Momentum is a funny thing in sport.
At the end of the 2014 Spring Tour, the Wallabies didn’t have any of it.
Michael Cheika’s first campaign as Wallabies coach had been far from successful from a results perspective, as he attempted to lead the country out of controversy following the sudden resignation of Ewen McKenzie after Bledisloe III.
While Australia was competing strongly in Super Rugby and the Waratahs were the defending champions, it was a different story in internationals.
The Wallabies had plummeted to sixth in the international standings and were in desperate need to start putting some wins on the board ahead of the World Cup, where Cheika’s side were pooled in the ‘group of death’ alongside England, Wales and Fiji.
It made the decision by captain Stephen Moore to turn down a match-levelling shot at goal against the Springboks in Brisbane and go for the winning try in the final seconds of their Rugby Championship opener all the more important.
History reveals a Wallabies win, as bullocking centre Tevita Kuridrani managed to get the ball to kiss the white chalk.
The remarkable 24-20 win kick-started the Wallabies’ campaign, where they went on to beat the All Blacks in Sydney not long after to seal the Rugby Championship and give them the shot in the arm to play with confidence at the World Cup.
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Ahead of the 2019 season, Australian rugby is in a similar position.
Yet, making this year’s task even more difficult is that they don’t have the success of Super Rugby to fall back on.
While there was a slight bend upwards last year, only one Australian Super Rugby side — the Waratahs — made the finals and the Wallabies won just four of 13 Tests (the national team’s worst winning percentage since 1958).
Australian rugby fans and the players themselves need something to get excited about. Even Cheika last year admitted his players were trying to rid their mental demons after a difficult 24 months.
Therefore, we highlight five must-win matches for Australian rugby ahead of the World Cup.
World Cup year priming SR1:11
Waratahs v Hurricanes, February 16
In 2017, Australia’s five Super Rugby sides went winless against New Zealand opposition.
The losing run made a mockery of the Super Rugby structure, which saw the Brumbies awarded a home quarter-final against the Highlanders despite having fewer points on the competition standings.
That losing run extended midway through the 2018 campaign, before the Waratahs beat the Highlanders in Sydney to snap a 40-match losing streak.
The Waratahs finished 2018 with two wins over the Highlanders, while the Rebels and Brumbies, too, notched wins over New Zealand opposition.
But for Australian rugby to get on the front foot against the world’s premier rugby nation, for Australian rugby fans to have confidence and for the news cycle to change, the Waratahs need to beat the Hurricanes on Saturday night at Brookvale Oval.
Ticket sales have Brookvale Oval edging towards a sell-out crowd.
If the Waratahs want those fans to travel with them in 2019, they must win, particularly with their next home match another three weeks away.
Daryl Gibson’s side will be helped by the notable absence of two-time World Player of the Year, Beauden Barrett, with the All Blacks playmaker using one of his enforced New Zealand Rugby breaks following his marriage.
The Waratahs, too, are relatively settled leading into the match, with their star-studded backline to feature.
Rebels v Highlanders, March 1
The Rebels broke their own winless run against New Zealand opposition last June with a 20-10 win over the Blues in Auckland.
They should have notched their second win against the Highlanders in July to seal their maiden Super Rugby finals berth.
But three tries in the final 20 minutes of the match and a match-saving tackle from Waisake Naholo on Jack Maddocks in the final seconds saw the Highlanders pip the Rebels 43-37 in Dunedin to consign them to ninth place.
The Rebels start 2019 with the expectation of making their maiden finals campaign.
Dave Wessels has a star studded line-up to work with.
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But for the Rebels to succeed in 2019 and for the fans to pour in too, they also must win their first home match of the season, which is against the Highlanders.
A win over the Highlanders would see them post their first home win over New Zealand opposition since May 8, 2015.
In 2018, the Rebels, despite competing well in the first halves against the Hurricanes and Crusaders, suffered heavy defeats.
Quarter-final, June 21/22
It’s more than six months away, but recent history suggests Australian rugby needs at least one Super Rugby side in the final four for the Wallabies to compete.
In 2016 and 2017, the Wallabies were slaughtered early against the All Blacks in their Championship openers.
Those heavy defeats came off the back of quarter-final exits for the Brumbies — the sole Australian side to make the Super Rugby finals.
In 2015, two Australian sides made the final four and the Wallabies beat the All Blacks.
While last year, after the Waratahs made the semi-finals, the Wallabies led at halftime before the All Blacks came out firing in the second half to tear away.
But the point is that for the Wallabies to compete in the Rugby Championship, a larger percentage of players must be match hardened by the time the first Test fixture comes up.
Cheika can’t afford to have the bulk of his squad without a match under their belts in more than a month.
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Wallabies v Springboks, July 20
As highlighted earlier, it was the Wallabies’ win over the Springboks in Brisbane in 2015 that started their run to the World Cup final.
The win put them in a position to take out some silverware only a few weeks later when they hosted the All Blacks in Sydney.
After last year’s disaster, which ultimately led to Rugby Australia appointing a director of rugby, Scott Johnson, to be appointed and Stephen Larkham’s axing, the Wallabies need to pull off a miracle and beat the Springboks at Ellis Park, Johannesburg.
If they don’t win then immediately the pressure cooker will be turned up on the Wallabies, who will next play Argentina, likely in Brisbane.
While the Wallabies will probably start as favourites against the lowly Pumas, the memories from 2018 of their first home loss to Argentina in 35 years will come flooding back.
Wallabies v All Blacks, August 10
Wins have been few and far between over the All Blacks.
The All Blacks’ Bledisloe dominance is well known. Not since 2002 have the Wallabies held the Bledisloe Cup.
There were high hopes that their last win over the All Blacks in 2017 at Suncorp Stadium, particularly after their admirable, albeit losing, performance in Dunedin in the previous Bledisloe would see a new page turned for the wounded Wallabies.
The previous win over the All Blacks came in 2015 in Sydney, where they scored three second-half tries to score a come-from-behind win to seal the Rugby Championship.
A loss in Auckland followed, thereby ensuring the All Blacks held on to the Cup, but the Sydney win was enough to give the Wallabies confidence leading into their over-achieving World Cup runners-up result.
Once again, a win over the All Blacks just five weeks before their opening World Cup match against Fiji would do more for the Wallabies than any other result in 2019.
And given the Bledisloe match will be played in Perth, a win would be hugely significant for rugby in the west after the culling of the Western Force in 2017.