The first weekend of international rugby down this neck of the woods has resulted in two results that two countries were kind of dreading.
But if anything, the Wallabies and Springboks’ losses have really added some spice to this second weekend of Tests; try and imagine the build-up if England and Ireland were touched up last weekend.
As a result, the anticipation for the Tests in Melbourne and Johannesburg is far more pronounced, which will, in turn, be matched by the level of nervousness of the respective supporters.
It’s another big weekend of international rugby, and here are the talking points for the weekend’s fixtures.
Strength in numbers
Train stations in Melbourne were being scoured this week to find a bench long enough to cater for Michael Cheika’s reserves list, after he named 11 players on an ‘extended bench’ on Wednesday night.
As it was, the team announcement came a day earlier than the usual protocol. Which kind of begs the question of why, if no firm decision had been made around the bench by that time. Cheika then admitted in interviews later that he would be reverting to the traditional 5-3 forwards-back bench split, which with the need for three front rowers means that three of Dean Mumm, James Horwill, Ben McCalman, Liam Gill, and Wycliff Palu will be trimmed at some point today.
Quite why the team had to be named early when such indecision remained is beyond me. If Cheika really didn’t know which two forwards he was going to go with by then, why name a bench at all?
Either way, his final decision today will be interesting. Horwill wasn’t terrible after replacing Rob Simmons last weekend, and with Rory Arnold not likely to last 80 minutes, the Harlequins lock deserves to hold his place. Additionally, if Sam Carter went down early, then I’d be a touch worried about an Arnold-Mumm pairing.
And then the decision becomes one of who provides the most back-row influence. McCalman was probably unlucky not to start at No.8, and though he’d be solid, he’s not typically an impact-type player. Gill coming on late in the game to tear into the breakdown certainly has appeal, but equally, Palu has averaged 31 minutes a game this season for the Waratahs, and has certainly added a physical presence when coming off the bench.
I like the idea of Palu, but I’m still worried about the Wallabies’ ability to force the issue at the breakdown, meaning I can’t easily discount the need for Gill. Two backrowers and Scott Fardy as the lock cover, I wonder?
Eddie doubles down on Larwood
All the talk before the first Test in Brisbane was around Eddie Jones wanting his team to play ‘Bodyline rugby’ against the Wallabies, and there’s no doubt the Englishmen fronted up in the physicality and pressure stakes.
It’s hard to see England going away from that plan in Melbourne, though it was certainly interesting to see Luther Burrell benched inside half an hour last week, replaced by George Ford. Ford has retained his place in the starting XV for the second Test, suggesting that England will attack with brains rather than brawn.
But they’ll pick and choose their time to attack, too. With Ford and Owen Farrell alongside each other, they obviously won’t be wanting to play a lot of football in their own half. And in keeping the same forward pack, plus adding an extra bench forward – it’s Eddie’s turn to run the 6-2 bench – it’s a clear sign of their intention.
And it means the Wallabies need to deliver on their talk this week of learning the lessons of discipline.
In saying, “We’ve picked a 23 to get the job done in Melbourne,” Jones is laying down a gauntlet. ‘You better make sure you get a lead, because if we get ahead again, we’re just going to close you down,’ he’s saying to the Wallabies. If the breakdown was a mess in the last 20 in Brisbane, it’s going to be a whole lot worse in Melbourne.
I’m building my own anticipation levels just writing this. If the Wallabies can survive this test, it might be a moment in their development they look back upon fondly. It should be a cracker.
The bus parked
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has sent two pretty clear messages to Julian Savea during and after the Eden Park win last weekend: your performance didn’t warrant finishing the game last weekend, and now it doesn’t warrant starting in Wellington.
Israel Dagg has been recalled, and he has been in sparkling from since returning from injuries for the Crusaders earlier this season. Ben Smith probably is the most complete fullback in the game currently, yet moving him to the wing to accommodate Dagg at fullback actually makes the All Blacks stronger!
Savea wasn’t quite providing enough spark, but there will be no shortage of that now from Smith and Dagg. Diggercane might’ve been right on the tipping panel yesterday; this one could really hurt Wales.
How will the Boks bounce?
There’s two ways the Springboks can go this weekend at Ellis Park, as they stare down the barrel of a historic home series loss to Ireland.
They can show that last week was just a bit of rust and really deliver for their new coach, or they can play exactly the same – or worse – and justify all the concern that has flowed from the Republic since last Saturday evening.
With a group of in-form Lions through their midst, the Springboks certainly now have the ability to play the way the Ellis Park crowd have come to enjoy. If Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies can complement each other, rather than Jantjies trying to do something every play as he’s sometimes prone to, there is plenty of space and pace out wide to use.
But like the Wallabies, it’s all going to come back to the Boks pack. They were outgunned by an Irish army minus one last week at Newlands, and this has to be the week Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen deliver. The front row has plenty of work to do too, however.
Two weeks on deck and the pressure is sky-high already for Allister Coetzee. So what tricks does he have up his sleeve for this match?
Foley move could force Reds’ hand
If there’s one organisation that didn’t need yesterday’s news that Michael Foley’s time with the Western Force was up, it may well be the Queensland Reds.
In the middle of their own process to name a head coach for 2017 – we presume, there have been no real updates – the Queensland Rugby Union may now find themselves having to conclude their process sooner just to be sure they get the coach they really want.
A really interesting situation now exists, in which the ARU desperately need to find the best possible coach available to take over in Perth. It means they could, in effect, be competing with the Queensland Rugby Union for candidates.
Current co-interim head coaches Nick Stiles and Matt O’Connor could well be enticed to apply for the Force job, either as a fall-back position or even to force the Queensland Rugby Union’s hand. Stiles was an assistant at the Force before returning to Ballymore in 2014.
And wouldn’t it cause a stir if the Reds’ preferred candidate knocked them back because the ARU tabled a better offer to coach the Force? Cue the conspiracy theorists!
Enjoy your weekend of Test rugby.