Out-muscled by England last month and out-coached by Argentina a fortnight ago, the Wallabies restored pride in the old gold jersey at the weekend, rebounding from their recent 48-17 shellacking in San Juan to whip the world champion Springboks 25-17 in Adelaide. With Los Pumas upsetting the All Blacks 25-18 in Christchurch, Australia’s window to the Rugby Championship and a first Bledisloe Cup in two decades remains tantalisingly ajar.
Hope can be a dangerous thing for Wallabies fans. But Saturday’s performance instilled it. After losing the first 25 minutes of their last five starts, Australia began well for a change, racing to a lead on the back of fast hands and fierce running. An old head in Nic White found youthful legs in Fraser McReight after 62 seconds to draw first blood and signal the intent. Noah Lolesio iced the try then slotted a penalty to make it a robust 10-0 buffer.
Better yet was the smarts and heart the Wallabies showed when the momentum inevitably swung back to the Springboks. Against a massive ‘bomb squad’ of elite forwards, the Australians held fast, repelling the Springbok marauders with courage and discipline. Again and again they diffused each raid with rush defence, clever pilfering at the ruck or relief kicking which their back three chased hard to keep their visitors on the back foot.
Chasing hardest was Marika Koroibete. The big winger played like two men all day (except for the 10 minutes when wing partner Tom Wright was sent off, when he played like three men) and was again the best afield. His defining moment was a try-saving tackle late in the first half. Springbok speedster Makazole Mapimpi had found space on the far left and pinned his ears back for a moment of glory like his match-winning try in the 2019 World Cup final.
By then the Koroibete Express had already left the station. From the opposite corner the big No 11 had seen what no one else had and began to scythe a fast-lane parallel to the tryline. Shielded by the Australian cover defenders, the South African winger heard rolling thunder but only in the last gasp did he see the lightning bolt hitting him. Centimetres from the line, in a tackle heard around the world, Mapimpi was T-boned mid-air by Koroibete and sent flying.
Apart from the fact that it foiled a certain score and kept the Springboks tryless at half-time, it was as definitive a statement of belief as has ever been committed to the Wallabies playbook. Yet the big fella was still asked to explain it. “The tackle had to be made,” Koroibete said in his sometimes-you-gotta-do-what-you-gotta-do way. “We had one man down, we had to cover the short side and the other side as well. I just put my body on the line for the boys.”
Simple words. Singular actions. Covering for a mate. Empires have been built on less.
The Wallabies will settle for another victory this week at the new Sydney Football Stadium. After all, winning two Tests in a row is a feat they haven’t achieved for 12 months. The last time they did it, on 18 September, 2021, it was a repeat victory over South Africa and the start of what became a five-game winning streak. If they are to repeat that run they must first dispose of the Springboks on Saturday then inflict consecutive defeats on New Zealand.
When the Wallabies play like they did in Adelaide it seems possible. Particularly now, with the All Blacks in crisis after three successive losses at home for the first time in 119 years. Although much of the Kiwi rugby fraternity begged for breakdancing Crusaders coach Scott Robertson to be installed, New Zealand Rugby retained Ian Foster as coach until 2023 on the strength of the All Blacks’ 35-23 win over South Africa in Johannesburg two weeks ago. Now, having been outfoxed by Michael Cheika’s Los Pumas, the falsity of that dawn throws harsh light on an unthinkable apocalypse – losing the Bledisloe Cup after a 19-year reign.
Each time Koroibete’s tackle is played on YouTube a fresh shiver will chill All Blacks spines. For too long Australia have been an unwilling accomplice in their own demise in Bledisloe Tests. But if they get it together as they did on Saturday, if they show the same belief as Koroibete, if young firebrands like Fraser McReight continue to fire, if faith is shown in fresh-faced schemers Noah Lolesio, and if million-dollar man Taniela Tupou earns his money, watch out.
Right now it’s a one-Test streak. And too often Wallabies fans have seen that light at the end of the tunnel turn into a train that snuffs hope and smashes golden dreams to smithereens. But beat the world champs again this week in Sydney and Dave Rennie’s men are on a roll with only an out-of-sorts All Blacks outfit between them and a first Bledisloe Cup since 2003.
And after that, who knows? There are 13 Tests between now and the 2023 World Cup. Maybe after a season of terrible injuries and dud luck, the Wallabies finally have a hope.