It’s all relative of course, but Australian rugby is on the up. Rugby Australia has been on its financial uppers for the last few years, but now there is relief at hand. A British & Irish Lions tour in 2025, followed by the hosting of two World Cups in the four years following, should balance the books after a $27m AUD shortfall in 2021.
There has been steady if unspectacular improvement in the cross-border contests against New Zealand at provincial level, with a dismal record of two wins out of 25 attempts in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman in 2021 improving to eight wins out of 29 in Super Rugby Pacific 2022.
The Waratahs showed new signs of life, winning more than 50% of their games in 2022 after drawing a big fat zero the year before. The Brumbies reached the semi-final stage of the competition and could have provided legitimate opposition versus the Crusaders. They still finished their season with more wins than losses against Kiwi opposition.
Now it is up to Dave Rennie and his charges to screw their courage to the sticking place and reinforce that sense of burgeoning optimism at international level. He has done the foot-slogging and the networking at the level below, after identifying strength endurance and aerobic conditioning as ‘non-negotiable’ areas for improvement when he first arrived on Australian shores.
Brumbies Sports Scientist Warrick Harrington has done the rounds of the regions, collecting the GPS information that coaches regard as the lifeblood of their selection discussions, and Rennie is pleased with the results:
“We gather GPS data from all the sides and our sports scientist Warrick Harrington goes through all of that and he shares information back to the clubs around the intensity and various numbers that are important to us.
“There’s been a distinct improvement this year and we’ve seen the benefits of that on the park.
“We’re really happy with the shifts made at Super level and I think our players are better conditioned.”
Like attack coach Scotty Wisemantel, Harrington has the invaluable advantage of having worked with Eddie Jones during his successful phase with England prior to the 2019 World Cup. With England, Harrington introduced ‘well-being tests’, described by the England head honcho as ‘drones flying in rooms, hydration, how you feel, stretch test, all that science junk.’
Losing one key member of your backroom staff to Aussie might be regarded as misfortune, to lose two looks much more like carelessness. The leakage of I.P and inside information may yet come back to haunt Eddie in 2022.
Dave Rennie is also pleased that a number of young debutants have accumulated Test experience during his two years in charge. There is a solid core of three overseas players available for selection, and Quade Cooper, Marika Koroibete and Samu Kerevi bring over 150 caps worth of that vital stuff to the table. They can lend a helping hand to the the development of younger players like Jordie Petaia, Len Ikitau and Noah Lolesio:
“We’ve got a lot of boys who have a lot more Tests under their belt and I think we’ve added a little bit of steel to the group as well.
“It’s a big series, we know that we’re excited about it but we’ve got a great year beyond this. We play all the best sides in the world, 14 really strong Tests against tier one nations, it’s great prep heading into next year.”
There is no question that the Wallabies will be able to put together an imposing back-line: Nic White and Quade in the halves, Samu and Len Ikitau at centre, Marika and Andrew Kellaway on the wings book-ending Jordie Petaia at the back. That should be better than anything England can put on the field during the forthcoming series.
But the ball, and the series has first to be won up front, and that is where the Red Rose will present its sternest challenge. England will only be missing one certain starter in the pack (Bristol Bears tight-head Kyle Sinckler). With a solid Saracens spine of hooker Jamie George, second row Maro Itoje and returning number 8 forward Billy Vunipola, they will present a real test at set-piece and in contact. That is the Saracens way, and they are one of the best at it.
There will selection questions across the front row for the Wallabies, and at numbers 5 and 6 behind them. How accurately Dave Rennie resolves those issues may well decide the fate of the entire series.
The front row illustrates the decision-making fork in the road for the Wallabies head coach perfectly. Here are the stats from Super Rugby Pacific 2022 for the main contenders at prop:
|Player||Minutes played||Carry interval’||DO’s interval’*||Tackle interval & %||Ruck arrival interval||Pens conceded|
In this Coach’s Corner article back in March, I first discussed the split in philosophies across the face of the global game – whether to kick the ball away, build few rucks and focus on upfield defence (France, South Africa and the Brumbies); or keep the ball and build pressure through constructive phase play with ball in hand. This is Ireland’s way currently, and it is also the legacy of Rod Macqueen’s great Wallaby teams of the early noughties.
The figures above are virtually identical to those for the same four players at the end of the 2021 Rugby Championship (see the start of the article). The Brumbies props are both part of a playing model which favours defence and cleanout, rather than carry. Taniela Tupou in particular is there for explosiveness at scrum-time and with ball in hand, but he will not provide the same work-rate on D.
The fork in the road is there in black and white for Rennie: Should he prefer this?
Here is triple A, stopping renowned second effort runner Ardie Savea in his tracks. Or will he opt for the Tupou highlight reel moments instead?
At the scrum, the Reds and Tupou have had the wood on the Brumbies and Allan Alaalatoa for the past couple of seasons:
The Brumbies, with four internationals in the shape of James Slipper, Scott Sio and Folau Fainga’a in addition to triple A, have always struggled to prevent a big gap appearing down the right-hand side of their front row against their cousins from Queensland, even with eight forwards against six (with Harry Wilson hanging off in channel one) in that last example. It is not the sort of invitation you want to make to Jamie George and Ellis Genge.
On the loose-head side of the set-piece, both Slipper and Angus Bell have struggled with the award of penalties against for perceived scrum collapses.
‘Slips’ dropped three scrum penalties to Zander Fagerson in the end-of-year tour match against Scotland, while Gus Bell gave up four in a row to Oli Jager in the game between the Waratahs and the Crusaders. Bell destroyed Tyrel Lomax at the start but struggled with Owen Frank’s lower body-height off the bench against the Hurricanes. It has been a persistent theme:
Will Stuart is over 6’2 tall and should not present the same problem to either Slipper or Bell, but it is still a concern until proven otherwise.
Folau Fainga’a or Dave Porecki for the man-in-the-middle? The Brumbies lineout runs at an 86% win rate, the Waratahs one per cent higher in SRP. Fainga’a is probably the cannier of the pair at steering the close-range maul, Porecki is much the more active in the open:
|Player||Mins played||Carry interval||DO’s interval||Tackle interval||Tackle completion %||Ruck arrival interval|
It is the same picture as before. What is the best solution for the Wallabies? Why not start the game with the Brumbies trio, and bring Bell, Porecki and Tupou off the bench early, copying the recent Springbok trend – maybe even before half-time?
Let’s not mince words. The Wallabies are in a bind with Izack Rodda out injured, and Rory Arnold and Will Skelton absent. They are probably the fourth and fifth names on the list of overseas priorities for Dave Rennie. Rodda is by a distance the best lineout captain in Australia, and the Force had much the best ratio of steals against the throw at 23.5%.
As I explained in this end-of-year-tour Coach’s Corner , under Rodda’s captaincy the lineout retention rate rose from 82% to 89%, and the takeaway rate from 14% to 17% between the Rugby Championship and the tour of the U.K in November.
The four main candidates for second row against England posted the following stats in SRP:
|Player||Mins played||Carry interval||DO’s interval||Tackle interval/%||Ruck arrival interval||Lineouts own/stolen|
In Rodda’s absence the obvious combination is Matt Philip and Darcy Swain, with Swain calling the lineout. Matt Philip plays like a tight-head lock and had his problems calling against Guido Petti last year:
Darcy Swain would have the advantage of playing with a thrower he knows in Folau Fainga’a, and a coach who understands him at provincial level in Dan McKellar. But if Australia are to have any ball-carrying presence at all in the tight five, Matt Philip is absolutely necessary.
Bench second row may well present an opportunity for Brumbies’ youngster Nick Frost to stake his claim – he has impact in terms of ball-carrying and lineout steals, and he dovetails well with Swain at the lineout drive:
The curveball thrown out by Dave Rennie at the time of the Wallaby squad announcement was the potential redeployment of Jed Holloway at the critical number 6 spot, even though Holloway has looked comfortably settled in the second row for the Waratahs this season:
“We’ve got Rob Leota who finished the  season with us and he’s been excellent.
“We’ve got Jed Holloway who’s predominantly played lock, and he could play lock for us, but he’s a genuine 6 option, he’s got a really good skill set and that sort of thing, so he’ll push close.
Holloway would increase Wallaby production at attacking lineouts, and in defence of the lineout drive, where both Darcy and Jed are aggressive predators up the middle:
There is a more subtle reason for Holloway’s inclusion too. The single biggest weakness in the Australian defence is the absence of threatening on-ballers at the breakdown beyond Michael Hooper, and that will mean more focus on the counter-ruck, and the kind of high tackling technique at which Jed Holloway excels:
Michael Hooper and Bobby Valetini are certain to be picked at number 7 and number 8 respectively, given the terrific alliance they forged during the Rugby Championship last season.
Number 6 remains the Bermuda Triangle of the Australian forward pack, with all of Holloway (when fit), Rob Leota and Harry Wilson a chance to fill the spot against England. Here are the stats for Wilson and Leota in comparison:
|Player||Mins played||Carry interval||DO’s interval||Tackle interval/%||Lineouts won|
Harry’s work-rate, especially on the carry, is just what Dave Rennie is looking for, but Rob is probably the better option at lineout time. Leota showed signs of integrating nicely into Wallaby set-piece attacks in November:
In the first example, Valetini runs right through Sam Underhill on first phase, and Leota runs straight past him on the second play. No mean feat.
I suspect Dave Rennie will like the idea of either Leota or Holloway starting at blind-side, with a potential 6-2 bench split between forwards and backs on the pine to back it up.
If Dave Rennie and his coaches have analyzed England accurately, they will probably scent the biggest threat deriving from their forwards and their kicking game in the forthcoming series.
He may well make the bold choice and go for a 6/2 bench split, with many of those finishers entering the game early and enjoying as much game time as the starters. It would not be a surprise to see the Wallaby pack for the first Test looking something like this:
1. Slipper, 2. Fainga’a, 3.Alaalatoa,
4. Philip, 5. Swain,
6. Holloway/Leota, 7. Hooper, 8. Valetini;
16. Bell, 17. Porecki, 18. Tupou, 19. Frost, 20. Holloway/Leota, 21. Samu.
It is time for the Wallabies to front up against the most ancient of foes. No more words, as they look out over the precipice against the Mother Country. “Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide/Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit/To his full height.”