Australia’s 41-26 victory over the Pumas in Mendoza will be a win the Wallabies will savour — but problems continue to mount for coach Dave Rennie and the Test season isn’t even half done for 2022.
With another tough assignment to come in Argentina next week, followed by back-to-back Tests against a Springboks team that has perhaps never been more brutal, and then the Bledisloe Cup series, Australia’s injury ward has already extended into a second room.
And now they must navigate at least the coming weeks — and potentially longer — without inspirational skipper Michael Hooper. Quade Cooper, another senior Wallaby, will also now be sidelined.
Hooper has rightfully been lauded for his decision to step away from the game to deal with some personal issues. By declaring he was not in the right ‘mindset’ to play Test rugby, Hooper remains a leader in a field far beyond that contained by the whitewash, and he now deserves the privacy and patience he requires to work through whatever is troubling him.
But Hooper will also be immensely proud of the way in which the Wallabies rolled to their 15-point victory on Sunday morning [AEST], in what was a somewhat bizarre 80 minutes that finished in even more bizarre circumstances — but with Australia securing the bonus point.
“To be honest that was probably one of the more satisfying Tests I’ve played, just with varying things happening throughout the week,” stand-in skipper James Slipper said. “Losing Quade, losing Hoops, [Dave] Porecki; the way we started the game again, we put ourselves under pressure. But the way we fought back into the game and wrestled it back into our hands, it was a proud moment to be a part of.
“I just really wanted to put in a performance as a team that Hoops would smile about. So I’m sure that when he looks at the score, he’ll have a cheeky smile.”
Having trailed 19-10 at the break, following a first half in which they were on the end of a 10-3 penalty count from Scottish referee Mike Adamson, this Test could have easily gotten away from the Wallabies.
Cooper’s injury early in the second half — since confirmed to be an Achilles tendon tear that has ended his season and put what would be a third Rugby World Cup for the Queenslander in serious jeopardy — also had the potential to further derail the visitors.
But on the back of a dominant rolling maul, a change in fortune from Adamson, and the power running of both Rob Valetini and Hunter Paisami, Australia found a way to win and then iced the performance with the most unlikely of bonus points five minutes after the siren.
“Yeah, it was a massive second half,” Rennie said post match.
“Discipline wasn’t good enough first half. We know they’re a three-six-nine side and they can hurt you that way, so the pleasing thing was we were clinical in the second half, played the game in the right end of the field and built pressure.
“Obviously losing Quade reasonably early in the second half, it just highlights the character in this group. When you’ve got a guy like Reece Hodge who can step up and play anywhere, and I reckon the guys around him really stepped up as well. So it was a helluva second half.
“And I guess losing Dave Porecki and losing Hoops earlier in the week, just shows the character in this group.”
After a steady series against England, this was a Test Valetini bossed with ball in hand. The big Brumbies back-rower ran for 48 metres from nine carries in the kind of 80-minute performance that he delivered week after week in Super Rugby Pacific, and the Wallabies are hoping he repeats at Test level.
Playing No. 12 in the absence of Samu Kerevi, Paisami ran with authority throughout, flashing his ostentatious dummy to boot, and finished with the vital try assist that put Len Ikitau over to seal the bonus point. Before the Brumbies centre crossed, the ball had been turned over multiple times as both sides chased a bonus point the Wallabies would eventually claim — albeit after a TMO check for a line-ball forward pass.
And then there was Folau Fainga’a up front.
Given the opportunity to start following Porecki’s concussion at training earlier in the week, Fainga’a made the most of his chance as he drove the rolling maul from the back to score a five-pointer and helped lay on another for Fraser McReight, while Adamson also awarded the Wallabies a penalty try from the lineout drive after consecutive Pumas infringements.
The yellow card given to Matias Alemmano alongside the penalty try also helped to thwart any chance of a late Pumas rally, even though a spectacular counterattacking try early in the second half served as a reminder of just how dangerous the hosts could be.
After months of calls for him to start, mainly from rugby fans north of the Tweed, McReight’s opportunity arrived, albeit not in the circumstances he would have imagined nor liked. Still, the former Australia Under-20 captain enjoyed a fine game, making a team-high 11 tackles to go with a try in a performance that got better as the game went on, one where he rebounded from an early infringement at the ruck.
As for the debutants, childhood friends Jed Holloway and Matt Gibbon will remember this game for a long time. Holloway, for one, was spied sitting alone on the Mendoza turf well after full-time, soaking up every last moment of his international debut.
He had earlier played an excellent 58 minutes — a simple but effective performance, doing exactly what Rennie will have asked of him. Holloway was very nearly a try-scorer on debut, too, as he produced a sensational bootlace pick-up from a speculative Tom Wright pass that followed a powerful Jordan Petaia surge. The Waratahs lock was denied a memorable five-pointer only by a desperate tackle and then a breakdown turnover from Pumas skipper Julian Montoya.
Still, the fact that Holloway was there in support at all shows why Rennie has been desperate to get him into the side at No. 6, a plan that was derailed by injury ahead of the first Test with England.
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Sadly, injury remains an ever-present theme for the Wallabies. And they will now have to contemplate what Cooper’s sidelining means not only for next week but also in terms of the longer-range World Cup planning.
It may be that Noah Lolesio is now the answer to both questions, with Reece Hodge offering the exact versatility that makes him such a valuable bench proposition for Australia. While the passes started to hit the deck and the Wallabies increasingly looked lost in attack in the closing stages in Mendoza, Hodge was competent in the playmaking role and also banged over a 50-metre penalty that sailed magnificently through the posts.
James O’Connor is also away on tour, but a recall, at this point, appears less likely having missed his chances off the bench against England.
Whatever the case, Rennie has plenty to ponder ahead of the second Test next week.
After a dramatic few days, however, and a first win in three Tests, the coach and his charges will be savouring this victory, with both Hooper and Cooper very much at the forefront of their thinking.