Breaking down the Wallabies' disciplinary woes

The Wallabies have a discipline problem.

That's probably not breaking news for even casual rugby supporters of the past couple of years, nor is the sound of Michael Cheika complaining about a decision -- or series of decisions -- following a defeat unfamiliar, either.

But as the countdown to Rugby World Cup 2019 has moved beyond its two-months-to-go marker, and Australia now has just four Tests left to refine their best line-up and game plan, just as important is the need to reverse a two-year trend that has seen the Wallabies win just five of 28 penalty counts.

And the news gets even worse when that sample size is refined to just the 2018 Test season -- a year in which the Wallabies won just 4 of 13 matches -- with Australia finishing on the right side of the referee on only one occasion with a further two penalty counts squared.

Two-time defending world champions New Zealand have meanwhile won 13 of their 28 penalty counts with a further nine squared, leaving them on the wrong side of the whisteblowers on nine occasions compared with the Wallabies 17 across the same timeframe.

There have certainly been other factors behind the Wallabies' slide down the world Test rankings; a shaky set-piece, confusion in exactly how they want to play the game and a defensive approach that has led to consistent calls for Nathan Grey's sacking all significant issues Cheika's side have struggled with.

But a poor disciplinary record and a frustrated Cheika griping about officials after Test defeat suggests the Wallabies aren't making things easy on themselves, while the belief that Australian players are prone to brain explosions or are easily baited into a reaction has only grown legs in recent times.

Saturday night's 35-17 loss to South Africa in Johannesburg saw prop Taniela Tupou -- coincidentally the most penalized player in Super Rugby this season -- sin-binned for a dangerous cleanout after referee Paul Williams had blown a penalty for Australia.

The Springboks scored two tries while Tupou was off, extending their lead from four to 18 points in the process and virtually wrapping up an opening Rugby Championship victory.

Journalists are always quick to raise the foul-play incidents at post-match press conferences, knowing they're likely to generate an emotive response from a coach who hasn't always had time to review the decision in the same way that fans and television pundits do at home or in the studio respectively.

But you can't expect Cheika to throw the player in question to the wolves either, which also contributes to a response like the one he offered to a question about Tupou's sin-binning.

"It was the wrong call," Cheika said. "The other guy (Bok player) should have been sent to the sin-bin. The fourth official (should have) focused on the green player who came in with a shoulder charge.

"Tupou came in after that with his arms wrapped and at the right height, so I'm not sure if it just a case that big contact is a penalty these days."

In fairness to the oft-emotional Cheika, he was much more circumspect when addressing Tolu Latu's yellow card from Bledisloe III in Japan last year, though that Test was as good as over when the replacement hooker was sin-binned with the score at 27-13 in New Zealand's favour.

"You shouldn't do it because if they push us and he [Latu] pushes back, then he should know it is going to come back on us. That is just the nature of where we are at the moment," Cheika said at the time.

"He shouldn't do it but at the same time as a footballer you don't want to be pushed. I don't think the referee was going to do anything about it when he kept coming towards him.

"I understand he wants to look after himself and stand up for himself that is part of the game ... but not in that manner."

Of course it would be far too simplistic to compare the Wallabies' discipline record to just the world champions; so what does it look like when put up against Argentina, whom Australia face this weekend in Brisbane?

Over the same two-year sample size, but across three fewer Tests, the Pumas won eight of 25 penalty counts, with a further two shared. But when the Wallabies fortunes deteriorated in 2018, Argentina actually improved their discipline in finishing with the referees' favour on five occasions from 12 Tests.

It sets up an intriguing sidebar to Saturday's Suncorp Stadium clash between two teams who are both looking to bounce back from defeats on the truncated Rugby Championship's opening weekend.

New Zealander Ben O'Keeffe takes the whistle in Brisbane, giving Australia the chance to adjust to some of the referee's focal points before he officiates their World Cup opener with Fiji in Sapporo on September 21.

Having lost four of their past five Tests stretching back to last year's spring tour, the Wallabies are in dire need of a win. Erring on the side of caution in those 50/50 situations and resisting the temptation to react when niggled won't guarantee a victory, but it might make the pursuit of it just that little bit easier.