Column: The Tri Nations might be lost - the Wallabies have something just as important to play for

by Christy Doran

It was in the middle of 2016 that the Wallabies missed a chance to take a nation with them.

Revitalised by the Wallabies’ stunning World Cup campaign where Michael Cheika took his side to the brink of glory, rugby was on the tips of tongues across Australia heading into a historic series against the Motherland.

Then another Australian sucked the oxygen out of the air as Eddie Jones’ England claimed a three-nil series whitewash. With revenge on his mind 11 years after being unceremoniously sacked as Wallabies coached, ‘Beaver’ laughed all the way back to Pennyhill Park and made England’s press eat their own words as they waited for the quick-witted Aussie to slip up.

Two more defeats followed as the All Blacks claimed consecutive victories.

The Wallabies might have finished the year well, but they missed the chance to take the Australian public with them.

On Saturday, in western Sydney, the Wallabies have another chance to do just that as they host the Pumas to round out the year.

They can’t afford to let the opportunity slip like they did recently in Newcastle.

It's something not lost on the Wallabies either.

"It’s hugely important for us. (All Blacks captain) Sam Cane hit it on the head there, you don’t want to be dwelling over a loss over the summer – that’s one of the worst things," Wallabies forward Lukhan Salakaia-Loto said on Sunday.

"For us, there’s a lot of positives that have happened this year in the weird year that it has been, so we’re definitely looking forward to working hard to getting a result that we’re proud of and everyone else can be proud of. We don’t train hard and work hard to go out there and lose."

But they’ve got to overturn some unwanted recent history to do just that.

The Wallabies haven’t won their final Test of a year since 2013.

Since then, the Wallabies have been beaten three times by Eddie Jones’ England, including last year’s World Cup quarter-final drubbing, a fourth by his predecessor Stuart Lancaster, a hammering from Scotland and their 2015 World Cup final defeat to the All Blacks.

It’s a record Dave Rennie will be out to end. Immediately.

The Wallabies have the chance to carry the momentum gained in recent months into 2021.

Buoyed by the arrival of a new broadcast partner, Super Rugby will be shown on free to air for the first time next year and include a trans-Tasman tournament following their respective domestic competitions.

Nor will the nation’s best talent have to find new homes either because of the competitive tension that saw Nine Entertainment jump on board.

Just as importantly, the Wallabies’ courageous and tenacious performance across the ditch and their win in Brisbane in Bledisloe IV showed talent does exist in Australia.

The return of the Western Force – whatever your position on whether Australian rugby should have five Super Rugby franchises or not – gives the nation a genuine national footprint.

Club rugby across Australia continues to go from strength to strength.

And, significantly, there’s now alignment between the CEO, national coach and captain in Australian rugby.

It’s an aspect that hasn’t always been valued nor generates headlines, but the importance of it ran true when former Wallabies captain Stirling Mortlock revealed to The Rugby Ruckas Podcast last year the advice John Eales had told him about alignment.

COVID-19 might have pushed Australian rugby to the brink of collapse.

But as Winston Churchill popularised, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

Rugby Australia certainly did not.

“Well, you wouldn’t have thought it at the beginning of COVID, would you?” Rugby Australia interim CEO Rob Clarke told journalists following the announcement that Australia and New Zealand would play each other in a trans-Tasman domestic crossover following their respective Super Rugby seasons in 2021 earlier this month.

“The dark clouds were very much on the horizon then and we’ve had some storms throughout, but I think we’re now starting to see the sunshine.

“And you’re right, Rugby Australia is leaner and meaner and fitter because of the decisions we’ve had to make around our structures, our resources, our cost base and I think that is a good platform to move into 2021.”

Now it’s time for the Wallabies to step up and show their worth.

The NRL and AFL finished up a month ago.

Even leading league commentator Andrew Voss - despite his predictably narrow-minded view of what constitutes as a "good game" - is watching.

What better way to make a statement by finishing with aplomb to usher in a new age of rugby in Australia.