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Back to front row: Wallaby changes for the World Cup?

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4th January, 2022
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If Dave Rennie is musing on his wishes for the New Year, one of the areas uppermost in his thoughts will be the front row of the scrum.

Although there is plenty of high-quality material to work with, Australia’s tailor-in-chief will be considering the best style and fit for the World Cup in France.

Rennie’s plans for development on the end of year tour were thrown out of sync completely by the HIA protocols which prevented both Taniela Tupou and Allan Alaalatoa making an appearance against England in the second match.

That forced the emergency selection of James Slipper in the number three jersey at Twickenham, and the Brumbies’ veteran did a manful job in difficult circumstances. At the same time, it ruined a chance for the Wallaby coaching staff to discover all they would have wanted about their ideal combination of front rankers.

There are question-marks hovering over all three spots in the front row, and for very different reasons. Age is the main concern at loose-head prop, and there is a choice between two very different playing styles on the other side of the scrum. In between them, availability is the issue. Both of Australia’s two best hookers currently ply their trade in the French Top 14.

The best starting combination at prop has yet to be decided, and the pairings changed with every game on the end of year tour. At the end of the Rugby Championship, the raw stats looked like this:

Player Minutes Played Carry Interval (mins) DO’s (line/tackle break) Tackle interval Tackle % Ruck attendance interval
Allan Alaalatoa 163 23.2 0/0 10.8 94% 3.6
Taniela Tupou 280 15.5 3/7 12.7 85% 5.6
James Slipper 289 15.5 0/1 10.7 96% 3.9
Angus Bell 153 7.6 0/6 9.0 94% 3.4

Australia began the tournament with James Slipper and Allan Alaalatoa against New Zealand, but the balance had shifted towards Taniela Tupou at tight-head towards the second half of the competition.

One of the issues which is evident from even a cursory look at those stats is that Slipper and Alaalatoa represent basically the same package on opposite sides of the scrum. Both give excellent work rate and involvement on defence and at the ruck, but neither offer much as a ball-carrier on attack.

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As Slipper himself recently told Rugby World magazine:

“I’ve always been one of those props who wanted to be involved in the rugby, not just the set-piece.

I’ve always prided myself on work-rate, defence and attack but probably the biggest work-on for me has been ball-carrying. I’m not a big bloke. I wouldn’t class myself as a big, physical ball-runner.

“What I’ve seen in this game is players are getting bigger, more powerful and quicker. So, a player like me has had to adapt to keep up with the young fellas!”

At the set-piece, both Slipper and Alaalatoa have played on both sides of the scrum extensively at Super Rugby level, reinforcing the impression that both are high-class all-rounders rather than specialists.

James Slipper is deservedly, a Wallaby cap centurion, and, along with Sekope Kepu, one of the two best all-round Australian props in the professional era. But he will be 34 years old at the World Cup, and there is a growing question-mark hanging over his ability to anchor the scrum effectively in 2023:

‘Slips’ had his problems in the first game against Scotland, conceding two penalties for hingeing at loose-head, and another two when he moved over to shore up the tight-head with both Alaalatoa and Tupou off the field.

The game starts with total set-piece stability at number one, and there is some uncertainty over whether James Slipper will be able to provide it in two years’ time at the World Cup in his mid-thirties.

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If he does run the course, the evidence increasingly suggests that his best partner in crime is Taniela Tupou in the number three jersey. The big Tongan Thor provides the ball-carrying impact that both Slipper and ‘Triple A’ lack, and is a tight-head specialist at the set-piece. The pair work well in combination, both in the scrum and outside it:

Big ‘Nella’ likes to work inside towards the centre of the scrum, Slipper wants to step outside and work around the corner – it is a great fit.

The most intriguing aspect of the debate remains whether Allan Alaalatoa, five years younger and 10 kilos heavier than Slipper, could do an even better job in 2023, if he was given the chance to shift back to the loose-head side where he began his Super Rugby career in Canberra.

At this stage, it appears that Angus Bell is not yet ready to step up to the starting role on a full-time basis. He continues to offer excellent impact value from the bench, but his body-shape tends to offer the referee an easy ‘out’ if he is looking to resolve the scrum battle via the whistle:

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Bell did get his own back against the grizzled Frans Malherbe in the first game of the Springbok double-header, and will still be only 23 years old at the time of the World Cup, so he is definitely worth the coaching effort:

Australia cannot do without Taniela Tupou’s unique point of difference at tight-head prop, from the very beginning of the game. As ex-Wallaby wing Lote Tuqiri told AAP at a promotional event for Australia’s 2027 World Cup bid.

“Maybe I’m old school, but I’d play my best XV. I’d start with my best XV and then let everything else get dealt with after that.
“I know you probably want to bring him on when things have cooled down and people are tired and he can use his destructive running a little bit more.

“You’d tell him that – but I think for Taniela, he probably wants to start as well.

“So, you’ve got to wonder what that’s doing for his confidence from a mental point of view.
“For me, I want my best XV starting – I’m starting Taniela Tupou.”

There simply has to be a place for Tupou’s power and dynamism on the run, and his handling finesse, from the opening whistle:

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This is the kind of extra-curricular quality in the tight forwards which sets you apart from the opposition and wins you tournaments, rather than merely allowing you to compete in them.

Australia’s capacity to win penalties from the scrum also expands when Tupou is on the field:

Although the penalty is eventually won by Nic White at the ruck, make no mistake: it is Taniela Tupou’s power to drill the gap between Malcolm Marx and ‘Ox’ Nche which creates the disconnect at the base, and a turnover opportunity for the Wallaby halfback.

Promoting Tupou permanently, and moving Allan Alaalatoa across the tunnel, would also incentivise the tier of tight-heads below him in Super Rugby to fight for a green and gold jersey of their own – specifically Cabous Eloff (when he becomes eligible for the Wallabies) and Pone Fa’amausili in Melbourne. Both possess the extra power and handling skills which would allow them to make an impact off the bench.

From the vantage point of availability, it is unfortunate that the two players who may turn out to be Dave Rennie’s best choices at hooker – Brandon Paenga-Amosa and Tolu Latu – are currently playing their rugby in France. Paenga-Amosa was the number one number two before he left Queensland for Montpellier, while Latu was the premier rake at the 2019 World Cup.

There were hints – but no more than that – against Wales that he could be the top man again in 2023:

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Even when Bobby Valetini left the field for good in the 15th minute of the game, the Wallaby scrum remained in the ascendant against a Welsh front row containing two experienced operators in Wyn Jones and Tomas Francis at prop.

Summary
It is the start of a brand-new year, and the beginning of the 2022 Super Rugby Season is only five weeks away. There are less than two dozen Wallaby Test matches between now and the World Cup in 2023. Suddenly Saturday comes.

For various reasons, the end of year tour of the U.K did not provide the platform for development Wallaby head coach Dave Rennie would have anticipated, or hoped for. With both of his top tight-head props absent for the key match against England, the front row combinations changed with each successive game on tour.

In 2022, more continuity is needed and the preferences have to be clearly established. Is the front row which played against Wales (Slipper-Latu-Tupou) in the final game of 2021 a preview of the World Cup unit in France? Will ‘Triple A’ move across and replace Slipper on the loose-head side, before it ever arrives? Can the outliers, like Gus Bell, big Cabous and the even bigger Pone shake up the established order? The answers my friends, are blowing in the wind.

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