Two years ago, as the world slowly pulled itself up after the first Covid-19 wave, Dave Rennie called for some perspective following the Wallabies’ record loss to the All Blacks at the Olympic Stadium in Homebush.
“We’re five or six weeks into a four-year campaign,” Rennie told reporters following the heavy Bledisloe III loss on a wet Sydney track.
“We’re gutted about the result.
“I must admit, (the) first game in Wellington (which was a 16-16 draw), I was nervous about an All Black performance that would find us under pressure, but we showed a lot of character that night.
“Look, all I’m going to say is, we’re going to keep working hard, we think we’ve got some good kids coming through, we need to respond immediately, and the plan is you’ll see that next week.”
The Wallabies in fact did get it right, defeating the All Blacks in Brisbane with Reece Hodge stepping up in the No.10 jersey after Noah Lolesio’s tough introduction a week earlier. but Rennie’s side has been searching for consistency ever since.
Two years on from Rennie’s remarks and time is running out, with the ghosts of 2019 returning.
Rennie has 10 Tests before the World Cup to get it right.
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It is why the Wallabies’ end-of-season spring tour takes on greater importance, with many questions still hovering over a side that has a 39 per cent win record under the New Zealander.
Rennie has a decision to make: Whether to try to win every Test with what he believes is his best side or blood some players for the future with an eye to the World Cup and beyond to the home Lions series in 2025.
The hybrid model is to tinker around the edges and give chances to emerging playmakers like Ben Donaldson with the understanding that he knows what he will get from Bernard Foley should he be called up next year.
The Wallabies coach will travel to Scotland considering those questions, having been told to back youth by his bosses where possible but also with the understanding that results remain important.
A year ago there was a buzz in air as the Wallabies headed north following the Rugby Championship. The Bledisloe Cup was lost, again, but after Quade Cooper’s remarkable return, the Wallabies headed to Japan on a four-match winning run following victories against world champions South Africa and Argentina.
Victory in Japan was the Wallabies fifth win on the trot – a feat not achieved since their run to the World Cup final in 2015.
But a hellish tour of Britain saw the Wallabies lose not only all three Tests but precious momentum, too.
From player withdrawals to yellow cards, injuries and missed opportunities, the Wallabies were not miles off the pace but still let all three Tests slip through their fingers.
One year on, the same questions linger over the Wallabies.
If Cooper is not fit, who should wear the No.10 jersey?
How can halfback Tate McDermott be squeezed into the team?
Who is the preferred fullback?
Do the Wallabies need more bulk in the second-row and, if so, should they turn to Rory Arnold or Will Skelton?
What should the back-row configuration be?
Why do the Wallabies give away so many penalties?
And, perhaps the biggest question of the lot, who will captain the Wallabies at the World Cup?
Worryingly, those same questions applied in 2019.
Michael Cheika played three different playmakers in Japan, with the selection panel divided on whether Christian Lealiifano, Foley or Matt To’omua, who regularly came off the bench, should wear the No.10 jersey.
At fullback, the Wallabies were divided on whether to play the mercurial Kurtley Beale in the position or the steady, understated Dane Haylett-Petty.
At outside centre, Cheika catapulted a teenager Jordan Petaia into the role for the quarter-final loss against England after moving away from Tevita Kuridrani and then James O’Connor.
Halfbacks Nic White and Will Genia regularly rotated from week to week because neither could start the game in the same electrifying way they finished matches.
While at the back of the scrum Cheika settled on playing two of his best players Michael Hooper and David Pocock – arguably his only world class players – in the back-row despite years of debate as to whether the Wallabies could play both specialist openside flankers in the same side.
Indeed, one year out from the World Cup, selection looms as the single most important barrier to success for the Wallabies.
Those inside the tent believe Rennie is on the right track with his game plan, but whether he has the right men to carry out said plan remains to be seen.
Cooper, 34, was seen as the perfect person to implement Rennie’s vision because his understanding of the game is so deep.
Whether or not he will be fit and in form remains to be seen because the Japan-based playmaker is on the comeback trail from an achilles injury.
Foley, too, has a deep understanding of how to steer the Wallabies around the park.
While his defensive deficiencies are obvious to all, he is a player who has seen it all and his experience was telling during the Wallabies’ comeback in Melbourne against the All Blacks last month – his first Test since the ill-fated 2019 World Cup quarter-final exit.
Scratch the surface, however, and there are doubts the Wallabies know who their next best No.10 option is.
The Wallabies want Lolesio to succeed, but they have been caught second-guessing themselves for three years.
It is why there is a desire to explore elsewhere.
But, with just 10 Tests until the World Cup, can the Wallabies afford to experiment?
Hodge – a man known as Mr. Fix-It – could very well be the Wallabies’ third playmaker option at next year’s World Cup.
Fullback, too, remains a position that is wide open.
Andrew Kellaway is the incumbent, but his positional play in the back field is something insiders are still questioning.
Jock Campbell has yet to be selected, despite being a regular presence around the squad, but is one of the only specialist fullbacks in Australia. Sceptics point to his lack of size and physicality, but he remains a player who rarely makes mistakes.
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Tom Banks is back on the scene again but is heading to Japan and has yet to convince on the international stage in the manner he does in Super Rugby.
While Beale – one of the most vexed players in Australian rugby – is back on the scene, and his skill-set and attacking threat has always been appreciated.
The Wallabies have dithered over what style of fullback they want: someone who is safe or can break a game open.
It is a question that Australian rugby has asked itself for decades.
Hooper’s likely return throws open another question.
If nothing else, his availability will add to the depth at openside flanker.
But it should not mean the Wallabies compromise the size of their starting team.
His defensive prowess and leadership, even if he does not hold the captaincy, will be significant because he has often been the glue holding the Wallabies together.
Whichever way Rennie turns during the spring tour, he must finish the year by answering some questions about the makeup of his team.
Conviction in selection, even with another Super Rugby to peruse nest year, is paramount to the Wallabies’ World Cup success.
Opportunities must be afforded throughout the spring tour because even if some don’t work out, Rennie will learn what options are truly available to him for the World Cup in France.