Wounded and wobbling, still missing key personnel and facing off against a former mentor, the Wallabies will be in ambush territory when they run into Estadio Malvinas for the first of two Tests against Argentina on Sunday morning. Unlike Australia, who lost the July series against England in desultory fashion, Los Pumas have their tails up and fangs bared after defeating Scotland 34-31 with a thrilling last-play-of-the-game comeback try a fortnight ago.
Although luckless with their injury toll, the men in gold were their own worst enemies in the 2-1 defeat to England, giving away too many penalties and easy points to a dead-eye kicker, and too often changing their arm in risky counterattack from their own quarter when they maybe should have calmly turned the screws to earn the right to entertain uptempo rugby. Like the ‘piddler on the roof’ at the SCG, they drank the Kool Aid dry but pissed it all away.
In Mendoza, the greatest threats come from within, most ominously in the form of Michael Cheika, the wily former Wallabies coach who will know what’s coming from his countrymen, maybe even more than they do. Cheika took the reins from Mario Ledesma as Los Pumas’ coach in March. Equally fluent in Spanish and attacking rugby, the 55-year-old is now a national hero after inspiring his men to an upset 2-1 win over Scotland before 30,000 fans in Santiago del Estero.
Those fans had waited three years to see their team play Test rugby again and they will be in full voice again at the arena that hosted their famous 2014 victory over the Ewan McKenzie-coached Wallabies. That night, despite Australia leading 14-0 after 15 minutes, Los Pumas calmly clawed back the ascendency to win 21-17 and notch a maiden win in the Rugby Championship after 18 straight defeats, and first over Australia since 1997.
That win was a turning point. Los Pumas have grown in strength and confidence ever since. With growing support from all over Latin America (a potential fan base of over 600 million) and a reputation as giant killers (they demolished Ireland 43-20 at the 2015 World Cup and shocked the All Blacks 25-15 in 2020) they pose a dangerous reality check for the Wallabies.
Despite juggling his ongoing roles as coach of Lebanon for the 2022 Rugby League World Cup in October and director of rugby at the NEC Green Rockets franchise in Japan, Cheika has already instilled belief and tenacity into Argentine rugby. Trailing 31-20 with 15 minutes to go, Los Pumas nervelessly chased down Scotland to prove the 26-18 first test win in San Salvador de Jujuy was no fluke, and their coach has them on track for the 2023 World Cup.
Cheika shares several traits with the big cats that prowl the chaparral terrain of Argentina. Pumas are cunning hunters famous for chasing down and hauling off prey far heavier than they are; Australia sits sixth in the World Rugby rankings, Argentina lurks nearby in ninth. They are also vocal beasts, much like Cheika, who inspired Australia’s epic win over Argentina in 2018, when they were down 31-7 but rallied to win 45-34.
With one win from Dave Rennie’s past six Tests and a 39% win record as coach, his Wallabies must roar on Sunday if they are to win back the early momentum and public goodwill squandered at home against England. Australian rugby fans are restless. They want the rolling mauls and running rugby that is the Wallabies’ trademark, but they’ll settle for true grit and grinding to victory.
Rennie lost nine good men to injury in the England series and only a few have returned. Starting hooker Dave Porecki is now out with concussion and although Samu Kerevi was always absent for these Argentina Tests, the game breaking centre’s ACL injury at the Commonwealth Games means he is gone for the season. It gives the new young 12-13 pairing of Len Ikitau and Hunter Paisami time to alchemise in the midfield and bend the thick blue line made formidable by ex-NRL enforcer David Kidwell as Cheika’s defense coach.
With the returning Jordan Petaia and in-form flyer Tom Wright fighting for the fullback role, Rennie must use this series to last unholster league convert Suliasi Vunivalu, criminally underused against England, on the right wing to mirror his wrecking ball Marika Koroibete. With such big guns shooting from each hip, even Cheika’s Pumas will run for the hills. The trick, as always, will be getting these marauders the ball and giving them space to run.
Although Noah Lolesio played a bravura hand in Australia’s victory over England in Perth, Eddie Jones’s men quickly dismantled him. Lolesio is the future but for now only the hair-trigger hands of wildcard veteran Quade Cooper can conjure the time and space his match-winners need out wide.
Cooper gave Cheika a memorable adios when the coach quit as Wallabies boss in 2019, tweeting: “If he cared about Aus rugby he would have done it a while ago.” Now the exiled playmaker is back, he can deliver for the ones who care most about “Aus rugby” – the fans.