Dave Rennie was at pains yesterday to point out that his new 40-man Wallabies squad was both a reflection of current Super Rugby form and a look towards the future.
Australian rugby is moving forwards, and new selections like Feleti Kaitu’u, Angus Bell, Lachlan Lonergan, Darcy Swain, Tim Anstee, Josh Kemeny and Seru Uru are part of that future.
Throw in players from last year’s squad, who have seen little or no Test rugby so far – Pone Fa’amausili, Trevor Hosea, Lachie Swinton, Fraser McReight, Tate McDermott, Len Ikitau and others – and it is clear that, while players based overseas will be welcomed with open arms should they commit to returning home, nobody is sitting around waiting.
With the ailing Waratahs providing four players only – a miserly ten per cent – nobody can argue that the squad hasn’t been selected on form. That’s a positive for Australian rugby – players knowing that they will be rewarded on merit or, conversely, in the cases of Folau Fainga’a, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Jordan Uelese, Scott Sio, Will Harrison, Jack Maddocks and James Ramm, knowing they can’t afford to be caught standing still.
There’s a lot of water to pass under the bridge before this squad is trimmed to a match-day 23, but the message from Rennie was clear: there are Test spots up for grabs for players who offer hard bodies, repeat efforts and consistently high performance in Super Rugby.
Central to that premise is a COVID travel bubble solution allowing the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman crossover round to proceed. Rennie spoke to the importance of players being able to test each other against different styles and systems, and it is important that he sees his young charges tested in the high-pressure, high-tempo New Zealand environment.
Missing from yesterday’s press conference was The Australian’s Wayne Smith, who last week signed off after a stellar career. Not wishing to deny Smith a happy and prosperous retirement, it must be said that this undoubtedly represents a step back for Australian rugby.
While never one to baulk at wearing his heart on a maroon sleeve, Smith’s coverage of rugby has remained consistently thorough, accurate, fair and unfailingly passionate.
With News Corp Australia, in the wake of a sustained attack on Rugby Australia last year and the loss of broadcasting rights to Stan and Nine, still not enamoured of rugby, there is a danger that Smith’s retirement will have wider-reaching ramifications.
On Saturday’s evidence the signs aren’t promising. What was once prominent coverage in the Weekend Australian – featuring multiple articles from Smith, a column from Mark Ella and a tipping panel – has been reduced to a couple of half-hearted efforts lifted from the Fox Sports website.
It beggars belief that readers of Australia’s only national daily newspaper will now have to rely on borrowed pieces and Alan Jones for their rugby fix.
As a case in point, Jones was at his disingenuous and misleading best on Friday, touting Michael Cheika as the Waratahs’ saviour while insisting, “Let’s not forget, Penney put the squad together”. Really?
Also in Jones’s sights was private equity group ‘CBC’ – no, Alan, it’s CVC Capital Partners – for having the hide to buy into the Six Nations Championship, potentially taking some of the games behind a paywall.
“How is that good for the game?” bemoaned Jones. About as good, I would have thought, as the same pay TV company Jones broadcasts on doing the same for 25 years.
Jones makes the assumption that all private equity companies are identically motivated. Short-term investors, he says, interested only in “smash-and-grab for cash” when they “smell blood”.
In fact what is becoming apparent, as flagged in this column several weeks ago, is that private equity has the potential to solve one of rugby’s biggest problems, which is the formation of a proper global season that will allow club rugby and Test rugby, northern hemisphere rugby and southern hemisphere rugby to equitably co-exist.
Self-interested nations, clubs and rugby competitions compete for players, and a clunky global governance structure has failed time and again to shift the model from one of perpetual conflict to one of collegiality and cooperation, where the latent value in rugby can be unlocked to its full potential for the benefit of all participants.
Private equity investment is pointless if different funds help shore up already entrenched positions. This will only ensure that conflict rages on, albeit with more cash to tempt players.
But with CVC spreading its investment across club and international competitions and potentially looking next to the southern hemisphere, the payoff for them – and, crucially, for the national unions and French club owners – will be the returns that accrue from streamlining and better coordinating the rugby calendar.
Jones and others who are still blinded by 1984’s grand slam implore Rugby Australia to “avoid private equity at all costs”. But with all of Australia’s competitors – including New Zealand – already on board, what else is Rugby Australia to do? Run a chook raffle?
The weekend’s four matches saw the Reds and the Brumbies clearing out further at the top of the Super Rugby AU ladder, while the Hurricanes and Chiefs triumphed in New Zealand.
The Highlanders are yet to fire under coach Tony Brown, and some familiar concerns were again evident in their 30-19 loss – how to accommodate two very similar players in Mitch Hunt and Josh Ioane in the backline, an over-reliance on a driving lineout maul that is not well drilled or powerful enough to trouble the best defences, and inaccuracy at the attacking breakdown.
They also didn’t count on Jordie Barrett, a very handy cricketer, notching a fine hat-trick – three tries, three conversions and three penalty goals. Twice exploiting soft defence in behind the Highlanders’ ruck, he sent a message to brother Beauden that if he wants to start for the All Blacks, he has to deal with Richie Mo’unga instead.
About the only thing the Hurricanes did wrong all night was to line up at the incorrect end of the stadium for the kick-off. This was the type of solid, disciplined performance that suggests that more wins are close at hand, with Ngani Laumape used intelligently and with telling effect.
The match also featured a delightful presentation to mark Aaron Smith’s record 154th match for the Highlanders, while commentator Grant Nisbett helpfully informed viewers that “both of the Umaga-Jensen twins are 22″.
Saturday’s clash of the Bombay hills was studded with errors, but nobody cared a jot, such was the intent of both sides and the thrilling finish that unfolded.
The battle of the loose forwards was colossal, particularly Dalton Papalii shading Luke Jacobsen right up until Jacobsen made the final-minute bust to set up Damian McKenzie’s winning try.
There was another interesting loose forward battle playing out, with Tom Robinson again more dynamic for the Blues than Akira Ioane at blindside flanker. Coach Leon McDonald has a selection dilemma on his hands, but he surely has to find more game time for the rangy ginger from the north.
Western Force coach Tim Sampson was unhappy with his side’s treatment at the hands of referee Nic Berry, and with the penalty count standing at 9-0 against at halftime, his frustration was understandable.
Perhaps Sampson might take solace from Michael Cheika, who, speaking after a Jacobsen pass was fairly allowed to stand for McKenzie’s try, said without any hint of irony that “the ref is always right”.
Sadly for Sampson, the Brumbies had a dominant scrum, owned possession and field position and recycled efficiently, which meant that the Force were placed under the kind of pressure that piles one penalty on top of another and from there piles tries on top of tries.
The Force, as always, never threw in the towel, and they shared the spoils 14-14 in the second half. But until they develop faster ball from the breakdown, penetration in the midfield and enough trust in each other in defence to spread wider they will remain destined for more noble defeats.
If you could nominate one side that couldn’t afford to lose both starting locks in the first quarter, it would be the Waratahs. That was enough to kill off any prospect of a genuine contest, yet somehow the Waratahs managed to stay in touch at 17-9 at halftime.
Well, not quite halftime – needing only to secure the kick-off to end the half, the ball was dropped. Seconds later Filipo Daugunu was strolling in for a try. Bad luck is one thing, substandard handling and skill execution is another.
In the second half the Reds seemed to tread a fine line between ensemble ball movement and support play, and lairising. Their confidence is healthy and infectious, but if it happens to spread into over-confidence, the Rebels will apply greater defensive pressure and punish them next weekend.
It should be an enthralling contest. In particular watch out for the reaction of Paenga-Amosa and Uelese, two of the omissions from yesterday’s squad of 40.
How badly do they want a Wallabies jersey?
Allan Alaalatoa, Tim Anstee, Tom Banks, Angus Bell, Filipo Daugunu, Pone Fa’amausili, Jake Gordon, Reece Hodge, Trevor Hosea, Len Ikitau, Feleti Kaitu’u, Josh Kemeny, Marika Koroibete, Noah Lolesio, Lachlan Lonergan, Alex Mafi, Tate McDermott, Fraser McReight, Andy Muirhead, Isi Naisarani, Cadeyrn Neville, James O’Connor, Hunter Paisami, Jordan Petaia, David Porecki, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Pete Samu, Irae Simone, James Slipper, Darcy Swain, Lachlan Swinton, Sitaleki Timani, Matt To’omua, Taniela Tupou, Seru Uru, Rob Valetini, Suliasi Vunivalu, Nic White, Harry Wilson, Tom Wright