Dave Rennie said he was still uncertain if the Wallabies’ would have their three Japanese-based stars, including starting No.10 Quade Cooper, available for the opening match of the spring tour, as he named a 37-man squad for the four Tests on Friday.
Rennie has called up three European based players – Will Skelton, Rory Arnold and Tolu Latu – and made a few other hard selection calls around youngsters including Noah Lolesio, Harry Wilson and Fraser McReight.
After announcing the squad for matches against Japan, Scotland, England and Wales, Rennie discussed the thinking behind the bigger calls, whether Kurtley Beale had entered discussions, and where Australia stands on the Giteau Law after the latest foreign call ups.
Here’s everything he had to say at Friday’s press conference
On the recall of the three Europe-based players
“We’ve been speaking to a number of guys for a long time around potentially coming home and their desire to play for Wallabies again,” Rennie said.
“Obviously the situation with COVID, and the desire to leave some guys at home to have a decent offseason and make shifts in their game, has created an opportunity to utilise some of those guys.
“I was really disappointed that Rory Arnold had already committed to leave Australia post World Cup.
“Obviously he’s gained more experience over there but still has a strong desire to play for the Wallabies and so I’ve been in constant contact with him even when I was in Scotland.
“Will, I’ve also spoken a lot to. I coached against him a fair bit when he was at Saracens and I was at Glasgow. He’s since headed off to La Rochelle and is very keen to play for the Wallabies again.
“And likewise with Tolu who’s plying his trade in France. All these guys had the understanding that there could be an opportunity. It’s great for us, it’s good experience, it will be good for our young group and fantastic to have those guys back in the mix.”
Skelton last played for the Wallabies in 2016 with Arnold and Latu leaving after the 2019 World Cup.
“In Will’s case he might have thought that his chance of playing international footy had gone,” said Rennie.
“All of them were really positive and would jump at the opportunity. They’ve been talking to guys back here they’ve got an understanding of what we’re about and what we’re trying to do and they’re keen to be part of that.”
Rennie was asked if Arnold was a world class second rower, and the coach made it clear he rates the 31-year-old as one who got away.
“I’d say yes. I think he was one of the biggest losses and looking from afar obviously that was really disappointing,” Rennie said. “It was too far down the track [to talk him out of a move].
“He’d already committed to Toulouse and so there was no way of backing out of that. He’s been outstanding for Toulouse, they won the European and French competition last year. He’s had a big hand in that.
“Will has really leaned down – Saracens did a great job with him. They probably used him more in the last couple of years as a guy off the bench who would come on with 30 to go and he was devastating.
“La Rochelle were runner up in both competitions last season and Will was regarded as the best player in Europe. So that tells you the impact he’s having over there.”
Rennie said none of the three could be available for the second Test of the tour against Scotland because it means they will be late to camp because of the international window.
Even though we will have been in the UK for two weeks prior to the Scottish game chances are those guys won’t join us till Sunday night after they play,” said Rennie. “They’re doing a bit of homework. The key thing is they need to be really well conditioned. We’ll make a decision around how they shape up when they come in. But certainly we won’t be using all three of those guys against Scotland.”
Rennie was asked if Beale had entered the selection equation and he played a straight bat, while also revealing he would play Jordan Petaia at fullback for the Barbarians after the Wallabies Tests were over – effectively trailling him in a Test environment without doing that for Australia.
“We’re constantly talking about players who are overseas,” said Rennie.
“We’re still trying to promote from within. We think [Reece Hodge] can do a job for us [at No.15].
“We’ve got Andrew Kellaway, who’s played a little bit of 15 and trained a lot at 15 for us. We’d like to see Jordie play a lot of 15 at Super level before considering him at his level and the plan is from a Barbarians point of view, Jordie will stay and play No.15 in that game.”
On the situation with Cooper, Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete in Japan
While Kerevi is still a fitness doubt for the Japan Test there is another issue facing the Wallabies with their Japanese clubs not being required to release them for the game as it’s outside the international window.
“We’re trying to try to create a strong relationship with the Japanese clubs because while, from a regulation nine point of view, we can grab them [for later games], they’re the primary employer at the moment and while they’ve been very supportive, they’ve also got their own programs to focus on and they want to be successful as well and want their best players available.
“It’s important that we establish a good relationship there.”
On the men he left behind
Rennie outlined the reasons behind some of the big ommissions from the touring party, with several youngsters left home to work on their skills ahead of the Super Rugby season.
“Harry [Wilson] hasn’t played Test match footy in the last month and he’s desperate to play at this level,” said Rennie.
“Staying home is going to give him an opportunity to make make shifts physically and in his game which is going to allow him to excel at this level. He’s being really mature around it.
“With Noah [Lolesio], he needs to put on a little bit of muscle mass and deal with the physical nature of having to defend at 10.
“He’ll work on getting more explosive and acceleration, trying to get more distance in his kicking game and this is going to give him time to do that.
“They’re both good young men who we think have got a big future in their gold jersey and it’s a chance for them to make some shifts.”
Brumbies hooker Connal McInerney made the cut but there was no place for Lachie Lonergan.
“I rate Lachie Lonergan really highly. He’s a bit of a lightweight at the moment – he’s about 103-104 kilos though.
“We think he’s got a real point of difference in his game, throws well, needs to really embrace scrummaging and put on some size and some neck strength and a decent offseason is going to allow him to do that.
“He’s good enough to tour but we still think this is best long term.
“There have been a number of hookers who have been out, long term injury wise and Connol’s has been in our mix before and we like him. He’s old school. A very good setpiece is going to be very important over the UK and so it’s a chance for him to get out in front of us again and show that he’s capable of playing at this level.”
There was no place either for Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, who featured early in the domestic campaign before heading home for the birth of his child.
“You step aside and you give other guys opportunities and they grab them,” said Rennie of the out of favour lock.
“Luhkan went home after the birth of his daughter and being in Sydney we couldn’t get him back and the other guys have played really well. And we’re just going to utilise a bit of experience from overseas.
“We’ve talked a lot to Luhkan about the impact he has with or without the ball – body heights and tackle clean carry and his ability to create go forward and this is going to be an opportunity for him to make some real shifts in regard to that.
“We need him more powerful from a leg point of view and a decent offseason will allow him to do that and he hasn’t had one of those recently. He’s not out of the picture. We think this is a great opportunity for him and it will be great to see how he responds.”
On the return of Izaia Perese and Hunter Paisami
The call up of Perese is an interesting one considering those left behind to work on fitness or skills. He has only just returned to action from a shoulder reconstruction. Paisami was a regular early in the campaign but fell down the pecking order after also leaving for his child’s birth.
“He’s been back in contact for the last couple of weeks and he’s ticked every box,” Rennie said. “He hasn’t played a lot of footy so we’ve got a lot of work to get into him and whether he’ll be ready in 10 days to play Test footy is the question mark.
“Hunter is a very good player but like Luhkan a couple of other guys really grabbed their opportunities and he gets a chance to remind us what he’s capable of.”
Fraser McReight continues to be a victim of his position, a specialist No.7 behind Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper.
“He’s got clarity on the shifts that he needs to make in his game,” Rennie said.
“If he can accelerate his game over the next period like he has over the last 12 months he’s going to put a lot of pressure on Hoops.
“The fact Hoops is a specialist seven and so is Fraser gives us a lack of flexibility if they’re both in the same squad. We’ve done it a couple of times but having someone who can come off the bench or someone within that group who can cover all three positions is vital for us.”
On the current status of the Giteau Law
“The Giteau Law, there’s nothing based on concrete at this stage,” Rennie admitted.
“The preference still is to pick from here and my mindset hasn’t changed around that. I think it’s important that we’re promoting from within.
“Some of these guys coming in and getting a taste of the environment in the culture, hopefully that encourages them to come back and play here.
“Some have got existing contracts that will take them through to all of next year and then some of them right through to the World Cup.
“But we’re trying to bring as many home as we can to add to the quality of our Super teams, to help from an experience point of view with all the young men coming through and which will eventually benefit us.”
On Louis Lynagh being called up for England
Rennie had a little dig at England coach Eddie Jones, when discussing the son of Wallaby great Michael Lynagh, who Jones recently called into the England squad.
“I haven’t spoken to [Louis]. [Director of Rugby] Scott Johnson has certainly spoken to Michael. Eddie’s well aware of his lineage and captured him quickly.
“We’ll see how things go there whether – they use them or not over the next period and whether there’s any interest in him coming back to Australia.” So Rennie doesn’t think he’s English yet? “Not until he’s capped,” he replied wryly.
On Scott Johnson going on tour with the squad
“He’s really good to have in the group,” said Rennie. “He attends all trainings, he watches all footage.
“When we’re discussing players and training and what’s going on, he’s got a very good eye. Obviously he’s done a lot of coaching.
“He’s a bit of a devil’s advocate type where we may be thinking along a certain line and he’ll challenge that thinking. We have really good discussions.
“His contribution to the group is excellent and at the same time, he doesn’t overdo it. He’s not trying to tell us how to coach and how to play. His experience is invaluable and really appreciated.
On Tolu Latu’s behaviour standards after previous issues
“With all these guys we spend a lot of time having a conversation,” said Rennie.
“Tolu is a little bit different, his is via WhatsApp and Zooms. Other guys like Quade, we’ve had a chance to sit down over coffee and have a decent chat around expectations and where things are at.
“Invariably we’ve got some guys who, as younger men, made some poor decisions. They’ve made shifts around that and and I’m going to judge guys on how they behave within our environment as opposed to what other people are telling me about them.
“With James coming back in and with Quade coming back, they’ve been outstanding, made massive contributions to the group and we expect the same from Tolu.”