WALLABIES COACH’S REALITY CHEIKA
After guiding the NSW Waratahs to a drought-breaking Super Rugby title in 2014, then steering Australia to the Rugby World Cup final in 2015, the honeymoon period is well and truly over for Wallabies coach Michael Cheika following a record-setting low in 2016. Cheika opened the year as world coach of the year but ended it as the first mentor ever to preside over nine Wallabies Test losses in a single season, including an unprecedented 3-0 series whitewash on home soil to Eddie Jones’ resurgent England. He’s competing in tough company with the Wallabies’ other six defeats coming against the world champion All Blacks (three times), second-ranked England at Twickenham, fourth-ranked Ireland in Dublin and South Africa in Pretoria. Nevertheless, Cheika will need to deliver in 2017 after his winning strike rate dropped to 55 per cent – the second worst behind only Ewen McKenzie (50 per cent) of any Australian coach in the 20-year professional era.
NOT SO SUPER RUGBY
Australia’s woes weren’t limited to Test level, with the Brumbies, Waratahs, Queensland Reds, Melbourne Rebels and Western Force managing a measly three wins and a draw between them from 26 tussles with New Zealand’s Super Rugby heavyweights. The collective shocker left Australia without a semi-finalist since 2009 – before the controversial conference system was introduced – with only the Brumbies making the quarter-finals. Debate continues to rage around whether Australia has a big enough talent pool to sustain five franchises in the competition.
HOW MUCH MOORE PAIN FOR WALLABIES SKIPPER?
With 117 Tests to his credit, Stephen Moore is the second-most-capped Wallaby in history. But the big question for 2017 is how much longer he will last as captain of the national side. The hooker turns 34 next month and while he remains contracted and committed to playing on through until the end of the 2019 World Cup, Moore’s position will surely come under threat from younger stars like his spring tour understudy Tolu Latu and Queensland’s emerging Andrew Ready. The skipper’s latest Bledisloe Cup series defeat also included Moore’s 20th, 21st and 22nd losses to the All Blacks – the second most behind Adam Ashley-Cooper’s 24, hardly a stat to fill teammates with optimism.
ARU’S DAVID AND GOLIATH BATTLE WITH OVERSEAS CLUBS
As if the continuing exodus of elite players to cashed-up European and Japanese clubs wasn’t already enough of a concern for the ARU, now Cheika must pick up the pieces in 2017 without champion flanker David Pocock. Australia’s most influential forward’s decision to take a year-long sabbatical will leave a huge hole in the back row, while fellow 2015 World Cup standouts Matt Giteau, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Drew Mitchell are also every chance not to be sighted in gold jumpers next year, if ever again. But there was a silver lining to the ageing overseas-based trio’s ongoing battles with their club bosses to gain releases for international duty with Cheika blooding 14 Test rookies in 2016. Classy backs Dane Haylett-Petty, Sefa Naivalu, Samu Kerevi and Reece Hodge were among the success stories. Adam Coleman’s growing second-row partnership with Rory Arnold was another highlight of the generational change, while Cheika would also be licking his lips at the prospect of introducing former NRL ace Marika Koroibete to the Test arena in 2017.
IZZY HE STILL A TRYSCORING THREAT?
He’s the only player in history to top the tryscoring charts in both a Super Rugby and an NRL season but Israel Folau lost his Midas touch in 2016. The 27-year-old dual international and dual John Eales Medallist finished the season on the longest dry spell of his illustrious career, failing to cross for 11 Tests since last scoring in Australia’s 44-40 loss to England at his Allianz Stadium stomping ground on June 25. Folau’s barren run through the Rugby Championship and European tour followed a flurry of tries for the Waratahs while maximised in the centres. But Cheika doggedly kept the Wallabies’ attacking trump at fullback for the rest of the year.
GOLD GOLD GOLD FOR AUSTRALIA
It wasn’t all doom and gloom on the international front, with the Australian women’s sevens team emerging from the shadows to steal the spotlight in a golden 2016 season. After breaking through to win their historic first World Series title, the Pearls lived up to the hype and pressure and captured the hearts of Australian sports fans with Olympic glory in Rio, mounting a a spirited fightback to conquer arch rivals New Zealand in the tension-filled final. Gamebreaker Charlotte Caslick was duly crowned the women’s world sevens player of the year, while the ARU are hoping the Pearls’ success draws a whole new generation of young girls to the fast-growing sport.