Third Test: All aboard the Wallabies roller-coaster, again

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High flying Nick Cummins is flying out to the Northern Hemisphere. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

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Here we go again. The Wallabies’ exhilarating 50-23 win in Brisbane was followed in Melbourne by the now-customary lacklustre follow-up.

It was, at least, a win. So many Wallabies sides in the recent past would’ve lot patience with a nil-nil halftime score, and shelled penalties and tries late in the game to lose by 15 or more.

So on that front, there is some degree of positivity coming of the 6-0 result.

Up, down. Up, down. Already it feels like the Wallabies of 2014 are treading a familiar path, and with it comes the familiar extreme reactions.

‘Outstanding’ they said after Brisbane. ‘This is a side to plan around,’ they said, with an eye to the future and willingness to dream that only comes with a big win over a more-than-useful international opponent.

‘Rubbish,’ they said a week later. ‘They’re all crap and should be dropped, especially that guy who was really good last week. Never rated him.’

Honestly, if I hadn’t seen it every season for the last however many years, it would’ve been amusing.

Like all good reactions after a loss, the style drew further rebuke. Ewen McKenzie’s ‘winning isn’t enough’ decree at the start of the international season was jumped on.

‘No wonder only 27,000 turned up,’ they said, as if the way the game was going to play out was known upfront and used in promotions.

‘How do they expect to grow they game playing like that?’ they asked, as if the here-and-now attention spans of the kiddies are so short that the slightest hint of hard work and things not happening like in the highlights reels will send them running to other endeavours.

With the series done, and the growing cobwebs removed from the St Leonards cabinet to make way for an actual trophy, McKenzie has taken the opportunity to try some previously unused players in the third Test on Saturday afternoon in Sydney.

Brumbies prop Scott Sio finally gets a spot on the bench, in place of Pek Cowan. After learning late last week that Sio had been fully fit the whole series, this is a welcome – if not overdue – move. Laurie Weeks keeps his bench spot, and fair enough.

James Horwill comes back to the bench in place of last week’s debutant Luke Jones, who will almost certainly get another chance in gold this year. Likewise Scott Higginbotham, who drops out of the 23, with Ben McCalman coming back to the bench to cover backrow.

Will Genia’s ankle surgery has given Nick Phipps a reprieve, and he holds his bench spot alongside Kurtley Beale. Their Waratahs teammate Rob Horne comes in for Pat McCabe, and though McCabe has been ruled out with a nerve compression injury in his shoulder, this wouldn’t have been an undeserving reward for Horne’s good Super Rugby form.

Wycliff Palu is back at No.8, overcoming his minor injury as expected. Though McCalman tried valiantly in Melbourne, he just doesn’t bend the line like Palu does. If McCalman had, or could find a John Cartwright-style offload, he’d be an altogether different selection prospect. Until he does, a fit Palu will always win out.

While I remain entirely unconvinced that Will Skelton is anywhere near ready for Test rugby, there’s probably no better opportunity to find out than in this match. McKenzie said this week that Skelton “has a big motor and is particularly skilful, so we’re looking forward to seeing how he will impose himself on the game,” and that’s all fair enough, even if the ‘big motor’ suggestion is a little generous.

There’s no question of his skills, certainly. And he’ll give tighthead Sekope Kepu a level of oomph from behind that Kepu has never felt at Test level before. The obvious concern comes in the form of a depleted lineout and a breakdown presence that belies Skelton’s considerable size.

Nevertheless, I look forward to being proved wrong and raving about a brilliant debut next week.

And what of the French side? Which one will turn up, and what can we expect?

There was talk earlier in the week of France wanting to finish the tour on a high in the Sydney sunshine, and Philippe Saint-Andre has hinted at that, even if he’s made few changes to his XV from Melbourne.

Ball-carrying flanker Fulgence Ouedraogo comes in at No.7, with Thierry Dusautoir shifting to the opposite side of the scrum. Fullback in Brisbane, Hugo Bonneval brings his speed and finishing ability on the wing in place of Maxime Medard, who didn’t see a lot of action in the second Test.

The Wallabies should certainly be expecting the same breakdown contest they encountered in Melbourne, but they should also be readying themselves for more questions of their defensive line from first phase. We never really saw much of Mathieu Basteraud with the ball under his arm, but it should absolutely be expected in Sydney. If Matt Toomua didn’t buy those shoulder pads he joked about last week, it might not be such a silly idea this week.

If the cycle is to continue, then we should be readying ourselves for another big climb on the roller coaster, and a wonderful win to complete the France series clean-sweep.

Even if we know that means we might be in for more hand-wringing by the first Bledisloe.

Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-first-grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009, Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport
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