Six completed rounds marks the all-important one-third point of the Super Rugby season.
Well, maybe not all-important, but it’s nonetheless enough of a sample size to get a good indication of the issues new Wallabies coach Dave Rennie will have to contend with – as well as the strengths of his side.
So with half a dozen rounds under our collective belts, let’s dive into the good and the bad from the Super Rugby season so far.
Good: Battle for no.10 is more than a one-flyhalf race
With Christian Lealiifano, Quade Cooper and Bernard Foley all leaving for Japan at the end of last year, it left Australia’s flyhalf stocks perilously thin.
Matt To’omua, used more at inside centre or off the bench in his international career, was the only player with any meaningful Test experience in the position – not counting James O’Connor’s ill-fated foray as the Wallabies’ chief playmaker.
And while the Rebels no.10 still looks the man most likely to line-up at flyhalf when Rennie names his first team, there’s at least some meaningful competition for the jersey, not least from that man O’Connor, who has been particularly impressive in his performances when playing there for the Reds.
The 29-year-old is still better suited to playing in the midfield though, and thankfully isn’t the only alternative to To’omua at flyhalf. Youngsters Noah Lolesio and Will Harrison are taking to Super Rugby well in their debut seasons, and O’Connor’s Queensland teammate Isaac Lucas has shown enough to suggest Brad Thorn could do far worse than pair him and O’Connor at 10 and 12 from the start of games.
None of that trio are going to usurp To’oomua in the starting Test side, but they do give the Wallabies more depth in a key position than what was initially expected this year.
It’s been a common weakness for the Wallabies – it’s an awful long time since they last had a player they could bank on converting eight or nine attempts of every ten from the tee – and goalkicking looks like it will once again be an issue in 2020.
Take a look at the numbers for all the players who’ve taken at least ten attempts at goal:
Bryce Hegarty is the only Australian going at better than 75 per cent, and he’s just taken the minimum ten attempts. Ryan Lonergan does have a perfect record with the boot so far, but has only taken seven shots. At any rate, neither is likely to be wearing green and gold in a few months.
Comparing the kickers’ conversion rates to the competition average of 70 per cent doesn’t paint a particularly pretty picture, either:
Matt To’omua and Will Harrison are bang on the average, give or take a couple of per cent, while Noah Lolesio and Jock Campbell are at the wrong end of the scale entirely. (In Lolesio’s defence, Christian Lealiifano had a similarly poor rate last year on account of the Brumbies’ rolling maul-heavy attack, which leads to a high percentage of tries scored out wide.)
It’s a handicap for Test teams to be leaving points on the tee, but with the goalkicking stocks slim in Super Rugby, it’s one the Wallabies will be burdened with this year.
Good: The kids are alright
What pre-season positivity there was this year in Australia focused on the crop of talented young players set to emerge at Super Rugby level. Making the final of the Under 20 World Championship was one thing, but could they match it with seasoned professionals in the best provincial competition in the world?
Turns out they can.
Sure there have been hiccups, but it’s clear this emerging generation of Wallabies contains some rare talents who will excel at senior level.
The aforementioned Lolesio is having an excellent maiden season with the Brumbies. He might have played a part in his side’s sole loss of the season against the Highlanders, having a kick charged down which gifted the New Zealanders a try, but the way he was able to rebound with a standout performance the following week as the Brumbies won away against the Chiefs speaks volumes about his skill and character.
Harry Wilson has been a dominant force at the back of the Queensland pack this year. He’s one of only two players this season to have made more than 50 tackles and carries (he leads the competition in the latter stat with 80) and his performance against the Crusaders on Friday one you’d expect from a seasoned Test veteran, not a 20-year-old pushing for a first Wallabies cap.
For all the doom and gloom around the Waratahs’ season (more on that in a tick), as Brett McKay wrote yesterday, their problems don’t reside with the likes of Harrison and Mark Nawaqanitawase, who’ve been two of the side’s better performers so far.
These aren’t players who should be comprising the core of Rennie’s side this year. There’s enough there, though, to warrant the odd cameo off the bench, or at least a place in the wider squad from which to learn from the country’s experienced players in preparation for a more substantial role with the Wallabies down the track.
Bad: The Waratahs aren’t
Enough has been written about the Tahs’ dismal start to the year that we’ll avoid labouring the point here. However it worth touching on, at least quickly.
That Rob Penney’s side are losing games isn’t necessarily the issue – a down year was always expected after the loss of so many experienced players (they saw a grand total of 469 Test caps leave the club at the end of 2019). It’s been the nature of them which has been problematic.
Losing to the Chiefs? Well, yeah, they’re one of the best sides in the comp, if not the best. That’s gonna happen.
Shipping five tries in 20 minutes? That’s unacceptable.
That the Tahs have a worse for and against than any other side in the competition whose name doesn’t being with “S” and end in “unwolves” is an indictment on them. While there’s inexperience at the club, there’s still a good chunk of Wallabies there, and the guys who are still cutting their teeth at this level aren’t exactly mugs.
Whatever your views on whether Wallabies should be made up of as many Waratahs as they have recently, their poor play is giving Rennie a smaller pool to select from than what would otherwise have been the case – other than Michael Hooper, there’s not a player on the team who should be in contention for a Test spot right now.
No matter where your state allegiances lie, that’s no good thing for Australian rugby.
Good: Key departures haven’t stopped the Brumbies
The Brumbies didn’t have an exodus the size of their interstate rivals, but they did lose some key players before this season, including Christian Lealiifano, Sam Carter, Henry Speight and, most importantly, Rory Arnold.
Not that those departures have halted the side’s momentum from last year. The Brumbies once again sit atop the Australian conference, their only blemish this season their last-minute, one-point loss to the Highlanders – a result comfortably offset by an away win against the Chiefs the following week.
More importantly for Rennie, we’re seeing players who’ve have been pigeon-holed as potential Wallabies starters have strong seasons; Tom Banks at fullback, Tevita Kuridrani at outside centre, Rob Valetini and Pete Samu in the back row, and Allan Alaalatoa, James Slipper and Folau Fainga’a up front would all likely make the starting XV for the first Test against Ireland if it was named today.
Add in impressive starts to the year from some fringe players – Irae Simone, for example – and we can expect the Brumbies to dominate the first Wallabies squad of the year.
Bad: There’s still no forwards coach
Not a Super Rugby problem per se, but it is a bit of a concern that the Wallabies don’t have their full coaching staff confirmed yet. After all, with Rennie still fulfilling his obligations with Glasgow, having all of his assistants on deck in his absence would have been an ideal backup.
Scott Wisemantel (attack) and Matt Taylor (defence) were excellent hires by Rugby Australia, both top-quality Australian coaches with proven success as Test assistants.
As it is, though, we’re still waiting on a forwards coach to be confirmed. There were early noises following Rennie’s appointment suggesting it might be Nick Stiles, then reports came out in late January that an announcement could be made within a week.
Fast forward to today and Stiles is staying in Japan, having signed an extension with Kintetsu Liners in January, and the only other development in the search for a forwards coach is that Dan McKellar is right in the mix.
McKellar no doubt has a future of some kind at the Wallabies, but if that role is to be the top one, he’d be better off sticking with the Brumbies and maybe heading to Europe in a couple of seasons to get more head coaching experience in a different environment.
It would also be ill-advised of Rugby AU to disrupt the one Super Rugby side in the country which is in title contention.
Regardless of whether it ends up being McKellar or someone else, the final make-up of Rennie’s coaching staff needs to be sorted, and soon.
A quick note to all you eagle-eyed readers who’ve no doubt noticed this is not our usual Wednesday morning rugby offering: Nick Bishop and his analysis will be back next week after he enjoys a well-deserved holiday.