Creating a loophole in the Giteau Law wide enough to fit a pair of locks through is a savvy move on Rugby Australia’s part.
Proposed alterations to the Wallabies eligibility criteria in the past have rightly attracted scepticism about any potential negative impacts on Australian rugby; that if the country’s best players can earn more money playing elsewhere while still having the door to the Wallabies squad held open for them, the quality of – and therefore interest in – domestic teams will drop to alarming levels.
Opening a back door for just two players, however, will have no such detrimental effect, nor will a policy change which has been put in place just for a single season.
Even extending this rule – which, if we’re going to follow the naming convention from 2015 of using a player’s name, can only be called the Arnold Amendment – beyond 2020 wouldn’t be an issue in of itself, although the possibility of it paving the way for wholesale alterations in the future is problematic.
Rob Clarke left the door open for further policy shifts next year and beyond, saying “We are being quite clear that this addition is for this year only but that we will continue to review the entire policy from time to time, as required.” That isn’t half as clear as he seems to think it is. We’ll have to wait to see whether this is indeed a one-off, or whether it’s a classic case of anything you say in a sentence before the word “but” not really counting.
What is clear is there will be two men in the Wallabies squad this year which aren’t playing in Australia. When the change to the Giteau Law was announced yesterday, it was framed as a way to deal with the increased squad size that COVID-19 regulations have brought about (“Dave [Rennie] will soon assemble his squad and they’re likely to remain in a ‘bubble’ for ten weeks with no opportunity to call in replacements for injury due to the quarantined environment,” said Clarke).
The more noticeable impact, however, will be on the side’s starting XV – there’s no point bringing in a couple of depth players here. For that reason, the lucky couple who get the nod are locks; one figuratively, both literally.
With Rory Arnold, Adam Coleman and Izack Rodda leaving Australian rugby since the World Cup, the Wallabies’ second-row stocks are thin.
Sure, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto has looked a far better player than he did on the blindside flank – and the Queensland Red is probably the one player who stands to be disadvantaged by the amendment – Matt Philip and Cadeyrn Neville are solid options, and Trevor Hosea offers good potential, but there’s a distinct lack of world-class players in the position.
Having established himself as one of the best locks on the planet last year before leaving Canberra for Toulouse, Arnold should be, must be, an automatic selection.
The second spot is less clear-cut. Now signed with Lyon, Rodda is one option, but given he’s signed with the French side for just a single season, a far better strategy would be to get him back to the Wallabies via a Super Rugby contract for after his current deal.
There’s less chance of that approach working with Will Skelton, who’s on La Rochelle’s books until the end of the 2022 season. The former Waratah has developed well since leaving Australia, and after failing to lure the then-Saracen back home in time to board the plane to Japan last year a la Nic White, the new loophole would now allow the Wallabies to put Skelton’s damaging frame back in a gold jersey.
Choosing between the two could come down to what kind of a combination Rennie and his coaching team want to employ in the second row. Arnold-Skelton would offer a physically imposing pairing which would dominate the contact zone but leave the lineout somewhat vulnerable, while replacing the latter with Rodda would allow for a more reliable set-piece.
Depth in other positions essentially negates the need to look beyond Australia’s overseas locks, but if Rennie does want a bit of variety in his imports, Tolu Latu is a possibility. He was one of the Wallabies’ best at the World Cup, but fellow squad members Folau Fainga’a and Jordan Uelese are playing well in Super Rugby and hooker doesn’t appear to be an area of particular concern.
The same goes for the back row. Much as Australian fans want to see Sean McMahon back with the national side, much as there’s disappointment that Liam Gill’s last Test came in 2013, there’s enough competition already for jerseys six through eight with Michael Hooper, Fraser McReight, Liam Wright, Pete Samu, Isi Naisarani, Harry Wilson, Rob Valetini and Jack Dempsey all performing strongly.
There’ll be a chorus calling for Samu Kerevi’s return to the Wallabies, too. A reasonable enough request given his form last year, but the damaging centre hasn’t played a game of top-level rugby since February 15 and isn’t set to play another anytime soon.
He might have been one of the two players alongside Arnold who were most disappointing to lose at the end of 2019, but there’s no point rushing him into a Test squad without any match fitness, particularly when the Wallabies are already capable of running out a strong 10-12 combination of Matt To’omua and James O’Connor.
Ultimately there’s no point overcomplicating things. There’s enough quality in Super Rugby AU that Rennie can pick a competitive front row, back row and backline. The new loophole should be used to make sure there’s a top-class second row to match.
That means plucking Rory Arnold and one of Will Skelton and Izack Rodda from France and placing them back in the Wallabies squad.