Right now Australia are unbeaten and leading the 2022 Rugby Championship. Let that sink in for a moment. For long-suffering fans it is a break in the clouds, a ray of light casting everything and everyone in Wallaby gold, a rugby rainbow that’s beautiful because it cannot last.
Or can it? After all, Australia defeated the team sitting third (Argentina) on the weekend. Currently sitting second (South Africa) are a side the Wallabies conquered twice last year. And the team in fourth (New Zealand) are in an almighty slump, having lost three Tests in a row for the first time in 24 years. The All Blacks have now lost five of their last six Tests, and up until Sunday, so had the Wallabies.
But the 41-26 win against Los Pumas has instilled hope, much of it drawn from the way it was won. Once again the Wallabies muffed the start and were punished on the scoresheet. But as they did against England in Perth, they kept their nerve. The tougher it got, the better they played. If the darkest hour is indeed before dawn, Sunday was a day character – and characters – shone through.
Once again, the Wallabies were sucker-punched before the kick-off. Last month, it was playmaker Quade Cooper going down with a calf injury in the first Test warm-up and not being able to contest the Ella-Mobbs series. In Mendoza it was Michael Hooper, the side’s best player, captain and seemingly indestructible talisman, flying home with a “mindset” issue on the eve of the first Test.
Dave Rennie had lost nine frontline players to injury in the England series, a devastating attrition rate. Before this Test too Samu Kerevi blew his ACL and Dave Porecki suffered a concussion to join Angus Bell (toe), Andrew Kellaway (hamstring), Scott Sio (shoulder), Tom Banks (arm) and Hooper on the sidelines. Against a Pumas side purring after upsetting Scotland, these blows might once have been mortal.
It seemed so when Australia again fumbled the start and through ill-discipline, over-eagerness and bone-headed decision-making, gifted the home side a 10-point lead after 15 minutes. Yet they found a way back, banishing early yips, shutting out the raucous crowd and building forward pressure, giving Cooper the time and space to sow doubt in the defensive line and unleash the gold rushers out wide.
Even when Cooper’s Achilles tendon imploded in the 46th minute with Australia still nine points down, the Wallabies lifted a gear. Prop James Slipper, no stranger to facing down mental demons, had stepped into Hooper’s shoes as captain and with so many stars missing and their leader in 68 of his 121 Tests flying home, his rallying cry to his three debutantes was simple: “Make Hoops proud.”
Fraser McReight and Jed Holloway had taken radically different paths to their debut Tests on Sunday. Holloway, 29, is a country boy, a Yamba Buccaneer, and a journeyman who’d arrived in his gold jersey via stints in Japan, the US and a period of self-imposed exile. Fraser McReight, 23, is a wild-haired Sunshine Coast kid with a crazy-brave tenacity and work ethic that makes him Hooper’s natural heir.
Cooper had exited the field and the playbook had left with him when this odd couple turned the game. Shoulder-to-shoulder, Holloway and McReight charged into the Argentinian defence. With the ball under his wing, McReight stumbled and looked to be falling short when Holloway reached back and, by the scruff of his jersey, dragged his teammate over the stripe to get Australia back within one point.
The tide was turned by force of mateship and Australia scored the last 24 points of the Test. What made it special was Holloway’s childhood mate (and teammate since he was 10 years old), Matt Gibbon, also made his debut on Sunday.
With both his parents suffering mental disabilities, Gibbon, 27, had grown up wild on a cattle farm in Alstonville, NSW, until his grandfather took him in and channeled the boy’s feral streak into rugby, training Matt and his brother with an old stock whip cracking at their heels like they were brumbies. The old man had died the week before this Test, but with Holloway by his side, Gibbon took the field.
Last month, Australia lost their playmaker, their fullback, the foundation of their scrum and their lineout caller within the first 25 minutes of a Test and, with 14 men on the park, still found a path to victory. On Sunday, with indomitable characters Holloway, McReight, Gibbon and Slipper et al writing the script, they gave a glimpse of the character of a Wallabies side that can shock critics and shake the world.
Words are not deeds and there is a long way to go until the 2023 Rugby World Cup in September. But win again on Sunday and take this team, with that momentum, into the next four Tests (three at home), against South Africa and New Zealand, and Australia can give themselves a very real shot at a Rugby Championship for the first time since 2015, and – perhaps – a first Bledisloe Cup since 2002.