By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY (Reuters) – With the World Cup less than a year away, Australia coach Michael Cheika knows the time for wholesale experimentation and taking positives from defeat is at an end — the Wallabies need to start inking some Ws in the win-loss column.
Australia head to Europe for the November internationals with only three victories from 10 tests this season and are ranked seventh in the world, an unprecedented low.
The twice world champions face Wales on Nov. 10 and Italy a week later before taking on Eddie Jones’s England at Twickenham on the final Saturday of the month.
While they have won their last 13 matches against Wales going back a decade, and have never lost to Italy, the Wallabies have already endured a couple of historic reverses this year.
Ireland won their first series Down Under in June and Argentina recorded their first win over the Wallabies on Australian soil in 35 years during the Rugby Championship.
Only a remarkable second-half comeback in Salta prevented the Pumas from doing the double and it is to that 40-minute display that Wallabies fans must cling as they look forward to Japan next year.
The comeback win, the second biggest in test history, also relieved some of the pressure on Cheika even if his position has never really been under a huge amount of scrutiny for three reasons.
Firstly there is the lack of an obvious replacement after two years of misery for Australia’s Super Rugby sides, and secondly Cheika has already announced in any case that he will be vacating the position after the World Cup.
Lastly and most importantly, there is the abiding memory of the unexpected winning streak that started during the 2015 Rugby Championship and ended with defeat to New Zealand in the World Cup final.
Australia’s position before that run was not much less promising than it looks today and there will always be the hope that Cheika can repeat the alchemy he produced three years ago.
Despite a squad full of fresh talent having been exposed to test rugby since 2015, Cheika’s key personnel are pretty much unchanged with Will Genia and Bernard Foley at halfback and Israel Folau and Kurtley Beale the main backline threats.
While the back-row combination of world class openside flankers Michael Hooper and David Pocock now looks cemented in place, Cheika has been largely frustrated in his search for a big, physical loose forward to supplement their skills.
The back-row imbalance has also had an impact on the lineout, where the frequent lack of a third jumper and uncertainty over the position of hooker has left Australia vulnerable at the set piece.
As the Salta second half and the win over the All Blacks in Brisbane last year proved, the Wallabies can still play brilliant rugby at times.
Turning those flashes into wins has become the problem as errors, turnovers and lapses in discipline have prevented the men in green and gold from capitalising on the opportunities they create.
“I think that’s why we are very flat,” Cheika said after the third loss of the year to New Zealand in Yokohama on Saturday.
“There is a lot of stuff to work with there I suppose. Just too many turnovers in key moments and too many turnovers in general.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)