Mixed bag … Drew Mitchell muscles up in Cardiff. Photo: Reuters
Given the Wallabies' year, it was entirely appropriate that even Kurtley Beale's brilliant late try against Wales on Saturday came with a caveat. The game had been won but not by the margin needed to reclaim the No.2 ranking in the world. Australia finish the year lower than where they began, with just one win from six games against the world's top-four sides and without any silverware: the season has been a failure, although one with mitigating factors.
There should be no apologies for that tough appraisal. The fans' viewpoint has to be represented. While New Zealanders, the French and even now the English can look forward to next year with rosy expectations based on spells of rugby that exceeded anything Australia produced this year, Wallabies fans must content themselves with a series of conditionals. If Will Genia makes a full return from injury, the attack could be better. If James O'Connor settles into a position that allows him to develop his talent, the back line could be slicker. If Quade Cooper. If James Horwill. And so on.
All the nagging doubts about the side's direction under Robbie Deans were present for most of an underwhelming game at Millennium Stadium. A lack of guile with ball in hand. The apparent determination to kick the ball away as a strategy rather than a series of individual decisions, and to do it with a lack of accuracy. Fortunately, these Welsh are paralysed by a chronic lack of self-belief, as well as a few key injuries. Their ranking outside the world's top eight does not insult them.
And yet, for all their faults, the Wallabies' familiar qualities were still in evidence. They attacked the breakdown with vigour and timing. In the 39th minute, Benn Robinson won a tough breakdown penalty and immediately received the plaudits of his mates. This is a team that is playing for each other.
Remember, too, that this was essentially a game too far, one for the bean counters. Most other nations had wrapped up their campaigns for the year, and the All Blacks played with such unrecognisable passivity at Twickenham it looked like they had, too. The Wallabies let themselves down in Paris, but finished stronger than the world champions. The coach has obviously pushed some right buttons, particularly with Beale. There is no way the out-of-shape version of the five-eighth would have had the fitness to run that line inside Dave Dennis in the final seconds a few months ago.
These duelling observations - a painful lack of a cutting edge, but an admirable ability to dig themselves out of holes - is why the Wallabies' passionate followers have arrived at such contrasting positions when it comes to Deans. Those calling for his head are not raging blindly, nor are those backing him apologists who cannot see the obvious.
When the ARU conducts its end-of-season review, it will be a complex task, made more so by the performance of the Super franchises this year.
The time zones can make watching Super Rugby in its entirety an arduous task, but that is the only way to watch it if you want to make the mental notes on who is setting the benchmarks. This year, when it came to skills, breakdown work, attacking play and so on, you unfortunately had to work backwards to find where the Australian franchises stood in comparison to its SANZAR partners. The Australian derbies did not give the appearance of a foundation from which the world's best Test side would be built, especially in comparison to the pace of some of the New Zealand encounters, or the sheer physicality of the South African affairs. Television viewing figures released last week, showing a sharp decline, hint that the public was not being fooled.
Neither can they tolerate the bickering between head office and the Super franchises that has periodically raised its head this year. The most astonishing words of the year remain those contained in Mark Arbib's report released in October. "There is currently a worrying divide between the business models of Super Rugby teams and the ARU … As a result, the very structure of Australian rugby has become a factor inhibiting the success of both the national and the Super Rugby teams," Arbib wrote.
Sort it out, gentlemen. The fans expect and deserve better next year because this year has gone and the results have been unconvincing.