Impressive Wallabies must ponder lost Slam
December 2, 2013
Greg Growden reviews the Wallabies' end-of-year tour of Europe
Did Ewen McKenzie offer a smidgen of a smile at the end of the Wales Test? Surely not; as the Wallabies coach loves impersonating a Moai (Easter Island statue) in victory and defeat - and anything in between. But there was a glimpse of a slight grin on McKenzie's granite features when he passed a far more joyous Quade Cooper on the sideline at full-time. And, yes, McKenzie is excused this brief moment of frivolity.
After all, the Wallabies held up best when encountering the best of the Six Nations sides - holding off a vigorous Wales team, especially when down to 14 men in the final minutes, enabling them to end their European tour with gusto. The performance - and the 30-26 result - also ensures McKenzie can relax during his summer break because he won't have to keep justifying himself. All he has to say to ward off the detractors is: "Hey, we've won four Tests in a row. When was the last time that happened with the Wallabies? Only five years ago."
McKenzie's opening months as Wallabies coach have been rugged. But no-one can say he has ever taken the easy option. In many areas, he took the excruciatingly tough decisions - in particular his attempt to improve the team culture; and while there are still some dropped lips among squad members who remain miffed over how the Dublin drink-a-thon was handled officially, everyone now knows McKenzie doesn't play favourites. He won't be conned by anyone - young or old.
And that can only work in the Wallabies' favour. The benefits were there to see at Millennium Stadium.
After a long slump, the Wallabies backline is again starting to appear threatening. Israel Folau has fine-tuned what was often a spluttering engine, and Cooper is showing yet again that anything is possible when his confidence is up.
Quade Cooper produced a dynamic performance for the Wallabies against Wales in Cardiff © Getty Images
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Cooper is certainly relishing the extra responsibility McKenzie has given him. I, for one, thought McKenzie's appointment of Cooper as vice-captain was strange; but it has worked on this tour. The often-troubled Reds No 10 is a transformed player, and he often led the team.
McKenzie's faith is a crucial factor in Cooper performing with such poise; but so too is the fact that the two other "Amigos" - James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale - weren't on the tour. Strife and distractions seem inevitable whenever two or three of them are together; they are masters of leading the others into a bog. That could be the trick. Maybe from now on, the Australian Rugby Union should make it an edict that the Wallabies operate under a "one Amigo" policy. Never more than one should be in the team at the one time - even when Cooper is confronting his bogey side, the All Blacks.
Unlike several other recent-end-of-season tours, the Wallabies follower, with an improving 6-6 win-loss record to ponder, is not exactly looking upon the following year with dread. Instead all are waiting to see whether Cooper and Folau can continue being such a devastating combination.
As tantalising next season will be observing how Scott Fardy combines with Scott Higginbotham in the Wallabies pack. Australia have been waiting a long time for a mongrel pairing in their back-row, and this could be it: Fardy remaining at blindside flanker, Higginbotham at No.8. While Folau has been the signing of the season, Fardy has been the find - producing much required menace and backbone to an often-flimsy Wallabies pack. Fardy's elevation has been fast, but so exhilarating.
Nonetheless, a heavy shadow still hangs over this European tour. The Wallabies effort against England in the tour opener was abominable - and they can ponder what might have been if they had just used their brains at Twickenham. A Grand Slam triumph for one thing.
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