Maybe it’s because I’ve been pushing myself into cricket mode over the last week, and maybe it’s because they’re always a bit ‘out of sight, out of mind’ in the lead-up to the first Test of a Spring Tour, but I haven’t heard a lot from the Wallabies as they steel themselves for Wales this weekend.
Like the Australian cricket team, the Wallabies find themselves less than twelve months out from a World Cup steadfastly of the belief that ‘our method can be successful again’ despite most other nations – and the game itself – moving onto newer and better methods.
Worryingly, neither side look capable of recognising the obvious need for a change of approach. In the context of full-blown change currently sweeping through the offices and boardrooms of Cricket Australia, it’s actually quite an accomplishment to avoid it.
Our cricketers at least have a full home season ahead of them and plenty of opportunity to review their approach against three different opposition over the next four months.
The Wallabies have three opportunities against three opposition over the next three weeks. And then nothing until the middle of next year.
So what will – or what should – we see from the Wallabies over these next three weeks?
I’ll hop straight back on a well-ridden hobby horse of recent weeks and again push the case that the Test against Wales this Saturday really should be the one in which Nick Phipps or Jake Gordon – and I don’t even care which one – start at scrumhalf.
Will Genia has played nine of the possible ten Tests in 2018 to date, and was replaced in all but one of those nine Tests – the loss to South Africa in Brisbane. Of those eight Tests he was replaced in, only the second Test against Ireland in Melbourne was injury forced.
But of those remaining seven Tests in which Genia was tactically replaced, the fewest minutes he played was 68, against Argentina in Salta.
Of the seven chances Nick Phipps had had opportunities to make an impact, or dare I suggest attempt to apply some selection pressure, he has played a grand total of 62 minutes. Even having played 53 minutes when Genia was injured in Melbourne, and starting the following week in the Third Test against Ireland in Sydney, Phipps hasn’t played three full matches worth of Test rugby in 2018.
Joe Powell came on in that Ireland Test in Sydney toward the end, but also went unused when Genia played the full eighty in Brisbane. He was sent back to the NRC for game time, and then not selected for this tour.
Jake Gordon remains uncapped, though surely that won’t still be the case by the end of this tour. It shouldn’t be the case by Sunday morning, if any sense is applied.
Contrast this with how so many other of the top nations are getting game time and building depth in their specialist positions – Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara across the ditch being the obvious example – and the maddening over-reliance on Genia becomes clear.
I stand by my opinion previously that Genia should’ve have been left at home from this tour. There is literally nothing to be gained for the Wallabies in him starting and playing deep into these three Tests, and they should have been used to get more minutes into Phipps and Test rugby exposure into Gordon and Powell.
So will Gordon get a debut this weekend in Cardiff? Could Phipps get a rare start?
The same argument could easily have been applied to the hooking position, but like Powell, Brandon Paenga-Amosa has been left at home for reasons unknown, with Tatafu Polota-Nau re-joining the squad this week. This almost certainly means he’ll play this weekend.
I will argue that Folau Fainga’a starting will at least give him more exposure the set pressure is on from the start, and equally, there could be benefits in seeing what Polota-Nau can produce at the back end of games. But applying my own logic around the need to build depth for specialist positions, the Wallabies really should be trying to straighten Tolu Latu out, too, despite the penalty risk (or worse) his game currently offers.
We know David Pocock can play blindside and we know he can play no.8. But where else might Michael Hooper be effective? Is there any reason he couldn’t play another backrow position the same unique way he plays on the openside?
Again, there’s nothing to lose in trying Hooper at either 6 or 8 over the next three weeks. I’ve long thought his wide-running but busy-defence game would be suited to no.8, so why not try it? If that the allows Pocock to operate back in his natural openside habitat, then why wouldn’t you try and play to that very obvious strength?
Could we see three different front rows start Tests on this tour? How can the Wallabies get the best of tightheads Allan Ala’alatoa, Taniela Tupou, and Sekope Kepu in the same game?
How can we balance the lock mix so that the set piece starts the game well, and the requisite bench impact and chance of lineout steals come through late in the game?
And what of the outside backs? Is Jordan Petaia so good that his age doesn’t matter? Does starting Adam Ashley-Cooper at outside centre mean Israel Folau’s job becomes simplified on the right wing with the added plus of the midfield defence vastly improved? If he’s to come off the bench, when is the right time to unleash Samu Kerevi?
We will know the Wallabies side for the Wales Test soon enough, and indeed, it may even have been announced by the time you’re reading this.
But how many of these questions will be met with surprisingly fresh answers?
And will these three Tests be seen to be the experiment opportunities that they obviously are? Could we see the first adjustments toward the Wallabies charting a new course for next year’s World Cup?