Selecting the Wallaby front row
The Wallaby pack has been beaten up by quite a few parties over the past few years. There’s no better time to be ruthless at the selection table.
The All Blacks have held the Bledisloe Cup since 2003, Samoa beat us in 2011, a rebuilding England knocked us over on their last tour down under and Scotland broke a twenty-seven year losing streak at Murrayfield in 2009.
Indeed, since 2002 the Wallaby forwards have been seen as vulnerable.
This vulnerability came after a strong period, highlighted by the 1984 Grand Slam.
This phase included that magnificent push-over try against Wales, the 1991 World Cup, the 1999 World Cup and five Bledisloe Cups in a row from 1998-2002.
Apart from the Brisbane game the All Blacks have put huge pressure on the Australian team across the park.
Steve Hansen has listed his initial All Blacks training squad for the year and Robbie Deans cannot be far behind with the Wallabies.
I expect that Robbie will see the Wallaby selections quite differently from me. He has with every squad he has named so far in his tenure, so why should this one be any different?
Regardless I think it is time to start throwing up some names for the pack I would like to see.
As usual I’ll leave the cardboard cutouts for others to hypothesise over.
This week I’ll focus on the front rowers, with the second and back row to come out next week.
The loosehead prop has to be Benn Robinson. He has been the standout loosehead prop in the country all year at scrum time.
His work around the park started very poorly but he has been lifting.
We’ll want him to step up further in that space while maintaining that scrummaging.
Interestingly Ben Tameifuna has been his toughest battle all year, followed by Dan Palmer.
The normally strong Crusaders scrum actually got pushed back a couple of steps a couple of times, which bodes well for Robinson’s form.
Of the props playing loosehead in Australia this year my second choice is Greg Holmes. He is playing well and scrummaging well.
For hooker, I think Stephen Moore has to be first choice.
Tatafu Polota-Nau makes some great impact plays but his efforts over 80 minutes do not match those of Moore.
Both hookers have issues with their lineout throwing, although both have improved in this area.
The next rank of Nathan Charles, James Hanson and Saia Fainga’a all have work to do to catch the top two Aussie rakes.
Dan Palmer is my choice for tighthead prop. He held up strongly against Robinson in their head-to-head during the Brumbies and Waratahs match.
It was quite notable to me that the second Palmer left the field Jeremy Tilse was brought on by the Waratahs.
It was as if Michael Foley wanted to get Tilse his first run of the year (following the injury to Paddy Ryan), but was not game to give him minutes against Palmer.
Sekope Kepu is my second-choice tighthead. He is either very lucky or unlucky he doesn’t pack down twice against Robinson over the course of the season.
I’d love to be a fly on the wall at an Aussie or Waratah scrum session to see what happens when they oppose.
James Slipper is the next prop in line; he has been ok at tighthead but I believe his greatest potential is at loosehead.
Slipper’s best scrummaging performance over the past few years was against Italy’s Martin Castrogiovanni in 2010 and came at loosehead.
He was under significant pressure against Sona Taumalolo last week and until he grows stronger he remains just on the cusp.
Despite his loosehead potential he plays tighthead for the Reds and looks to be our third choice here.
Ben Alexander, Pek Cowan and Salesi Ma’afu are significantly behind. This trio have been Deans’ favourites though and I’ll be disappointed, but not surprised, if they get in ahead of some of the afore mentioned.
Behind this group the developing props are encouraging, with Kieran Longbottom and Paddy Ryan unlucky to get injured.
Jeremy Tilse has just started getting some game time and needs to fix his foot movement on engagement. He remains a promising loosehead option.
Ruaidhri Murphy is another to keep an eye on, but I don’t believe he is eligible for Australia yet. He needs to continue his development.
Salesi Ma’afu, Pek Cowan, Ben Daley, Rodney Blake, Laurie Weeks and Nic Henderson are behind this leading group and need significant improvement if they desire higher honours.
Robinson and Palmer both missed last year’s representative games due to injury and hopefully they lead the charge of bringing respect back to Wallaby scrummaging in the coming internationals.
I would like to see continued improvement from both of them around the field.
I’m looking to see a first-choice front row of Robinson, Moore and Palmer, with Polota-Nau and Kepu on the bench.
Slipper is the next reserve, although I would have Holmes leapfrog him if anything happened to Robinson.
Tune in next week for a review of the second row and back row.
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