If it’s the first weekend of July, it must be time for Test rugby all over again. And if there’s any one country that gets Australian fans more nervous than a couple of outings a year against New Zealand, it must surely be England with Eddie Jones at the helm.
Overall the record reads 26 wins to England, 25 wins to Australia and one draw in 52 outings since 1909, which shouldn’t really be anything to get over-anxious about; it just shows how historically even the match-up with the Old Enemy has always been.
It’s more the eight straight English wins since Jones took over in 2016 that starts the night sweats.
And soon enough all the amateur selecting that’s happened so far this year will give way to the real thing, with Dave Rennie set to name his first side of 2022 on Thursday.
But already he’s having to deal with the variables of injuries that don’t emerge in future crystal-ball selections, and that feels like the prime place to start the niggly and nagging questions that loom ahead of the first Test this Saturday in Perth.
Wanted: tighthead props. Must have healthy legs
News over the past few days that Taniela Tupou looks certain to miss at the very least the first match of the series has only been made worse for the fact that Australian tighthead props are starting to look cursed.
Tupou has been battling a calf injury since two-thirds of the way through the Super Rugby season, with reports emerging over the weekend that there may be similarities to the calf injury that plagued David Pocock for months back in the day. And that’s certainly not ideal.
And it’s not ideal because yet again Pone Fa’amausili is carrying a niggle, after being limited to just 229 minutes across the last five games of the Super Rugby Pacific in 2022 and having now played just 13 games in the last 18 months with hamstring and calf injuries numbering in the double digits. Harry Johnson-Holmes was called in as an injury cover but suffered an Achilles injury almost on arrival that will likely sideline him for months, not weeks.
Returning Melbourne Rebels prop Sam Talakai is the replacement for the replacement, and presumably he’s been stored in a cotton-wool canister and gently nursed through field sessions since coming into camp.
Just weeks after England’s scrum was being widely devalued with the injury omission of Kyle Sinckler, the set-piece contest will be well evened without Tupou. Rennie will be left to piece together a working front-row bench – the overwhelming consensus is James Slipper will be asked to cover the tighthead side – and sweat on an extremely positive outcome for Tupou.
As will we all.
How to hook, and who to hook with?
The same overwhelming consensus that has Slipper listed for jersey No. 18 also seems to have Waratah rake Dave Porecki pencilled in for a run-on Test debut, and with Brumbies pair Folau Fainga’a and Lachie Lonergan the only alternates in the squad currently, I have to admit I’ve wavered between not really needing to argue this and wanting a three-sided coin.
The Wallabies used seven different hookers last season, with Fainga’a or Brandon Paenga-Amosa starting in 13 of the 14 Tests played. Six different players wore No. 16 in 2021.
There are another three hookers in the Australia A squad too, so clearly the hooking net is still being cast wide.
So if it is Porecki this weekend, it wouldn’t be undeserved, as he’s certainly had a strong season in a greatly improved NSW pack. But Fainga’a and Lonergan have been handy as well, starting 13 of the Brumbies’ 16 games this season between them and playing half the games as a pairing in a four-pronged rotation that actually worked surprisingly well, looking back in hindsight.
It feels like the bench spot is going to come down to impact, and it’s a proper conundrum. Fainga’a is more physical whereas Lonergan is more dynamic and mobile around the field and a bigger on-ball threat. And maybe that’s why it feels like he has his nose ahead. Rennie is certainly a fan as well, which won’t hurt at all.
Valetini-Hooper and who?
Two-thirds of the back row was written down on the page some months ago, but the remaining spot couldn’t be more open. And I think that’s reflected in the numerous reported teams in recent days, with everyone scrambling for options once it became clear that Jed Holloway is also a current injury casualty.
So for every mention of Harry Wilson – who I’ve seen listed at both No. 8 and blindside flank – there’s a mention of Rob Leota and a nod for Pete Samu too.
I tend to agree that Samu remains the obvious bench option, able to cover all three positions, which then leaves it to a question of Wilson or Leota. Leota would be closer to Holloway if that’s the way Rennie was leaning, but Wilson has had an excellent ball-carrying season too.
How fit are the Japanese imports?
This isn’t a question fuelled by anything, simply just a question of time frames.
Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete faced off in the League One final on 28 May, but Quade Cooper’s last game for Kintetsu was three weeks before that, when their Division 2 final round win over the Mitsubishi Sagamihara Dynaboars secured automatic promotion for next season.
Since then he’s spent time in Los Angeles training with the Giltinis, and he’d have been part of the unofficial pre-camp training program that Rennie and his assistants were running at Ballymore during the Super Rugby finals.
So it’s been a while for all of them, though I suppose it’s not too different to most of the squad finishing up the Super Rugby campaigns a month ago. Let’s hope I’m mildly concerned about nothing.
All-out physicality or is there room to play?
Long-term Roar regular PeterK put together a pretty decent guess at a likely Wallabies team over the weekend based purely on Rennie’s comments, and its logic and reasoning very hard to argue.
‘Work ethic’, ‘aggression’ and ‘physicality’ have long been key phrases and messaging of Rennie the coach, and there’s just no doubt his coaching philosophy is built around this.
But we know England are trying to play more rugby this year – as mixed as those results have been thus far – so I just wonder if there’s going to be room for the Wallabies to play away from the strong arm song sheet?
You would think so, deliberately bringing a guy like Cooper in, and you’d hope so, with 28 of the Wallabies’ 39 tries last season scored by backline players.
Yes, physicality and aggression are important, and there’s no doubt both will be crucial in getting over the top of England.
I just hope there’s still a bit of room to play to the Wallabies’ strengths.