Wallabies’ fans can say “James O’Who?” after their team ended a difficult week, and indeed a tough rugby championship, on a high note in Rosario. They arrived in the spiritual home of Argentinian rugby in trepidation, with many pundits believing a home win the likeliest outcome, but came away with seven tries and a resounding win.
The cancellation of James O’Connor’s ARU contract and his banishment from the national team for at least the rest of this year was just the type of distraction that has been plaguing the Wallabies all year, but it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. New coach Ewen McKenzie and the ARU are drawing a line in the sand, and it could well be the best thing for O’Connor himself in the long run. He has been playing professional rugby, and been burdened with being the perceived “golden boy” of the game, since the day he left school. A period overseas away from the goldfish bowl of the game in Australia, would give his life some balance and hopefully see him regain a real hunger to don the gold jersey. In the short term his replacement, Joe Tomane, had far and away his best game for Australia, and capped his performance with a scything 50 metre run through three attempted tackles to put his team out of reach halfway through the second half.
Israel Folau will rightly take the plaudits, his hat-trick another benchmark in his stellar debut season in international rugby, but this performance was notable for a turnaround in form by many in the side – Folau has been the lone shining star in the recent run of defeats. It was feared the front five would wilt in the face of the ferocious scrummaging for which Argentina are renowned, but they held their own, and even won a couple of scrums against the head late on. The Pumas rely on dominance in this area of the game for their momentum, so blunting their pack was a major factor in the win. The back row competed significantly better at the breakdown than in recent games, providing more ball more quickly for the backs to exploit. Scott Fardy was everywhere, slowing down Argentinian ball and creating turnovers.
Behind the pack the recall of Will Genia to the starting line-up fired Australia’s running game, missing since the first Lions test, back into life. His eye for a gap and crisp distribution to Quade Cooper gave the mercurial fly half the time and space to release the fliers. Cooper’s long pass in the second minute created the gap that resulted in Folau’s first try; and Cooper’s sleight of hand made the full-back’s hat-trick try, the code-hopper again crossing unmolested as an inside pass fooled the Argentinian defenders. A deft side-step in the run to his second meant Folau was not touched by a defender in the execution of any of his tries. A couple of adventurous Cooper kicks and passes put his own side under pressure, but his contribution was very much on the credit side, and Australia are at their most dangerous when he is crossing the gain line at speed and keeping the opposition guessing. As a combination Genia and Cooper displayed the form that steered the Queensland Reds to the Super XV title in 2011.
Even negatives were turned into pluses in Rosario. Twice the Wallabies were reduced to 14 men, prop James Slipper and lock Rob Simmons seeing yellow, but no points were conceded when either was in the sin bin. McKenzie will be disappointed Argentina had a look-in at coming back into the game, the rising missed tackles count in the second half allowing the Pumas to close to within 15 points, but Australia kicked away again and eventually secured a 54 to 17 victory, debutant Bernard Foley’s gallop to the line in the final minute the icing on the cake.
New Zealand’s championship-clinching victory in the cauldron of Ellis Park in early on Sunday morning proved the final Bledisloe Cup game in a fortnight’s time will be a different proposition. If Australia miss as many tackles in Dunedin as they did here the All Blacks will put them to the sword – but this was a huge improvement on performances in this tournament to date. The defiance of the Australia’s forwards in the face of the Argentinian scrummage and the pace and precision of their backs hint that the stuttering, uninspiring performances of recent months may be a thing of the past. It is a long way back to the summit of world rugby, to the level New Zealand and South Africa showed in Johannesburg, but McKenzie’s team have taken a step very much in the right direction.