MELBOURNE (Reuters) – A revamped Australia head into their second Rugby Championship clash against Argentina on Saturday in Brisbane desperate to build confidence ahead of the World Cup and appease home fans tired of hearing about the “positives” in defeat.
The Wallabies slumped to their 10th loss in their last 14 tests with a 35-17 thrashing at Ellis Park last week, dominated by a South Africa team shorn of a raft of first-choice players rested for their follow-up clash against the All Blacks.
While the result triggered alarm bells back home in Australia, the Wallabies coach and players saw the match quite differently, and spoke of how pleased they were with basically everything but the score.
Australia shipped five tries but the defence was “good”, according to coach Michael Cheika, who blamed the referee in part for a “wrong” yellow card shown to prop Taniela Tupou.
“It was really pleasing to see the way things came together the way they did on the weekend,” scrumhalf Will Genia said this week.
Upbeat reviews of morale-sapping defeats have become as common as selection shakeups at the Wallabies, who appear undecided as to which players should go where and in what combinations less than two months from the World Cup in Japan.
The selection merry-go-round has spun again this week, with five changes to the starting side, including a new halfback combination and the return of veteran Kurtley Beale to his old spot at fullback.
One of the changes is inspirational, with starting flyhalf Christian Lealiifano set for his first test in three years after a battle with cancer.
After six years in the wilderness, the return of versatile back James O’Connor, named on the bench, offers a chance of redemption for a player saddled with the tag of Australia’s rugby “bad boy”.
The warm-feeling sub-plots can do little to hide the Wallabies’ problems, however, which range from a sub-par scrum to weakness at the breakdown in the absence of David Pocock.
Moreover, the selections seem less about tinkering at the edges of a settled side than shuffling the pieces around the board in hope they will gel.
The Pumas have also rung the changes with five replacements in their starting 15 but it continues a policy of rotation that the Jaguares employed successfully on their run to this year’s Super Rugby final.
Argentina pushed the All Blacks close in a 20-16 defeat at Velez Sarsfield last week and now have few reservations about facing Cheika’s side on Australian soil, having broken their drought with victory on the Gold Coast last year.
As the Wallabies’ former scrum guru, Pumas coach Mario Ledesma also knows plenty of the Cheika playbook.
The Pumas have rueful memories of their last clash against the men in gold, however, having given up a 31-7 halftime lead in Salta in October before falling 45-34.
“It’s a chance to change our last memory,” Ledesma said of Saturday’s clash at Lang Park.
“The boys have been working really well this year, they are confident — not confident because we are playing Wallabies, but because of the work we are doing.”
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)