it four fullbacks in four Tests – the question of who might be Australia’s problem-solver at the back as answerless as ever.
“As we talked about in the past, our back three all need to be fullbacks,” Rennie said when asked about Wright’s selection this week. “He’s got an excellent skill set, Tom. I thought he was outstanding, probably the best Test he’s played [in Brisbane], at fullback a couple of weeks ago.
“He’s an excellent communicator, really good organiser of people around him, and just been in really good form. You look at our bench and we’re going to use Jordy to play on the wing and cover midfield. We’d be happy either way but Tom’s been excellent, deserves a crack.”
While injury has certainly added to the headache, the question must be asked as to whether Rennie and his fellow Wallabies selectors really know what they are after at fullback.
Certainly Wright will add a far greater attacking threat than Hodge, the Brumbies back among the fastest players in the Wallabies squad and a guy who can open up fractured defences with his sharp footwork.
But he can also be prone to the odd flighty moment, when perhaps he is thinking a step ahead of those around him.
Still, this is a huge opportunity for Wright to prove he can be the man to play fullback for the Wallabies in France next year. With Hodge dumped after one game, the Petaia experiment on hold, Kellaway still injured and Kurtley Beale still to rejoin the wider Wallabies squad, Wright can set himself up for the remainder of 2022, at least, with a composed showing in Mendoza.
THE CHEIKA EFFECT IS WELL KNOWN AND HE KNOWS THE KEY WALLABIES
Michael Cheika is a coach who has a reputation for making a quick impact with whatever team he coaches.
It was the case with Leinster in Ireland, then the Waratahs in Super Rugby, and finally the Wallabies who in the space of 12 months he took from underachievers to World Cup finalists.
There is a school of thought that Cheika’s in-your-face, us-against-them mentality resonates well in new environments, before that becomes all-consuming and players stop responding to his methods.
A 2-1 series win, albeit against the 7th ranked Scotland, shows he has already made strides with the Pumas and he also has the added familiarity with the playing group having served as a consultant under former coach Mario Ledesma.
And then there is the fact that Cheika has incredible insights into much of the Wallabies senior playing group, from skipper Michael Hooper, scrum-half Nic White and props James Slipper, Allan Alaalatoa and Taniela Tupou.
Interestingly, Cheika also seems to have brought his virtual “attack at all costs” game plan which brought the Wallabies undone at the 2019 World Cup to the Pumas, too.
“He’s coached a handful of the guys in our group, and they’ve got a bit of an understanding of how he works,” Rennie said of Cheika. “They kicked the ball the least of the tier one teams in recent Test series and so we think that will continue, they’ll play a lot and so there’s a bit of risk versus reward there.
“Some of their attack was excellent, and they scored some unbelievable tries. Our job is to try and force some errors from that. Whether they’ll alter that a little bit we’ve planned for both, but Cheik’s got an optimistic mindset and I think they’ll want to play and our players realise it.
“I think they’re a better side than last year. Getting at home has been great for them. They’ve spent a couple of years travelling and that’s been a real challenge. It’s not easy being in quarantine and in situations where you can still train but you’re pretty much trapped in your hotel.
“I thought they were amazing in 2020, beat the All Blacks and drew with us twice. Maybe not quite as sharp last year, but I think having played three Tests at home already, you can see the confidence and the quality lifting.”
FROM COUNTRY JUNIOR RUGBY TO THE BIG TIME, TOGETHER
Jed Holloway is one of the best stories to come out of Australian rugby this year. The veteran forward is a true redemption tale, a player who came to the realisation he had never possessed the right attitude nor work ethic that could match his potential and therefore he was always at arm’s length from higher honours.
But having returned to the Waratahs with a dose of perspective and grown further under the tutelage of Darren Coleman, he will now make his Test debut this weekend at the ripe old age of 29.
And, better yet, will do so alongside a player he grew up with on the Far North Coast of NSW, Rebels prop Matt Gibbon.
Gibbon’s story is perhaps even more remarkable given his own personal journey, but in a game that is often pilloried in Australia for not showing love to its grassroots, the fact he and Holloway will run out together for their Test debuts is one Rugby Australia should be nailing to its masthead.
“I grew up as really close family friends with the Gibbons,” Holloway explained. “Me and Alex [Matt’s brother] played all our country rugby together, played against each other since we were 10/11 years old, Matt was a couple of years behind him but I’ve known Matt for the same amount of time.
“I’m so excited to share this opportunity with him and as much as I am stoked for my opportunity I am so stoked for that guy, everything he’s overcome and the stuff they’ve gone through throughout their life, the resilience he’s shown, I’m so proud of him…he had a lot of knowledge to get in and so did I, being injured for that long period of time and then coming back in these last two weeks, so we kind of bounced the game plans off each other, so we helped each other learn.
“I know he’s excited, I know Alex is super excited and his family is too, and all the people up in the Far North Coast have been messaging both of us all day, and all those down at Southern Districts as well.”
FOR ONCE, IT’S NOT THE ALL BLACKS FIRST UP
In part because of a deal struck with the NSW Government, the Wallabies have for so long opened their Rugby Championship campaign against the All Blacks.
In virtually every year of the tournament, bar those featuring a Rugby World Cup, that has resulted in a heavy defeat, leaving the Wallabies chasing their tails in the push for silverware.
But that is not the case in 2022, with the Rugby Championship having moved to the “mini-tours” concept that is designed to reduce the load on travel and improve player welfare.
And while a rejuvenated Pumas team on home soil is certainly no Test rugby snack, it is a seemingly easier challenge than facing the All Blacks in matches where Rugby Championship points are not only on the line, but so too the Bledisloe Cup.
There is a golden opportunity here for the Wallabies to build some momentum ahead of back-to-back Tests against the Springboks, the second of which will mark the first international event at Sydney’s new Allianz Stadium.
Conversely, Argentina will also see Australia as ripe for the picking. And Cheika will want his men to continue the progress they made against Scotland – with a two-week tour to New Zealand, who are perhaps under the pump more than ever in their storied history, to follow.
A tight series in South America looms.