Flushed with success, the Wallabies are about to leave their protective bubble and venture out into the wide world once again.
Four consecutive wins for the first time since 2017 – culminating with Saturday night’s 32-17 victory over Argentina – secured a creditable second-placed finish behind the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship.
But Australia’s unexpected achievement must be put into perspective. That is, they have been the beneficiaries of the greatest home-ground advantage in the code’s history.
Since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic last year, Dave Rennie’s side have played 12 of 16 Tests on home soil, winning seven, losing three and drawing two. All away games were against the All Blacks, of which they lost three and drew one.
Significantly, their four-match winning streak – against South Africa and Argentina – played out at Queensland venues.
Now the Wallabies will embark on the next phase of their quest for redemption, in the form of a first spring tour to the northern hemisphere since 2018.
The Tests against Japan, Scotland, England and Wales will tell whether recent success was distorted by home-ground advantage or whether they have truly regained their place among the world’s leading rugby nations.
Since the Wallabies reached the final of the 2015 World Cup at Twickenham they have won only five of 10 Tests on their spring tour of Europe. This time, though, they travel with the tremendous momentum and self-belief that comes with a remarkable turnaround.
The turning point was the recall of Japan-based inside backs Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi, who have transformed Australia’s back play. Cooper has given the Wallabies composure in the crucial playmaking position, while Kerevi has provided go-forward in the midfield. The Australians will be sweating on Kerevi’s fitness after he sustained an ankle injury on Saturday night.
But Cooper and Kerevi could not have performed as effectively without an assertive and abrasive forward pack in front of them. Rennie has worked hard to develop a physical forward pack reminiscent of the Chiefs’ back-to-back winning Super Rugby sides of 2012-13.
Apart from some deficiencies in the lineout, the Wallabies’ pack looks capable of competing with any eight in the world. And the forwards may become even stronger with the possible addition of European-based players Rory Arnold, Will Skelton and Tolu Latu on the spring tour.
It has taken Rugby Australia a long time to warm to the idea that the national team needs access to all required players – overseas and domestic – to become a major force in world rugby again.
One of the emerging stars is winger Andrew Kellaway, who was forced to leave Australia a few years ago. Rennie selected the 25-year-old on the strength of his outstanding form with the Melbourne Rebels on his return from England.
Kellaway has scored eight tries in his debut Test season, including Saturday’s hat-trick against Argentina. He may not be the biggest, strongest or fastest outside back to play for Australia, but he is certainly among the smartest, which explains why he puts himself in try-scoring positions so often.
With the ability to play wing, fullback and outside-centre, Kellaway has the potential to become Australia’s equivalent of former All Blacks outside-back Ben Smith.
Importantly, Rennie seems to be developing an effective coaching combination with Wallabies attack coach Scott Wisemantel, similar to the successful collaboration he enjoyed with former All Blacks mentor Wayne Smith at the Chiefs. Rennie and Wisemantel have developed a game plan based on physicality up front, playing for field position and advantage-line consciousness.
That plan worked against Argentina, helping to build a comfortable 32-3 lead inside 57 minutes. However, it must be remembered the Pumas’ preparations were disrupted when six players, including their best performer Pablo Matera, were banned from playing the final fixture after an excursion across the New South Wales border to Byron Bay.
The next phase in the development of the tactical approach is for the attack to open up in the last 20 minutes. That certainly did not happen with the Pumas outscoring Australia 14-0 at the back end of the game.
The Wallabies’ play became a dog’s breakfast, but that was understandable given the composition of the reserves bench with Rennie giving some fringe players opportunities. Australia finished the game with two hookers on the field, and captain and openside flanker Michael Hooper on the wing.
While the final performance at home this year was far from polished, Rennie is building depth and creating competition for places – crucial to the future success of the team.
He now has the difficult task of selecting just 32 players for the upcoming tour. The question is, after enjoying the comforts of home for so long, will the Wallabies spread their wings and fly when they emerge from their cocoon?