Every start to a Wallabies season over the past 20 years has brought its usual excitable positivity that provides great hope to us Australian rugby fans … until reality inevitably sets in.
What I have witnessed over the years is that whenever we have come up against the English, or any of the Home Nations, there is always an unwarranted, dare I say arrogant, belief that we merely need to turn up to win.
That somehow if we do not win, it is because the players don’t want to win enough. We the public should not have to put up with losing to the amateurish English.
My question has always been why the unbearable over-confidence? After all, when was the last time we completely dominated a top-tier touring team from the northern hemisphere?
Yes, we beat the French in last year’s very competitive, enjoyable series, but only just. We were hardly dominant on our home soil against a French team that left some of their best players, including the very best, at home.
That is not a criticism but an observation to help keep things in perspective.
We haven’t beaten the English since the pool game of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, in case you haven’t noticed.
The English Premiership is indeed a shining light when it comes to domestic club rugby around the world. Their Premiership is what our NRL once was back when it was the Winfield Cup.
Just a really good competition that brings out the best in its players and fans, allowing the representative coaches a great number of high quality players to choose from.
So why do we think this enviable competition does not produce players of the highest quality? It does. In fact all the major European club rugby competitions do.
I fear 2022 will be no different. I fear we as fans will mostly go into the series thinking much more of our own players and much less than what is deserved of the opposition.
Indeed I predict we will lose this series because we can not match their tight five. Hardened by an emphasis of that play, week in, week out, in their domestic competition, their tight five will be too much for this squad selected to deal with. But it doesn’t have to be so.
What will happen next is what happens every time we lose to one of the Home Nations. We will act confused, perplexed, amazed and puzzled as to how this could possibly be, failing to realise where we fell short.
We will first blame the interpretations of the laws despite that World Rugby has done nothing but make the laws of the game and the subsequent interpretations they demand of the referees clear to everyone. We will not demand that our players play with greater discipline, heaven forbid.
We will then blame our players’ efforts without considering that the opposition were simply better in crucial areas like the set piece and the breakdown.
We will then make a scapegoat out of one of the backs, probably the flyhalf, even though Dan Carter himself would have failed behind our tight five.
The truth is that it has been 20 years since we were the force we believe that we should be.
Are our expectations correct? Is it a big conspiracy that keeps us at bay?
Managing expectation is sadly one of the biggest priorities the Wallabies’ coaching staff have to put up with. When was the last time an Australian side dominated Super Rugby, for instance?
2014 to be exact.
When was the last time a Wallabies side won anything remarkable?
2002 to be exact.
So if two decades of perpetual failure, with just a smattering of minor success, hasn’t managed your expectations?
Let me do that now.
We should expect to win just one of the games this July series. We should embrace that as a significant step in the right direction considering the very strong England team being sent out.
England is a team with the great Maro Itoje.
Why single him out?
Itoje just happens to be the exact symbol of the difference between the two rugby nations. He doesn’t run very fast. I have never seen him throw a flick pass. If he were an Aussie he’d largely be dismissed as a plodder.
Itoje does everything a rugby tight-five player should do. They spoil at the breakdown. They spoil at the set piece. They make their tackles. They carry over the advantage line most of the time, just enough to get their team going on the front foot.
Itoje does all the things we never talk about, nor value. He does them so well that he just happens to be one of the most exceptional players to have ever played the game.
Shame on us for not recognising nor lauding these attributes in our own players. We’ve been crowing about the wrong type of players in our tight five for too many years and it is time to stop.
Unless we demand the selection of the correct players that could match the likes of the England tight five we will never rise to the top of rugby union again. Adapt or die, people.
Any number of our players could be selected in the back line and in our back row and do a great job. Our style of rugby produces more than enough of these.
It really would be purposeless to once again concern ourselves with who might be wearing the numbers six through 15. Yet that is pretty much all anyone will do.
If we want to win the two games needed to win this series, we have to rethink our tight five entirely.
Angus Bell, in this squad, has to start and play the majority of minutes. It is looking likely that James Slipper will be his understudy and that is fair enough.
But Tom Robertson should be brought into the squad immediately as he brings the same attributes as Bell. He carries over the advantage line, albeit from a smaller stature and so not quite as well.
The difference is, Robertson is the best scrummaging prop in this country and he has the highest work rate of all of our props. He is the only prop we have capable of playing both sides of the scrum so having him in a squad is a must at the very least.
Frankly, Robertson starting at loosehead, as unpopular as that will be, is the best thing the Wallabies could do. Bell should be used to come on and replace him for impact.
As for Scott Sio, who won out against Robertson to be selected in the squad, he has his attributes but he never has had the engine for Test rugby. It is time to move on from him.
At hooker we must ensure the dynamic Lachlan Lonergan gets a lot more game time at international level, just not in this series.
We must recognise he is not big enough to combat the English for the majority of a Test match at this stage. Another off-season of muscle bulk is in order and until then a bench role is best for him and the team.
A fit Jordan Uelese not being in the squad is an absolute travesty. If he is fit he should be the starting Wallabies hooker against the English.
But because he is not there, Folau Faingaa should play the majority of this series. Like Sio, he ought to be put out to the pasture that he seems to desire now that he is leaving the Brumbies.
David Porecki should play no part in this series or any other I’m afraid. His two Waratahs understudies in Tom Horton and Mahe Vailanu are much more suitable players in terms of their potential for any future Wallabies squad.
Feleti Kaitu’u is another obvious player that should be considered a possibly integral squad member going forward.
The number three is one of the most important players on any team and so much thought should be put into this selection.
The obvious player to start at tighthead is Taniela Tupou. But if you think he should be the starting number three against the English, you would be wrong.
Tupou lacks the fitness and extra efforts to be the current starting Wallabies player that he looks likely to become.
What compounds this shortcoming is that he is coming back from injury and will not be match fit. He should play the entire series off the bench as an impact player. That role for him best serves the team for the moment at least.
Allan Alaalatoa is the man to start and play the most minutes in this crucial position. I’m not sure he can do the job successfully but he is the best option we have at the moment to start.
What I do know is Pone Fa’amausili symbolises everything wrong with what Australian rugby fans think is a good tighthead prop.
He is a tremendous ball carrier and big hitter, there is no doubt. But from the limited game time he has had in Super Rugby, he is a proven liability at his core roles at set piece.
If he was to switch to the loosehead side and get a season or two under his belt there at Super Rugby level, he would make better sense. His selection in this squad is almost laughable at this stage of his career though.
Now to the locks. Balance is the key.
We need a player like Maro Itoje, that much is certain. Someone who does a lot of what the fickle fan doesn’t notice.
There is one player that we have that does this and he was chased out of the country for doing just that, only to reappear at this year’s Super Rugby season’s end.
Ned Hanigan is the most Maro Itoje-like player we have and should be immediately sent into the starting Wallabies XV as soon as possible. His set piece and work rate in phase play are as good as anyone in the world bar Itoje himself.
Of course that won’t happen for the first game and maybe not for the series.
In the meantime, a Darcy Swain-led lock pairing will have to do. Pair him with Cadeyrn Neville or Nick Frost and we will have a good lock pairing.
Jed Holloway off the bench makes a lot of sense as well. The issue with all these options is that they lack the world-class work rate of Ned Hanigan.
The Wallabies’ selectors got the back-row and back-line squad selections more or less correct. I’m afraid they have made some grave errors in the selection of the tight-five squad members.
They are playing it safe by selecting too many fan favourites when they should be backing their rugby knowledge and picking the types of players that do the unheralded stuff we so desperately need.
Their job is not to keep the average fickle fan happy. Theirs is to be better than the average fan.
If we the fans can up our game and focus on the tight five a little more that would be good for the game in this country.
We should do more to applaud the tight five when they do their job well. We can start to change the fickle culture of the average rugby fan in this country.
We can change it so the coaches and selectors adopt a more northern hemisphere approach to talent identification of the tight five.
This will filter down to grass roots, where I know for a fact that the wrong talent is being identified and prioritised.
Go to the games, or watch them at home, or in the bars with friends, but cheer on the tight five doing tight-five things.
Frankly, if I hear one more comment about who should wear the number 11 or the number 15, I think I might explode.
It doesn’t matter, we’ve got that covered. That is not where we fail.