Harry Jones’ recent article about the better number 8s getting, or who have gone, around in world rugby left me pondering questions like how much the Wallabies really miss Wycliff Palu and who should be first choice Wallaby number 8 on the northern hemisphere tour?
I delved deeper into my own questions and referred to ESPN Rugby Stats, with some interesting numbers presenting themselves.
To keep my inquiry recent, I sampled the period from 2012 until now and identified the Wallabies have used Cliff Palu, Ben Mowen, Radike Samo, Scott Higginbotham and Ben McCalman as their starting number 8s in that time.
It should be noted Dave Dennis, Liam Gill and Michael Hooper have all come on as reserves to fill that role at times, but I have excluded them as serious contenders for the position as none have actually started a Test in that position.
Furthermore, I have excluded Radike Samo as he is no longer available for selection.
It comes as no surprise that wounded Wallaby Cliff Palu tops the list for metres run. In the 11 Tests he has started since 2012, Palu averaged 18.4 metres with the ball in hand.
This is particularly impressive considering he has played against European Champions Wales, World Champions New Zealand, England at Twickenham and a home series against the British Lions.
It shows Palu is getting his yards against the best opposition in the world, an area the Wallabies have failed to make any real impact in when Ben Mowen is in the 8 jumper.
Mowen is an impressive lineout forward, who averages three lineout wins per Test – which far exceeds Palu’s 0.5, Scott Higginbotham’s 0.6 and Ben McCalman’s 1.3 – however that is really the Everest for Mowen, who averages just under two mistakes per Test, which includes dropped ball, missed tackles turn overs and penalties.
Mowen statistically appears to be the Wallabies’ worst number 8 offender in this area, with Palu averaging one, McCalman about 1.3 and Higginbotham about 0.8 per Test.
Some may be shocked to see Ben McCalman, in his two Tests at number 8, is averaging 18 metres per Test with the ball in hand; averaging five successful tackles per Test and has not missed at tackle.
Defensively he is sound but does not have the defensive work rate of Palu, who averages eight successful tackles per Test, Mowen seven and Higginbotham four.
But he is second only to Palu in offloads, averaging one per Test, while Palu averages 1.2. Mowen and Higginbotham bring up the rear, averaging 0.8 and 0.4 offloads respectively.
This has been telling considering the Wallaby backrow has really failed to fire as a cohesive ball running unit in 2013.
What this tells me is the Wallabies are really missing the consistent presence of a ball running number 8 since the injury of Cliff Palu.
If we consider the past two Wallaby Tests, against Argentina in Rosario and New Zealand in Dunedin, the Wallabies have looked to play a more expansive, possession-based game, which has produced 10 tries.
However, in those Tests Mowen ran only nine metres as an 8 in Rosario and two as a flanker in Dunedin.
He seriously lacks any authority as a ball runner, even during a period where the Wallabies are looking to score tries through the possession game.
Both Scott Fardy and Michael Hooper ran the house down against the Pumas and again McCalman and Hooper carried the ball for Australia’s cause against the All Blacks.
This poses the question of who should wear the 8 jumper for the Wallabies at Twickenham on November 2?
Obviously much will depend on other selections however, assuming Scott Fardy is fit, Ben Mowen should make way for Ben McCalman.
While McCalman does not possess Mowen’s lineout skills, McCalman as an 8 appears to be a better defender, ball runner and is more disciplined that Mowen.
This is vitally important against any northern hemisphere team, all of whom usually have sharp-shooting goal kickers.
Furthermore, we don’t want to make attacking mistakes and release any pressure on the opposition, which has been a factor in the 2013 Rugby Championship for the Wallabies.
The Wallabies should retain Mowen on the bench if the lineout flops in any way, as that is his point of difference and area of influence.
However Rob Simmons, James Horwill and Fardy are decent enough lineout forwards in their own right and McCalman himself can also be used.
Mowen should really focus on his discipline and ball running if he is to be a serious contender for the Wallabies in the future.
I hope he does, but at this time I am really missing Cliff Palu and the Wallabies are too.
What do you say Roarers?