The Wallabies may have re-established themselves as one of the leading teams in world rugby, but they are now in danger of becoming a one-man band.
Back-to-back wins against world champions South Africa and a convincing 27-8 victory over Argentina in Townsville on Saturday night have affirmed Australia’s rise to No 3 in the world rankings.
But would they have won three Tests in a row for the first time since 2017 without the return of block-busting inside centre Samu Kerevi? Not since the All Blacks decided to “give the ball to Jonah” at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa has an international side relied so heavily on one player.
And New Zealand’s failure to win that World Cup is a cautionary tale for Dave Rennie’s side, who are becoming over-reliant on Kerevi’s powerful go-forward, off-loading and role as a decoy.
Sure, the recall of veteran playmaker Quade Cooper has also made a big difference to the Wallabies’ play, but they could adequately cover Cooper’s absence following the return of utility back James O’Connor from injury.
There is an urgent need to develop a Plan B in the event the opposition finds a way to contain Kerevi or if he is injured.
It is a similar situation to the NRL’s Manly Sea-Eagles, who struggle to win when star full-back Tom Trbojevic is injured or heavily marked by the opposition.
The only player in the Wallabies’ squad who could potentially duplicate what Kerevi does is utility back Reece Hodge, who is currently playing full-back.
Hodge has the size and strength to get the Wallabies across the advantage line in the midfield and the passing skills to continue an attacking movement. But Hodge lacks Kerevi’s X-factor, which is just as important as his physicality and skill-set.
If the Wallabies are unable to replicate the Kerevi factor, they will need to develop another way of playing without him to ensure they continue to progress their game.
Kerevi produced a man-of-the-match performance in Townsville, setting up Hodge’s try in the fourth minute with a strong burst and scoring himself in the 18th minute with a pick and go on Argentina’s line.
The win confirmed the Wallabies were heading in the right direction, but it was certainly not the polished performance Rennie had been looking for.
Notwithstanding the 19-point margin, the win was similar in some ways to their 28-26 victory in their first Test against the Springboks.
Even though the Wallabies out-scored Argentina three tries to one, the Pumas left eight points on the field with winger Emiliano Boffelli missing three attempts at goal – scores they could usually bank on.
The addition of those points would still have left Argentina well short of the Wallabies’ total, but Australia also benefitted immeasurably from the ill-discipline of Pumas back-rower Marcos Kremer, whose actions led to two penalties being reversed.
Australia led 17-3 at half-time but Argentina showed signs of making a game of it early in the second half after hooker Julian Montoya scored from a rolling maul in the 42nd minute.
The Pumas were awarded a penalty in the 47th minute for a high tackle, but the penalty was reversed when Kremer flung Wallabies winger Marika Koroibete to the ground.
Eight minutes later Wallabies second-rower Matt Philip was penalised for a ruck infringement, but the penalty was reversed after Kremer tripped Hodge. Kremer was sent to the sin bin, taking the Pumas’ hopes of making a comeback with him.
The game could have been a lot closer or it could have been a blow-out. In the end it was neither. While happy with the win, Rennie was frustrated the Wallabies did not run the Pumas “off their feet” in the second-half.
Australia dominated possession and territory but, more importantly, beat 26 defenders to Argentina’s five and made eight clean breaks to none, while the Pumas missed 26 tackles to Australia’s five.
These statistics should have resulted in the Wallabies scoring more than three tries, but costly turnovers and a poor lineout prevented them from running away with the game and invited their opponents to remain in the contest until winger Andrew Kellaway put the result beyond doubt in the 69th minute.
While the All Blacks secured The Rugby Championship with a 19-17 win against South Africa in Townsville, the Wallabies and Springboks are still competing for second place with one round to go.
Rennie hinted at making a couple of changes for the second Test against Argentina on the Gold Coast on Saturday afternoon. Koroibete is heading home for family reasons and will probably be replaced on the wing by Jordan Petaia, who had limited game time off the bench.
There seems little doubt Japan-based back-rower Sean McMahon will receive his first Test cap since 2017 either at No 8 or blindside flanker.
But maybe the one change Rennie should make is resting Kerevi just to see how the Wallabies fare without him. It would tell the Australians whether they have become too dependent on him and what they need to do to address the issue.
It is not something to be left until the last minute – like the final of a World Cup.