A drawn-out 2020: Wallabies fumble their way to predictable finale

SYDNEY -- If a draw is like kissing your sister, then the Wallabies might be in line for some difficult questions concerning their familial relations following another forgettable evening of Test rugby.

Australia's 16-all draw with Argentina at Bankwest Stadium on Saturday night was the team's third deadlock for the rearranged 2020 Test season. It also means that coach Dave Rennie finishes his first year in charge with the 1-2-3 record that might be elementary on paper, but leaves Australian rugby supporters with more questions than answers as to whether the Kiwi's tenure will be any better than that of his predecessor Michael Cheika.

For the record, Cheika's first full season in charge finished with a defeat in a World Cup final.

Rennie's 2020, meanwhile, came to a close on another disappointing evening of mistakes, ill-discipline, and missed opportunities - all of which were hallmarks of the later Cheika years.

It's true Australia did well to rally after the departure of replacement Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, who was rightly red-carded for a wild tackle on the Pumas' Santiago Grondona, to come away with a draw they really didn't deserve.

But Australia also had the chance to win it with a kick that Bill Murray would be proud of, given it was complete Groundhog Day for Wallabies kicker Reece Hodge.

"What was a draw paying today, $1.15 maybe," Rennie quipped when asked whether the deadlock was easier to take than the previous two. "It feels a little bit different to the draw a couple of weeks ago, mainly because we found ourselves down 10 [points] at one stage and by seven when we got a red card.

"The boys did show a lot of character to fight their way back into that; challenging conditions; we kicked smart in the second half and were able to squeeze out a draw and almost steal it again."

Perhaps Hodge's poster against the All Blacks in Wellington, which seems a long time ago now, should be used as the yardstick for the Wallabies' 2020 season, as the utility back again had the chance to win it for Australia in Sydney on Saturday night, having had the same opportunity in Newcastle a fortnight prior.

History will read that he missed all three shots under pressure.

But putting the blame at Hodge's feet for Saturday night's 16-all draw is far too rough, especially when the Rebels utility had otherwise been perfect off the tee at Bankwest Stadium and had drawn the Wallabies level with a testing conversion about 10 metres in from the right touchline.

If Australia are to genuinely contend with the world's best teams consistently, Hodge knows he has to nail the pressure kicks.

But the Wallabies just didn't play that well in their Tri Nations finale. They were, in fact, downright ordinary and probably deserved to finish with the tournament's wooden spoon, albeit only on for-and-against.

Australia were unable to breakdown the Pumas' defence - which had been brilliant all tournament apart from a late flurry from the All Blacks in Newcastle - and there was again too much dropped ball with the departing Rob Simmons, talented but raw Jordan Petaia, and skipper Michael Hooper among the players to be guilty of the offence on multiple occasions.

Hooper was yellow-carded for a dangerous cleanout, too.

Fly-half James O'Connor did his best to control proceedings but the Wallabies slipped back into their old habit of crabbing across field, in part a result of the Pumas' outstanding defence and the slippery conditions.

But there is no hiding from the fact, even considering the sustained downfall, that the Wallabies have issues on the attacking side of the ball and need to unearth some further ball-carrying threats through the middle of the paddock, particularly given arguably their most consistent performer of this bizarre 2020, Matt Philip, won't be available next season.

"It's something we've talked a lot about, we've got to turn pressure into points," Rennie said. "We've got to create more go-forward in our carries, create quicker ball on our clean.

"Having said that they're a phenomenal defensive side and they tackle really well individually, so there's a lot of dominance in their tackles which gives you slow ball. But we had our opportunities didn't we? They grabbed theirs as soon as they got them [but] we were able to fight our way back into it."

The Pumas, meanwhile, will return to Argentina with their heads held high having come to Australia with little expectation. They are heading home with a maiden triumph over the All Blacks and two further draws with the Wallabies.

Argentina had to overcome a number of quarantine periods and, before the start of the tournament, more than 400 days without a game of rugby. It was an effort just to get here.

"As much as I thought the other one [in Newcastle] if we'd won it, it would have been unfair, I think we deserved this one, especially when you have a look at the penalty count [14-8 against Argentina], I thought we could have won it," Pumas coach Mario Ledesma said of his team's performance in Sydney.

"We're really happy with the tour, I couldn't be prouder, but today I thought we deserved the win."

It was the Wallabies who had played four Tests before the start of the Tri Nations but it was the Pumas who came into the tournament hot.

Certainly Bautista Delguy's try, beautifully crafted by scrum-half Felipe Ezcurra, was the only real moment of enjoyment for the 10,363 fans who braved the at times torrential rain at Bankwest Stadium on Saturday night.

The Australian national anthem, which was sung firstly in the local Indigenous language, was also hugely well received.

So what, now, then, for the Wallabies? First up, a deserved break, maybe not for the way they played in the Tri Nations but certainly because their season originally started back on Jan. 31. Back then, incredibly, COVID was just a rumour and the talk was instead whether the players should have even been out there given the 37 degree temperatures and strong presence of smoke and ash in the air.

A few months later, with COVID sweeping the world, that quickly turned to getting the players back out there as soon as possible, almost at any cost.

Super Rugby AU will return in late February before the six-week crossover series with New Zealand's five teams is contested from mid-May, bringing us to the three-Test series with France, who are trending upwards when the Wallabies themselves have flatlined.

Rennie has a whole lot to contend with between now and then, and central to that thought process will be whether he mirrors what France have done and from which they are reaping the benefits of now.

Could Rennie follow Les Bleus' path and invest further in youth, perhaps by throwing the Wallabies reins to Noah Loleslio or even Will Harrison next year? Certainly given the Brumbies fly-half's debut against the All Blacks, it may still be a tad premature.

And the Wallabies best performance of the year, even though it didn't result in a win, came with O'Connor at fly-half.

Would it have been a different story had Hodge's penalty not struck the post in Wellington? Perhaps he may have kicked the winners against the Pumas in Newcastle and Sydney thereafter, too. But the Wallabies goal-kicker was unable to play the hero on any of those three occasions and Australia's resulting 1-2-3 record for 2020 is as ugly as it is elementary.

Fortunately for Rennie and the 40-odd players that have cycled through camp in 2020, the wider Australian society is more than ready to be rid of this year in 26 days' time, too.