There is no denying it, news out of France over the weekend that former Brumbies and Wallabies lock Rory Arnold could be ruled out of the Rugby Championship with a broken arm is a massive dent in Dave Rennie’s plans for the international season.
When it was announced earlier this month that Rugby Australia had granted Rennie an allowance to pick two overseas-based players for the 2020 Test matches who don’t qualify under the so-called Giteau Law, there was little doubt Rory Arnold headed the list of players Rennie wanted. He might have been prepared to debate other names, but Arnold was his non-negotiable.
That plan is now in tatters, with Arnold suffering the injury 23 minutes into Toulouse’s 28-18 loss to Exeter in the European Champions Cup semi-final.
If Arnold is out, then we arrive at this point: if the one player an allowance was created in order for the coach to select is suddenly no longer available, then don’t bother with the allowance.
Yes, attention will undoubtedly turn toward the likes of Will Skelton and Izack Rodda in France, or even Adam Coleman in England, but are any of them definitely better than players toiling hard in Australian teams playing Australian game plans under the eye of the Wallabies coach?
Are they definitely better than Cadeyrn Neville, for example?
Neville was a Player of National Interest right up until the point Rennie was granted his allowance just weeks ago, so surely the obvious move is to call in the player that was already highly regarded by the coach and selectors.
Get him over to New Zealand and hastily into quarantine, and he could be right to go for the second Bledisloe, which would not have been the case with Arnold anyway.
But with the lock situation both complicated and solved by Arnold’s unavailability, it only leaves the Wallabies with two main areas of concern: who plays in the midfield, and who starts in the front row.
Up front, it’s more a matter around hooker and tighthead prop. James Slipper was comfortably the form loosehead in Super Rugby AU, and the Brumbies have seen major benefits from swapping he and Scott Sio between the bench and starting side for the last two seasons. But Slipper’s superior scrummaging makes more sense from the start of a Bledisloe Cup Test, and he should start.
At hooker, it’s a toss-up between Rebels rake Jordan Uelese and our pick for the Super Rugby AU team of the season, Folau Fainga’a.
Tolu Latu’s name has come up discussions about bringing overseas players home, but it again becomes a question of his current form. Is what he has produced for Stade Francais in 2020 definitely better than Uelese or Fainga’a? That’s all that counts, not what he did for the Wallabies at the World Cup 12 months ago.
This leaves the tight spot around tighthead prop.
Taniela Tupou was named the player of the competition in Super Rugby AU and made our team of the season as well, although our Editor Daniel Jeffrey pumped for an all-Brumbies front row in his Wallabies XV last Friday, giving the no.3 jersey to Brumbies skipper Allan Ala’alatoa.
Though there was more than enough reaction along “how can you leave out the best player in the comp!?” lines, what complicates the issue for Rennie is the timing of unleashing Tupou on the All Blacks.
There’s no real argument that he probably does deserve a chance to start in Tests, but there is certainly an argument as to whether that is where the Wallabies would most benefit. The idea of throwing him into the contest for half an hour of quality and impact has plenty of merit and doesn’t detract from his form for the Reds at all.
Midfield is no clearer.
Dave Rennie has made a bit of noise about Noah Lolesio being old enough if he’s good enough, but making his Test debut in a Bledisloe contest wearing the no.10 jersey would be a huge ask for even the most prodigious of talents.
Where Lolesio fits in is probably answered by how Rennie intends to use Matt To’omua, and to a lesser extent James O’Connor.
The fact Rennie is entertaining the thought of playing Lolesio suggests O’Connor isn’t likely to be needed at flyhalf, so then it’s a matter of whether he wants To’omua’s better tactical kicking and game management at flyhalf or whether that can still work at inside centre.
It feels like a choice between the safer To’omua-O’Connor combination starting, with Lolesio coming off the bench, or a Lolesio-To’omua midfield with O’Connor in the no.22. He could potentially be used at outside centre if Reds teammate Jordan Petaia isn’t fit for the first Test. It’s hard to see To’omua coming off the bench when his skillset is more geared towards starting a match.
Obviously, having options is better than the alternative. It will be curious to see how Rennie’s rugby philosophy fits around Australian players and his first Wallabies squad.