Violent Springboks ambush casts doubt on Wallabies’ Bledisloe hopes

The Wallabies’ trajectory this year has been, like their namesake, steadfastly up and down. Every ascent – the courageous 14-man win in Perth against England, the pounding of the Pumas in Mendoza, the demolition of South Africa in Adelaide – has been followed by a thud, as they come back to earth the following Test with a crushing defeat after a glorious victory.

The inconsistency is infuriating for fans who crave momentum and want to see progress heading to next year’s World Cup on 8 September – now 12 Tests and 12 months away. But the Wallabies have not won two consecutive Tests since 18 September, 2021. That was a return-bout knockout of South Africa, and the chance to repeat it left town on Saturday night when the Australians left the new Allianz Stadium with their tail between their legs.

The Springboks sprang a predictably violent ambush in Sydney to avenge last week’s 25-17 mauling with a savage 24-8 takedown that has coach Dave Rennie greying at the temples. After a week watching YouTube footage of Marika Koroibete scything crossfield to T-bone Makazole Mapimpi, and rejoicing in the rise of two-try hero Fraser McReight and the maturing of Noah Lolesio, Australia fans had an unchanged team for once and a spring in their step. Instead, they walked away with one of the more woeful implosions of recent years.

The night was neatly distilled in Mapimpi’s Revenge. The Springbok winger scored in the 70th minute to seal the win, then got yellow-carded for getting in Koroibete’s face to celebrate, an act of elated spite that sparked an all-in melee.

For once Koroibete was not at his imperious, wrecking-ball best. Nor were most of his mates. Australia’s woebegone effort was filled with bad fumbles, dumb penalties, scrambled set-pieces, wonky attack and defensive indecision. Out-muscled and out-coached, their bad luck also returned with game-ending HIAs to Lolesio and Hunter Paisami and a calf injury to Taniela Tupou in the warm-up that rendered Rennie’s million-dollar man unable to start.

The embarrassing mess dropped Australia to equal-second with South Africa on the Rugby Championship ladder on nine points, a point behind new ladder-leaders New Zealand, who bounced back themselves by restoring the old world order in a 53-3 thrashing of Argentina. To win their first southern-hemisphere title since 2015, Australia must do what no Wallabies side for 19 years has: claim the Bledisloe Cup with back-to-back wins over the All Blacks.

The fact all four teams in the Championship have been on the same win-lose-win-lose rollercoaster should be of small consolation. “It highlights how tough international footy is at the moment,” Rennie reckons. “The teams are so even. If you’re even 5% off, you get hurt.” Rennie must find that 5% to have a hope at Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium on 15 September.

He may be doing it without young fly-half Lolesio and hard-running centre Paisami. The latter left the field groggy, clearly a Category 1 concussion which means a 12-day stand-down. Lolesio failed his HIA on Saturday but even if he passes his subsequent checks may still suffer a seven-day cooling period – hardly perfect preparation for an All Blacks side on the up.

Lolesio looked spooked on Saturday, but Rennie must show faith in the 22-year-old talent. However, the coach must see the absence of X-factor that he had hoped a Quade Cooper or James O’Connor might provide. Alas, the former is injured and the latter out of form. That brings returned 33-year-old veteran Bernard Foley back into calculations for Melbourne.

Foley is no maverick like Cooper but he is known as “The Iceman”, and a top-gun playmaker. His 71 Tests of experience, three years in Japan and poise under pressure could inject some calm into this callow side. And they will need it to move on from Sydney and face the rising black tide with gusto (Foley should YouTube David Knox dismantling the All Blacks in 1994).

Regardless of who plays at pivot, this Test will be won up front. New Zealand has a young, rebuilt tight five and if Angus Bell plays, Dave Porecki returns and Taniel Tupou recovers, Australia have the front row to take them down. Porecki as rake will get the lineout back on track, and leave Folau Fainga’a to rumble on late and dent the defence in the red zone.

Rennie’s 6-2 bench was a bust on Saturday when Lolesio and Paisami had to be benched but his Brumbies coaching staff of Dan McKellar and Laurie Fisher will want heavy artillery in reserve so the rolling maul can spearhead the charge. Matt Philip will want redemption after his yellow card in Sydney and should start with Darcy Swain if only to raise Rory Arnold’s ire.

If they get the firepower right up front, there’s time for finesse out wide. Nic White’s needle backfired against South Africa and his heir Jake Gordon looked good for the final 20. But the bantam half will be bristling like his moustache and should be given another shot. Winger Tom Wright tries hard but flier Andrew Kellaway may displace him. If full-back Jordan Petaia can make it back and big winger Suliasi Vunivalu is considered, the All Blacks may quiver.

Up and down has been the Wallaby way, but for all their injuries, dud luck and erratic form, this side has been making progress. Michael Hooper won’t be there for the Bledisloe but Fraser McReight has filled his boots. Jed Holloway and Rob Valetini are both rising fast. Maybe, like the wallaby’s sister species the kangaroo, they will come to emblemise Australia for never taking a backward step. Against the All Blacks, they cannot afford to give an inch.