Wallabies look for brighter days in the north

Australia's rugby players head to northern hemisphere off the back of a demoralising run against southern opposition.

    Australia's Bernard Foley reflects on another defeat to New Zealand in Otago [AP]
    Australia's Bernard Foley reflects on another defeat to New Zealand in Otago [AP]

    Australian will commence their tour of the northern hemisphere off the back of a humiliating run in the south that has highlighted the gulf in class between themselves and world champions New Zealand.

    In contrast to the almighty All Blacks, who head north in typically ominous form, the Wallabies fly to Europe after a shambolic home season in which they failed to beat either New Zealand or South Africa for the first time since 2005.

    Being satisfied at simply not being blown away by the All Blacks in Dunedin on Saturday may be as strong a sign of the Wallabies' plunge down the pecking order as some of their harrowing Rugby Championship defeats this season.

    But the lowered expectations may at least buy new coach Ewen McKenzie time to continue his renovations to a leaky Wallabies house two years before the 2015 World Cup.

    McKenzie can travel to Europe for Tests against England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Italy safe in the knowledge that many in Australia would be grateful for a positive ledger at the end of the tour, rather than demanding a clean northern
    hemisphere sweep as in seasons past.

    Four wins out of five, including one over traditional sporting rivals England, would almost be enough for a ticker tape parade.

    Although Saturday's scoreline flattered the Wallabies, who scored one of their three tries in 'junk-time' and were effectively beaten in a 10-minute assault in the second quarter, McKenzie was pleased with his team's attitude and endeavour.

    The Wallabies produced the usual litany of handling errors, mistakes in defence and scrum collapses but resembled a switched-on team rather than the clueless rabble torched in the previous four defeats against the All Blacks and the Springboks.


    Much of that was down to the continued improvement of the backline led by playmaker Quade Cooper, who finally cast off the mental shackles of playing against New Zealand, the country of birth.

    Having sheltered Cooper behind starting fly half Matt Toomua for the opening Tests against the All Blacks, McKenzie threw Cooper into the heart of the battle and was rewarded with one of the number 10's better performances in a gold jersey.

    McKenzie's predecessor, Robbie Deans, was never able to get the most out of the mercurial Cooper, who controversially labelled the environment under his fellow New Zealander as 'toxic' and was promptly thrown out of the team for his trouble.

    Cooper's gradual reinstatement under McKenzie offers Wallabies fans the prospect of an end to the frustrating merry-go-round at 10, where Toomua, Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor have all had a go with varying success.

    "The routine of week-to-week playing, knowing what his responsibilities are, knowing how he's going to play the game, all those things are fairly certain for him at the moment," McKenzie said.

    "That allows Quade to concentrate on the competitive part of it which is what he likes, to win games, rather than worry about his injuries or off-field stuff."

    The resurgence of scrumhalf Will Genia also offers plenty of upside for the rest of the Wallabies backs, who suddenly looked dangerous in Dunedin when fed quality, quick ball rather than confused and inept in its absence.

    The caveat as always is the forwards, where the Wallabies were not only smashed at the breakdown and beaten at the set-piece in Dunedin, but also appeared to lose the services of skipper James Horwill.

    The lock was hooked early at Otago Regional Stadium to complete a poor home season overall, albeit one marred by injury.

    "Maybe this is the problem of returning from injury too early, but the Wallabies team management must now take a close look at Horwill's position," respected rugby writer Greg Growden wrote in his column for ESPN Scrum.

    McKenzie will be buoyed by the return of experienced hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau and emerging flanker Scott Fardy from injuries for the tour but can only hope that improvement springs magically from somewhere within his tight five, who struggled against the northern hemisphere's finest during the Lions tour.

    With Australia's forwards stocks perennially threadbare, most of the Lions' victims will be lining up again in Europe.

    "It's a good chance to enhance your reputation is how I look at it," McKenzie said.


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