Everyone was expecting a shake-up to the Wallabies team for Bledisloe 4 after their dismal effort in Game 3, but even so, Dave Rennie managed to surprise just about everyone with his selections.
Here’s what to make of the nine changes for tomorrow’s match.
Flyhalf: Reece Hodge for Noah Lolesio
Let’s start with the big one: Reece Hodge replacing Noah Lolesio at flyhalf.
It’s a head-scratcher. Hodge didn’t play at first receiver all season for the Rebels, and hasn’t worn the Wallabies’ number ten since 2017. Admittedly he was good in that game, but it was also against Japan – hardly a particularly testing opposition.
The change seems to carry with it a focus on simplicity: don’t worry about complex attacking structures and expansive distribution, but instead test the New Zealand defence by running directly, kicking long, and then defending strongly. Hodge should be able to fulfil that role well.
But what’s the long-term value of picking him? He’s not going to play ten much in the future, if at all, so it feels like little more than a stop-gap solution to protect Lolesio from having two rough starting appearances in as many weeks.
Keeping the Brumbies playmaker on the bench rather than dropping him entirely isn’t a bad move though, giving him a chance to bounce back from last week. Expect to see him take control of the team in the closing stages, with Hodge either shifting elsewhere in the backline or given an early breather.
Blindside flanker: Lachie Swinton for Ned Hanigan
While Rennie seems to be content with much of his pack, blindside flanker is the one position which is a long way from being settled. Lachie Swinton will be the third man to wear the number six jersey in four matches, after Harry Wilson started there in Game 1 and Ned Hanigan was preferred in the next two.
Debutant Swinton is a work in progress from a skills perspective and isn’t as good a lineout operator as Hanigan, but will bring some much-needed mongrel and grunt to the back row, something his Waratahs teammate isn’t renowned for. A bit more force going into contact will benefit the Wallabies, but it could cost them some set-piece accuracy.
Inside centre: Hunter Paisami for Irae Simone
Another surprise selection, Rennie said this move was a case of rewarding Paisami. It’s rough on Simone, who was solid enough in defence on debut without offering much in attack, but Paisami does add to the general hard-running vibe you get from looking at the backline.
The question marks around his game come without the ball: how accurate will his defensive reads be, and how well will he organise the side – something Matt To’omua did excellently in the same position before going down injured.
Such has been the focus on getting the Reds midfielder to communicate more that the Wallabies ran training sessions this week where their halves weren’t allowed to talk, forcing Paisami and Jordan Petaia to take over. There’s a lot of pressure for Paisami to get that right in what will be his first start this year at 12.
Wing: Tom Wright for Filipo Daugunu
The second debutant in the starting side, Tom Wright, gets a first Wallabies cap after Daugunu had a shocker in Sydney. Given Rennie has consistently talked about earning the right to play, Daugunu’s lucky to be even on the bench, after his early yellow card and a number of handling errors cost Australia in Game 3.
Because of that, this is less a case of Wright forcing his way into the team than it is Daugunu forcing his way out of it, but Rennie did say he was impressed with the Brumbies flyer’s game for Australia A last week.
After an excellent start, Wright trailed off as the Super Rugby AU season went on, but he was still the obvious candidate to replace his Reds counterpart. He will be playing in his less preferred right wing, with Marika Koroibete having something of a stranglehold on the left.
Fullback: Tom Banks for Dane Haylett-Petty
On the face of it this seems a forced change, with Rennie saying Haylett-Petty was unavailable due to injury. However, the coach also said the Rebels skipper would have been a wing option for the Wallabies if fit, indicating Tom Banks may have retaken the fullback jersey regardless.
The Brumbies custodian was solid under the high ball in the two Tests in New Zealand, something which was uncharacteristically missing from Haylett-Petty’s game at times last week, but he hasn’t been able to bring his dynamic running game with him into the international area yet. Put that on display in Brisbane and he’ll go a long way to locking down the 15 jersey. His combination with Brumbies teammate Wright is a positive for both players.
Lock: Rob Simmons for Lukhan Salakaia-Loto
A purely forced change: Lukhan Salakai-Loto picked up an ankle injury last weekend and hasn’t recovered.
Simmons’ selection does change the dynamic of the second row. He and Matt Philip are both capable of playing the full 80 minutes – something they’ll likely have to do given neither Trevor Hosea nor Cadeyrn Neville have been included on the bench – and it gives the Wallabies a pair of locks who are both strong at the lineout. With Hanigan moving out of the starting side, that’s no bad thing.
Prop: Angus Bell for Scott Sio
Angus Bell, the third and final debutant in the side, is another shock pick, but Rennie was fairly blunt about Scott Sio’s form after announcing the veteran prop had dropped off the bench.
“We’ve been trying to put a bit of pressure on Scotty to bring more impact off the bench through defence,” Rennie said.
“He’s been scrummaging pretty well. The example [falling off Jordie Barrett in defence late in Game 3] … it was more around urgency to connect with the defenders around him and he was slow to come forward and got exposed. It’s a tough lesson.”
The younger, more athletic Bell should bring more impact with and without the ball, but will he be able to handle scrummaging at Test level? The youngster has all the makings of a strong operator, but wasn’t always consistent at scrum time in his first Super Rugby season.
If he can scrummage well on debut, it gives the Wallabies a dynamic pair of reserve props in he and Taniela Tupou, both of whom have many, many years in gold ahead of them.
Hooker: Folau Fainga’a for Jordan Uelese
It’s hard to make too much sense out of this change: Uelese didn’t have his best game in Sydney, particularly at lineout time, but had been quite good beforehand. Dropping someone based on one poor performance – and he was neither the Wallabies’ worst player nor their only one to drop off – is harsh.
That said, it could be a case of giving the youngster a rest after three straight Tests, as he came into camp under an injury cloud. It also gives Fainga’a an opportunity to redeem his poor Game 1 outing.
Loose forward: Liam Wright for Fraser McReight
Much like the number six jersey, reserve loose forward has been a carousel for the Wallabies: Rennie hasn’t named the same number 20 two games in a row, and Liam Wright is the first player to get a second crack at the spot.
Fraser McReight didn’t do a hell of a lot wrong on debut, but Wright provides a better lineout option and is still proficient at the breakdown. What is clear from his selections so far is that Rennie prefers having specialist flankers rather than number eights in his reserves, with Rob Valetini the other player to be tried off the bench.
Given Harry Wilson isn’t an 80-minute player yet, I’m not sure that makes for the best-balanced side, but it’s evidently the way Rennie wants to set his team up.