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The days before the first Bledisloe Cup Test of the year; that time of year when tentative views about the Wallabies have been building since June, forming the most uneasy question in the forefront of the Australian rugby mind.
Could this be the year? Or could it be a sixteenth year of you-know-what?
Hope springs eternal, as the grand old saying goes, but equally, the stink of history is never far behind.
It’s certainly true that the Wallabies haven’t lost the Bledisloe Cup in 2018. Yet. That may happen, but it may not happen.
And that’s what makes this week exciting.
We’ve all been in this position before as Australian fans; hoping for the best and/or secretly fearing the worst. The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, either.
Thinking back over the last few years, I know I’ve been in this position. I’ve written from both sides of this fine line in this time, though looking back over pre-Bledisloe columns from the last three years, the year the Wallabies did win the first trans-Tasman of the year wasn’t exactly standing out as a likelihood.
In 2015, the Rugby World Cup meant that only two Bledisloe Tests were played, and of them, only the first Test in Sydney counted toward the Rugby Championship. It would decide The Rugby Championship, in fact.
The Wallabies had beaten South Africa in Brisbane, and then went to Mendoza and gave Argentina a proper touch-up, but my concerns were more around some of the Wallabies’ finishing and after a night where he just didn’t strike the ball well off the tee at all, Bernard Foley’s kicking.
Although, to be fair, I don’t think anyone would have predicted Nic White’s fifteen-minute, ten-point cameo turning the Sydney Bledisloe on its head and claiming the Rugby Championship in the process.
2016 was the year I actually did feel reasonable about the Wallabies’ Bledisloe chances, reasoning through the season that the All Blacks’ forced generational change after the retirement of Richie McCaw and Kevan Mealamu, and the overseas moves of Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, and Conrad Smith.
In the week of the Sydney Test – back to its traditional slot of opening the Rugby Championship – Blues midfielder George Moala was ruled out. This led me to suggest, “and the Wallabies have to be good enough to take advantage of what is suddenly a vulnerable-looking midfield… Yes, they’ll have to win the breakdown contest too, but if the Wallabies are going to win, it will have to come playing close to the line, and exploiting any chinks in the New Zealand midfield defence.”
With the second and third Tests to be played in Wellington and concluding in Auckland, the Wallabies best chance in more than a decade was here.
It finished in a record loss in Sydney. I’m sorry if that’s brought back successfully suppressed memories.
Last year, and writing before the two sides were named on the Thursday before the Test, the potential selections were the most intriguing elements of the looming contest.
The All Blacks midfield was a proper selection headache for Steve Hansen, with Ngani Laumape and Anton Lienert-Brown finishing off the British and Irish Lions series, but Ryan Crotty and Sonny Bill Williams right back in the frame. Hansen went with the latter pair.
There was plenty of discussion about Israel Folau playing on the right wing for the Wallabies – simplify his game, make him more dangerous was the argument, as it remains now, and as the Waratahs proved for a month this year. Yet here we are.
It seemed certain that Kurtley Beale was a lock for inside centre, or which I wrote would require, “a musical chairs type of arrangement where players who can’t defend suitably head to the backfield, and those who can rush up into the front line. This has never been fraught with danger in the past, so why change now, right?”
“For mine, this decision comes down to who plays at 12, both in attack and defence,” I argued later in the same piece. “If [Recce] Hodge doesn’t start somewhere, then it nearly has to be [Tevita] Kuridrani at 13, and leading the defensive midfield press. If Hodge is there, then perhaps [Samu] Kerevi can slot in there. I genuinely can’t split the two 13s.”
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Beale and Kerevi started in the centres, there was more defensive shuffling than a three-cupped-find-the-ball stand in sideshow alley, and the Wallabies went into the sheds at halftime down 40-6. Kerevi was dragged at the break.
This year, Kerevi and Kuridrani are out, and Beale and Hodge will be the centre pairing. Folau – as if there was ever any chance he wouldn’t – will again start at fullback.
The All Blacks have Brodie Retallick and Keiran Read back in the pack. Jack Goodhue is in the centres for his second Test. Waisake Naholo is back, meaning Ben Smith goes back to his preferred fullback, which in turn means there’s no room for Jordie Barrett. Beauden Barrett, incredibly, is suddenly playing to hold his spot. That’s all interesting.
But then Tom Robertson has pipped Allan Ala’alatoa for the loosehead start, which I don’t mind admitting I didn’t see coming. Lukhan Tui will pack alongside Adam Coleman and Izaak Rodda. Matt Toomua is back; Jack Maddocks could debut.
That’s all interesting, too.
That’s why Bledisloe week – as crazy as history makes this sound – has steadily become my favourite week on the rugby calendar.
Everything is possible. Anything could happen. Hopes springs eternal.