(Reuters) - A year after leaving Twickenham with heads held high following their surprise run to the World Cup final, a more humble Wallabies side will return to the storied venue for their final Rugby Championship match against Argentina on Saturday.
Michael Cheika’s team have a far different complexion to the swashbuckling band that swept aside all in their path at last year’s global showpiece before they ran into the familiar brick wall of the All Blacks in the decider.
Australia left the tournament with high hopes of challenging the All Blacks’ superiority the following season and continuing rugby’s revival at home after a tumultuous period on and off the field.
However, an unprecedented series whitewash by England in June shattered their new-found confidence, eight months after the Australians had sent the same opponents crashing out of their home World Cup.
The Europe-based internationals who played a big part in Australia’s renaissance were recalled for the start of the Rugby Championship in August but back-to-back thrashings by the rampaging All Blacks were proof the old guard’s time had passed.
The Wallabies appeared on the verge of collapse ahead of their match against South Africa in the third round of the Championship last month, weighed down by a six-game losing streak and a raft of injuries.
Like so many times before, however, they found a way to crawl out of the abyss and secured a 23-17 victory in Brisbane.
The re-tooled side, steered by the retro halves pairing of Quade Cooper and Will Genia, then carved out a win over Argentina in Perth and were in the box seat to break a 50-year hoodoo at Loftus Versfeld at the weekend but for wastefulness in attack and the lethal boot of Morne Steyn.
The Pretoria disappointment showed the Wallabies remain vulnerable as they continue their rebuild but another win over the Pumas on Saturday would back Cheika’s claim that better times lie ahead.
“I think they have been good,” the 49-year-old told local media in London when asked about the roller-coaster 12 months.
”I can’t complain at all.
“I know everyone sees things always -- and I understand totally -- from a results point of view but part of this year for us was going to be about change.
“We knew we had to bring in new players with a view to the future.
“In my experience in this game, you go through great times and then you can go through tougher times and they’ll always lead to giving you the scars on the inside to have better times later on.”
The Wallabies’ mounting injury toll has proved a blessing in disguise, with Cheika blooding 10 debutants and a number of them have shown they belong at test level.
Only eight of the starting 15 in last year’s World Cup final played at Pretoria on Saturday and more changes are tipped for this weekend.
Bath-based backrower Leroy Houston has been drafted into the squad after number eight Sean McMahon was sent home from Pretoria with an ankle injury.
Tonga-born rookie Lopeti Timani, who debuted off the bench against the Pumas in Perth last month, is tipped to slot into the number eight position but could also play as blindside flanker or lock, offering Houston hope of his own test debut at the age of 29.
”Leroy is a contender for sure,“ said Cheika of the Queensland Reds’ recruit. ”He’s a very good footballer, he understands the game and he’s a traditional number eight.
“We’ve mixed and matched in that position over the past year or so but he is definitely a player I’m looking at, not just for this year, but going forward over the next couple.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford