Coach Dave Rennie says the Wallabies don’t have the luxury that the All Blacks enjoy when it comes to resting players, as he spoke in the aftermath of naming a full strength team for Saturday’s clash against Argentina in Townsville.
Melbourne flanker Rob Leota was the biggest surprise, forcing his way into the starting side at No.6 while returning star Sean McMahon and Lachlan Swinton were both missing from the 23-man squad.
Rennie made it clear he chose to reward Leota for his efforts in training and what he saw from the 24-year-old in his seven minute Wallabies career, in game one against the Springboks.
Rennie also kept faith with Pete Samu, raving about the value of his versatility to the team. Reece Hodge was picked at fullback, and has the opportunity for an extended run with Rennie revealing Tom Banks would definitely not return in time from a fratcured arm to make the northern hemisphere tour.
Here’s what Rennie had to say at Thursday’s press conference
On giving a starting debut to Leota and the back row depth
“Big man, good ball carrier, has trained really well and been very close to selection in the past so I think it’s good timing to bring him in,” Rennie said of his biggest selection call.
On McMahon, Rennie said: “I think he’s fit enough. It’s just around all the detail and it’s not just about our attack structures or defence structures, it’s the maul as well.
“But he’s worked really hard, got himself in good nick and will continue to press for selection next week. We’re pretty keen to reward Rob, he’s been with us full time. So that’s a big part of the decision.”
Rennie was gushing in praise for Pete Samu, suggesting he was a must pick bench man.
“He’s an athlete,” said Rennie. “The type of guy who could easily slot into the midfield. He’s got a great skill set and footwork and is very, very quick.
“He just gives us a point of difference off the bench against tiring defences and the fact he can play 6,7,8 gives us genuine flexibility.
“We’re really happy for Pete because he got one crack last year and didn’t play well. Other guys performed and he didn’t get another chance to come back in and he’s trained superbly, and fought his way in and backed that up with performances on Saturday. I’m really pleased for him.”
Rennie said that considering Samu’s value the other contenders were in a position of being starters or out of the 23 altogether.
“Harry Wilson’s training the house down,” Rennie said.
“We’ve got guys like Fraser McReight and Harry and you can’t fault those men, their training ethic has been fantastic.
“But with Pete Samu on the bench, these guys either start or they miss out. In Fraser’s case he’s got the skipper in front of him but his attitude at training has been fantastic and likewise with Harry.”
Rennie said Swinton was in the same situation, but Leota brought a different skill set.
“Lachie’s done well. He’s been excellent from a lineout point of view and we threw a lot to the fronts because the South Africans defend the middle and the tail,” said Rennie.
“[Swinton] brings an abrasive edge but we have been really impressed with Rob.
“He was outstanding in the Western Force hitout [before Bleidsloe 3], got a little cameo on the Gold Coast off the bench covering lock and carried well for us.
“We just see his ability to give us go forward as important as a foil for Rob Valetini who’s done a lot of carrying for us as well.”
Rennie was asked about Swinton’s discipline. He was nearly red carded last week before the decision was downgraded to yellow.
“That’s certainly a focus for him,” said Rennie. “It’s something we’ve been talking about for a long time and he’s been working really hard on.”
On the return of James O’Connor and selection of Reece Hodge at No.15
Rennie said there was never an intention to start O’Connor at No. 15.
“We wanted to bring James in via the bench,” said Rennie. “He obviously sees himself as a No.10. He’ll cover 15 this weekend, if Reece falls over.
“Hodgey put down a couple of high balls last week, but outside of that he was excellent. His kicking was great and his defence was really strong. He’s a guy who’s filled a lot of holes for us. And he’s really keen to try and establish himself somewhere and 15 is his favourite spot.
“We thought it’s important bringing James into the game later. There’s no doubt that we think he can play 15. He won’t give us the wheels of other guys from the back but he’s a calm head, has a smart kicking game and is a strong organiser.
“We’ll see how things pan out over the next few weeks but we’re really happy with our selection around Reece.”
On being better in the air
The Wallabies had several hairy moments dealing with high kicks against the Springboks and Rennie, when asked if he expected Argentina to target his team in that department, answered ruefully “and every other team we play from now on…”
“There have been a number of things” to explain the issues.
“We’ve given them pretty easy access around us to get to our jumpers which creates a contest in the air. We know we can legally get them on the outside shoulder, run next to them shoulder-to-shoulder and deny them access.
“And we’ve done a pretty poor job around that. We’ve done a lot of work on it. We haven’t seen that work transfer so far.
“Some of those balls should just be caught. The boys work on that every week. Counter attack is a big part of our game but if we can’t secure ball in the air it’s an opportunity lost.
“We played with about 40% ball last week, and mainly because every time they kicked they go it back.”
On playing Argentina and his thoughts on squad rotation
Rennie was asked if he had been tempted to rotate out his top players to give them a rest against the Pumas and Japan, as the All Blacks had managed over the past fortnight.
“It’s hard to make comparisons with us and the All Blacks,” Rennie said.
“They’ve got phenomenal depth, an NPC competition that has 14 teams, it filters into five Super sides that are all pretty similar. They can rotate guys and they don’t actually lose a lot.
“That’s ideally where we want to get to. In our mind it’s more you have to earn the right to wear the jersey. You could argue you should give Fraser a crack. We’re trying to build, we’re trying to grow our group around understanding how we play and we’re starting to see some shifts, but our mindset is we want to put the best 15 out that we can.
“In Super Rugby, where you’ve got a range of ability between different teams, you’re rotating players because you’ve got a lot of games on end, 14-15.
“We’ve got the benefit of having played a couple of Tests then an extended three week break before we’ve gotten to this block of five, then we’ll have a couple of weeks out before Japan.
“There are no easy Tests in amongst that. Japan are a quality side now under Jamie and Tony and then you go to Europe and they’re all tough. We will manage guys from a training perspective. So guys like Hoops and Marika have played big minutes. They’ve been managed a little bit more this week. We still want to give these guys opportunities. But we’re not going to give Test caps away either.”
He suggested he was still trying to build his team, while playing down suggestions he was focussed too far ahead on the World Cup.
“Lots of people talk about the World Cup. And clearly it’ll be a focus in time,” Rennie said.
“It’s just around growing our game at the moment. I think we’re well conditioned now, we’ve put a lot of work into that, skill set’s improving. Game awareness has been better.
“We’ve played a team in the last two weeks that doesn’t want to play with the ball. So we’ve kicked a lot to them, to force them to either play a bit or, or give it back to us when they’ve got a less organised defensive screen.
“So I think the ability of players to stick to the plan the last couple of weeks has been really strong.”
Argentina will provide a different challenge.
“they’ll want to express themselves,” said Rennie. “Their forwards throw out a lot more passes, they’ll counter when given the opportunity and they’re very good at it.
“They’re very good at filling the field, very disciplined around defence and can be hard to break down. The All Blacks, a lot of their points came from a little bit of individual brilliance.
“What we’ve learned over the last few weeks is you’ve got to hang in the fight for a long time. Sometimes it takes 60 or 70 minutes to crack a side. We need to see that resilience on the weekend.”
He was asked about preparing for the game as favourites, after being underdogs in the past five Tests.
“We’re not allowed to bet on games so I don’t know the dividends,” Rennie said. “It’s irrelevant really. We’ve had two good performances that we want to build on and so our focus on us.
“We know the Argentinians will be desperate to win because they’ve had four losses so far. We haven’t been talking about favouritism, we’ve talked a lot about building on what we’ve done. Talked about the discipline that needs to be better, we’ve given away too many penalties in the last couple of weeks.
“Playing at the right end of the field and being really disciplined is going to be important for us.