Ewen McKenzie should be congratulated on the Wallaby Renaissance, illustrated most recently by his side’s emphatic dismantling of the lacklustre French in Brisbane last Saturday.
McKenzie delivered a judicious coaching performance, with the Wallabies demonstrating they can deliver a quality game balanced between directness and width in attack, coupled with a sound defensive effort.
However, McKenzie must also acknowledge that some within his match-day 23 failed to deliver. The person at the foremost of my mind is reserve tighthead prop Paddy Ryan.
Ryan entered the fray at the 53-minute mark and his efforts were short of Test standard, in both the set piece and general play. His performance was an anomaly in the overall Wallaby performance, and must be of a concern to the Australian coaching staff.
Ryan’s first involvement was the scrum after Adam Ashley-Cooper was disallowed a try. Referee Craig Joubert Joubert called for a scrum five yards out; a near-perfect attacking platform for the Wallabies, yet Ryan infringed and gave away a short arm penalty that released the pressure.
Ryan lacks some basic understanding of body height in both the ruck and maul area. He was simply too inaccurate and high during the majority of his involvements, illustrated by his missed tackle on impressive French number 8 Damien Chouly, who went on to gain damaging yards.
Later, the Wallabies were deep in attack and Ryan was again penalised for an incorrect entry to the ruck, effectively killing off a try-scoring opportunity. Then there was the penalty try scored in the final minutes after the Wallaby scrum has manhandled. Neither suggests Ryan should be selected for the next Test in Melbourne.
If McKenzie does not replace Ryan I fear he will poison his reputation and culture within his group. If it’s good enough to keep a former Wallaby captain and current Super Rugby captain out of the match-day 23, it should well be good enough to replace a fringe prop.
McKenzie must make the tough call and replace Ryan, as he is not the man who will hold up an English or Welsh scrum come Rugby World Cup 2015.
So who are the candidates? I have advocated moving the industrious James Slipper from loosehead to tighthead as he has had some Test and Super Rugby experience there. This would allow Scott Sio to come into the starting XV, leaving a reserve front row of Pek Cowan, Nathan Charles and Sekope Kepu.
Kepu played well on Saturday but I recall his recent game for the Waratah’s against the Chiefs where he made quite an impact from the bench with several raids down the midfield, carrying a Chief or two with him. I would like to see him do that for the Wallabies.
If McKenzie is to keep the same starting front row I would look to either Greg Holmes or Laurie Weeks to come in as the reserve tighthead.
I have always rated Greg Holmes as a loosehead, but he has struggled at times as a tighthead. Still, his finest hour was coming to the rescue of Queensland at tighthead in the Super Rugby final in 2011 and he has made a decent fist of it since. He would not let the jumper down.
The other alternative is former Queensland Red and current Melbourne Rebel Weeks. I was impressed with Weeks’ scrummaging against All Black Ben Franks when the Rebels and Hurricanes recently clashed in Super Rugby. Weeks was solid and did not allow the more experienced Franks get under him, providing a rock solid platform for his backs. The unfashionable Weeks may be on the cusp of a Wallaby cap and he too would serve the jumper well.
In other selections for Melbourne, I would look to bring James Horwill back into the starting XV as I doubt France will allow Rob Simmons to dominate the lineout like he did in Brisbane. Australia will need another genuine lineout forward who will also have the guile and fortitude to take on a French side that will open the second Test with an amplified sense of passion, leading to some fiery exchanges.
This is no time to start Luke Jones or Will Skelton, however the latter should come into the match-day 23 at tighthead lock to really give Holmes, Weeks or whomever some genuine weight that the reserve front row will require.
I was asked about Wyliff Palu’s performance; I know The Roar‘s Scott Allen only rated his performance as a 6/10, however Cliff played some very good rugby, and often rugby that goes unnoticed. Let’s not forget Palu is replacing the previous Wallaby skipper Ben Mowen. While Cliff does not bring Ben’s leadership or lineout skills, he brings a much sterner running and defensive game.
When Israel Folau scored at the 18 minute mark, it was Cliff Palu who attacked the line, drawing in the French centre pairing of Wesley Fofana and Gael Fickou. Palu managed to offload from the contact to James Slipper, who passed on to the impressive Folau. Let’s not forget it was Palu’s ability to draw multiple defenders and offload that laid the foundation for that try.
Every time Palu ran the ball he attracted multiple defenders and he consistently got over the advantage line. The Wallabies’ recycle was efficient from his runs, allowing a flow-on for the outside backs. Palu worked well off the ball in attack, consistently providing Nic White or Bernard Foley a running option, sucking in defenders.
In defence Palu was quite damaging. He did not dominate all his tackles but he defended close to the breakdown. When the French started the second half and looked to play it up through the forwards Palu inflicted three very good tackles within about a minute and half. First was a solid hit on French hooker Guillem Guirardo, who was sore for the experience, the next on the French debutant winger Felix Le Bourhis, who had come into the open side looking for some work, but Palu caught him well behind the gain line.
Finally Palu put in the hit of the match against his opposite 8, Chouly, who was thundering down the park until Cliff squared him with a cracker. The French really only started to make inroads around the breakdown when Palu was replaced.
Some say Scott Higginbotham should have been at 8 for the Wallabies. I could not see Scott making the type of contribution Cliff did. Cliff operating around the break down in both defence and attack allows both Scott Fardy and Michael Hooper to drift a little wider to make their impact. Palu is a good balance for Fardy and Hooper and is the line-bending forward we need to compensate for attacking from width.
We don’t need another wide-running back rower, which Higginbotham tends to be. I consider Higginbotham a back up to Fardy and Ben McCalman a back up for Palu.
Finally, I would bring Will Genia in for Nick Phipps.
My Wallaby 23 for Melbourne
1. Scott Sio
2. Totafu Polota-Nau
3. James Slipper
4. Rob Simmons
5. James Horwill
6. Scott Fardy
7. Michael Hooper
8. Cliff Palu
9. Nic White
10. Bernard Foley
11. Nick Cummins
12. Matt Toomua
13. Tevita Kurindrani
14. Adam Ashley-Cooper
15. Israel Folau
16. Pek Cowan
17. Nathan Charles
18. Sekope Kepu
19. Will Skelton
20. Ben McCalman
21. Will Genia
22. Kurtley Beale
23. Pat McCabe.