While the average rugby fan may still be engrossed in the 2014 Super Rugby season, some of us are thinking about the impending series against the erratic French, who arrive on our shores in approximately eight weeks for a three-match series.
Wallaby coach Ewen McKenzie is a measured, intelligent performer, who I have little doubt will be plotting the downfall of the French with a game plan dependent upon an improving set piece that can deliver the likes of Quade Cooper and Israel Folau a quality platform to attack from.
I have generally been quite impressed with the forward play by the Australian Super Rugby franchises this season. The Brumbies set piece in particular and their ability to play combat, trench-warfare rugby to halt the momentum of muscular forward packs, such as the Waratahs, has been heartening.
Each of the other franchises have displayed elements that could form a very competitive forward pack.
I delved deeper in the statistics to really get a better look at some perception versus some reality and came up with a first and second-choice Wallaby pack that could achieve an attacking platform.
In looking at the loose head prop position, I gave consideration to the usual suspects; Benn Robinson and James Slipper but also included Scott Sio, Pek Cowan and exciting prospect Toby Smith.
What quickly became apparent is that James Slipper has an exceptionally high work rate; the Queenslander has more hit-ups and tackles than the others. Slipper also boasts a tackle completion rate of 97 per cent and importantly has offloaded the ball twice – a skill that will suit a higher-tempo game and provide opportunity for a trailing support player.
Slipper is a decent player over the ball and has secured three turnovers thus far – a skill each of the Wallaby pack should look to improve in, it should not just be up to loose forwards to compete well over the ball.
While each of the others had a case, I chose Scott Sio to shadow Slipper, as Sio looks to take the ball up and is generally a solid citizen in defence, boasting an 89 per cent tackle completion rate.
Stephen Moore clearly dominates the argument for the hooking role and, as always, is ably supported by Waratah Tatafu Polota-Nau. Moore is a rock in defence, with a 94 per cent tackle completion rate, compared to Polota-Nau who is still respectable with an 87per cent tackle completion rate.
What is great for Australian rugby is that both have good run metres and both can offload the ball. Neither are particularly dominant over the ball, in fact Queenslanders Saia Fainga’a and James Hanson dominate that stat, but the old firm of Moore and Polota-Nau are still the most effective overall.
The tight head prop was a fascinating project. It’s a position we must improve in but was I heartened by a few figures. The much-maligned Ben Alexander has put his hand up for work rate, and also being part of a strong Brumbies pack makes him a contender. Alexander is a ball-running prop with great work rate who looks to offload. His scrum this season has been better but his defence has been average, sitting at a lowly 70 per cent. This is a concern but there is enough about the rest of his game to get him the nod.
And to back him up? For those who are thinking Paddy Ryan, think again. Ryan has turned the ball over five times, which is greater than Ben Alexander, Greg Holmes and Sekope Kepu combined, and the rest of his stats don’t stack up at this stage.
Kepu has had a fair start to the season and I suspect will improve but for work rate the best understudy for Alexander is actually Greg Holmes. Holmes has improved as a scummager and is part of a Reds pack that enjoys an 88 per cent success rate at scum time. The veteran gets the nod to shadow Alexander at this stage, but Kepu looms.
The Wallabies really do have some good locks to pick from but the Reds’ duo of James Horwill and Rob Simmons still get the jumpers in my team. While many will call for Kane Douglas and Will Skelton or even Scott Fardy, both Horwill and Simmons have the numbers.
Simmons has the second-highest tackle rate for Australian locks with 47 at a 94 per cent completion rate; Simmons has stolen more lineout ball than any other contender with four. Over the ball he has pilfered the ball twice.
Horwill excels at pilfering, with has six this season, and combined with solid lineout, run and tackle stats and his crucial experience, he is too hard to leave out.
What will get a few mouths frothing is their chosen support, where I have gone for two uncapped prospects in Sam Carter and Hugh Pyle. While Kane Douglas has experience and Will Skelton size, Douglas has turned the ball over five times and has a lesser successful tackle completion rate 35 tackles at 87 per cent compared to Carter, who has 69 tackles at 92 per cent.
While Carter has ball retention issues, he has 15 lineout takes, which exceeds Douglas (8) and Skelton (1). Carter and Pyle both exceed Douglas and Skelton in run metres but notably Pyle is a forward that can offload and has three lineout steals to his name, hence they get to shadow Horwill and Simmons.
The blind side flank came down to the Scotts, Fardy and Higginbotham, with the Rebels captain getting the nod. I know one has been playing lock the other number 8 but for me they are our best prospects for the 6 jumper. Both are exceptionally good at the lineout, over the ball with seven pilfers each; at the tackle and offloading to their support. However Higginbotham has far greater run metres and that is why he is getting the start. Yet I have no doubt Fardy will make a great bench forward for the Wallabies.
What bothers me is that both can turn the ball over, with Fardy seven times and Higginbotham six, but both clearly can do some damage to the opposition at the set piece, ball in hand and at the breakdown.
Open side flanker is Michael Hooper hands down, but I have gone for Michael Hodgson as back up. Hodgson has been superb for the Western Force with three tries to his name this season, but more impressively eight pilfers coupled with solid defensive stats and run metres, making it impossible to pick Liam Gill as the understudy. Hodgson has a wealth of experience and perhaps we have not seen the last of the veteran in Wallaby gold.
In have excluded Ben Mowen from selection but ran his stats; great line out forward but not in the same class as Wycliff Palu as a ball-running forward, nor is his form equal to that of Ben McCalman, who is enjoying a strong season in spite of his recent suspension.
I have gone with Cliff as he has big run metres, good defence and an able lineout, but what really stands out is he has more offloads than any other back row forwards, with 11. This ability to keep the ball alive while attacking defenders and gaining metres makes Palu my first choice, with McCalman to shadow.
Over to you Roarers, what would you do different?
Don’t forget The Roar is hosting a live Q&A with Bill Pulver from 1pm AEDT today. Get your questions in now.