With the 2021 rugby year now behind us, we’re left in this little period before the cricket properly takes our attention to ponder the what-ifs and maybes of the Wallabies season.
On paper, the results speak for the up and down nature of the season.
The 2-1 France series win was followed by 3-0 Bledisloe Cup loss, which overflowed into a 4-2 record through The Rugby Championship.
The Spring Tour record reads one from four, though it was a 3-0 clean sweep in the Autumn Nations Series once they reached the UK.
All up: 14 games played for seven wins and seven losses. Not great, but not terrible, either.
There are numerous reasons the Wallabies finished the disappointing way they did in the north, most notably the sudden unavailability of the Japan-based players, which was a situation that even if it was unforeseen at the time the touring squad was named, still feels like it could have been handled a whole lot better by all parties involved.
But that’s all ancient history now and none of us have the ability to travel back in time and do things differently.
Instead, and as I’ve teased the last few weeks, this week is about the numbers that went into the Wallabies season, because yes, I’ve kept track of all this in 2021. I don’t really know why I thought to do it, but it’s become very useful resource over the course of the international season.
And after a season where it might feel like it’s hard to know what the Wallabies have achieved, the numbers might actually help us understand what Dave Rennie is working towards.
By my count, 50 different individuals played for the Wallabies in 2021.
I don’t know whether it is or not, but 50 feels high to me in a single season. But then, Rennie used 35 across his first six Tests in charge last season, and didn’t use anyone new for the last two matches of the year.
Twenty-seven of those 50 in 2021 took part in the France series. Another eight were introduced for the Bledisloe Tests, seven more in the four remaining Rugby Championship matches, and finally, eight more over the four Spring Tour Tests – five of them being the Europe-based players called into the squad.
Selection changes seemed to vary according to the load, but increased as the season went on.
Rennie made only one starting XV change for the second Test against France, but then eight for the third match just four days later. Some curfew breaches were among four changes for Bledisloe 1, and while there were five changes for Bledisloe 2, two of them were going back to options from the last Test against France, and another was replacing Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, who left the squad.
Then we saw a period of relative stability, with no more than three changes to the XV each game from Bledisloe 2 to the final game against Argentina, which was often swapping starting and bench players.
After this, though, we saw further experimentation as the season got on, and particularly through the Spring Tour. Rennie made five starting XV changes for each of the three UK matches to finish the year.
On the bench, there was an average of four changes per match all season.
Of the 50 players used, only Rob Valetini and James Slipper played all 14 Tests.
Valetini started the year on the blindside flank, and dropped back to the bench for the third Test against France. He came back at 6 for Bledisloe 2, switched to No.8 the following week and didn’t move after that.
Slipper dropped back to the bench for the first match against South Africa, and started at tighthead against England, but otherwise was rock-solid in the No.1 jersey.
Michael Hooper and Taniela Tupou missed one game with injury, while Len Ikitau, Andrew Kellaway, Angus Bell, and Tate McDermott all played 13 Tests as well.
At the other end of the scale, Fraser McReight, Scott Sio, Sean McMahon, Greg Holmes, Ollie Hoskins, and Lalakai Foketi played just one match each.
For the year, the Wallabies used seven different front row combinations, six different lock pairings, and six back row trios. There were five 9-10 combos and only three centre pairings, but ten different back three units – though I count five of those being injury-forced.
All up, I counted 59 different players across the three different squads. Among those 59 were 13 players added to squads after the event, and though I think I’m right, I must concede I may not have caught all additions. Of those 13 I did count, only two of them featured in previous squads.
Remembering that 50 players were capped in 2021, that left nine squad players unused: Sitaleki Timani, Michael Wells, Nick Frost, Ryan Lonergan, Andy Muirhead, France-based Duncan Paia’aua, Liam Wright, and Colby Fainga’a, who was called in ahead of the Wales Test.
Pone Fa’amausili is the ninth unused player. He was picked in all three squads, but was ruled out of the Spring Tour and never boarded the plane after being mostly injured through the first two squads of the year. Foketi similarly spent much of the year injured in all three squads, before finally being fit enough to play the final Test of the year.
I counted two players added to the France squad, six for the Bledisloe/TRC squad (including the Japanese contingent), and five for the UK leg of the Spring Tour (four European-based, and Noah Lolesio recalled from his pre-season plans). Six players were either ruled out or withdrew from the Spring Tour after it was announced.
So, what did we learn in 2021?
The big ticket-item is that there is certainly value in some overseas-based selections, but the relative impact of the Euro-based players during the Spring Tour proved that opening the selection borders is no silver bullet.
Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi made an impact because they spent considerably more than just a week getting ready for their return Test. The fly-in-fly-out players showed limited usefulness.
We also learnt that one game plan does not fit all players. With Kerevi, in particular, unavailable, it took the Wallabies another two weeks to realise that Hunter Paisami can’t play the same way at 12. When they let Paisami play like Paisami, the performance against Wales was the result.
But we did learn that there is a growing core group of players, around which Rennie can start planning for next year and beyond. Hooper and Slipper certainly, and Tupou and Allan Ala’alatoa, too. But to that group you can add Valetini, Nic White, Ikitau and Kellaway, and probably Bell and Samu and McDermott on the bench.
Other players won’t be far off, but many positions still feel open.
The Wallabies used seven hookers in 2021, for example, and I don’t think we’re any clearer as to the best of them as we were before the first team of the year was named.
There are good signs, but there is plenty to work on.
Fortunately, Rennie and his assistants showed themselves to be a coaching group that can learn from mistakes, and can get results in short periods of time.
And that alone is probably what keeps Australian fans’ glasses half full at this year’s end.
The signs are there, and we can see hints of what Rennie is building.
But it means 2022 is going to a massively important season, one where the next few steps forward need to be taken.