Wallabies coach Dave Rennie named a 23 with some big surprises to face England and had some positive news on the injury front ahead of Saturday’s first Test in Perth.
“Can you not tell how excited I am?” joked a typically taciturn Rennie as he looked ahead to the first of 14 Tests against tier one nations this year in a critical campaign as he continues building towards the World Cup.
After naming a squad that had 12 Brumbies and just one Reds player, and appears built for physical presence, Rennie explained his decisions to reporters.
“The Brumbies are clearly our best side and best performing side but we were picking individuals,” Rennie said.
“There are a lot of challenging decisions, which is good thing,” Rennie explained.
“We’ve talked about creating more depth and more competition for places, so that’s a positive.”
On why James O’Connor missed out to Quade Cooper and Noah Lolesio
“We left James out of the mix (because) he’s not quite sharp enough yet,” said Rennie.
“Obviously, he’s missed a big chunk of the second part of the year, didn’t play many of the Kiwi games, and had two different injuries.
“While he’s back fit and available, he lacks a bit of sharpness around his skill set. Everything’s a lot quicker.
“He’s aware of that and we altered training a little bit for him today to allow him to focus on that sort of stuff. It’s not a disaster.
“Noah has trained very well, we have a lot of confidence in him. Quade brings a calmness and obviously massive experience and has trained very well.”
On the make-up of his backrow
While Michael Hooper was an obvious pick at No.7, the rest of the backrow was an area of great conjecture for fans. Rennie went with his preferred approach from last season’s Rugby Championship, with Rob Leota at No.6 and Rob Valetini at No.8.
With Pete Samu versatile enough to cover all three spots, he was named on the bench, with Queensland’s Harry Wilson the unlucky omission.
Rennie made it clear Wilson, along with Tate McDermott, was a victim of Queensland’s poor performances against Kiwi opposition in Super Rugby Pacific.
“I thought Harry was excellent against the other Aussie sides, but did not have the same impact against New Zealand sides,” said Rennie.
“There’s not much in it. Harry has worked really hard but Rob gives us genuine go-forward and carry, as does Bobby.
“They’re big men, good both sides of the ball. Wilso’s not far away. It wasn’t a straightforward decision. We had a lot of discussion over a number of days.
“So that was probably one of the tighter decisions. Pete Samu is on the bench because of his versatility – he genuinely plays 6-7-8. Chances are Hoops can go the distance, so he’ll play 80, but Pete gives us 7 cover.”
On the fitness of Taniela Tupou
There is no doubt Tupou is a big loss as the Wallabies try to match England’s scrum power, but Rennie had a ray of light for supporters.
“Taniela is going alright,” he said.
“It was a significant injury. We always hoped we’d get him right in time for the first Test. The strength and conditioning boys have done a great job with him.
“It was looking at one stage that he might not take part at all in the England series. We’re very confident he’ll get back on the park next week. He’s had a reasonable week of training. He trained against the starting team today and got through, so it gives us plenty of confidence going into next week.”
On why he went for Jake Gordon over Tate McDermott
This was another tight call according to Rennie, who decided to reward Gordon for his impressive season with the Tahs by giving him bench duties behind clear top dog Nic White.
McDermott carried the load of captaincy for the Reds, and at times it seemed a heavy one, as the team floundered later in the season.
“You would say that Jake and Whitey had excellent seasons,” Rennie said.
“Tate was good but I guess it was harder for him in the final couple of months against New Zealand sides where they struggled as a group.
“Whitey has been outstanding. Jake’s had a fantastic season. It’s a really highly competitive position. Tate’s trained really well, put a lot of heat on, but we wanted to reward form from Super Rugby.”
On the two debutants
Rennie has given debuts to 33-year old Brumbies lock Cadeyrn Neville and Dave Porecki.
“The two boys on debut are great stories. It’s taken them a long route to get to a Wallaby jersey. They’ve got a genuine hunger and a thirst,” Rennie said.
“I look at Nev at 33, but if you’ve seen him training, he’s a really good athlete. He can get around the park. He’s a big man, 124-125kgs, so very important to us from a set-piece point of view – very good at maul, lineout, scrum.
“From a perseverance point of view, it’s a great story. And likewise, Dave Porecki spent a lot of time over at London Irish. We would have picked him last year had he not got injured late.
“It’s great for both those guys and awesome for their families.”
It’s 10 years since Neville, an ex-rowing star, was picked to tour Europe under Robbie Deans, and he has been in several camps since then without breaking through.
“He’s had injuries. He spent a bit of time overseas and come back for a final dig,” said Rennie.
“We brought him into the group a couple of years ago, we had a couple of injuries; then unfortunately he got injured which denied him the chance to push for a spot a year earlier.
“A big man, a good athlete and great story for the guys out there who may have thought that the dream had passed them.”
On how plans have changed since camp started
“We’ve had a couple of injuries which has changed things,” acknowledged Rennie.
“Taniela you’d expect to be in the mix. Jed Holloway is unlucky – he’s picked up a minor injury.
“We’ve been picking sides all year. The guy who has really impressed me is Scott Sio. We left him home at the end of year tour. He had a really good off-season. He’s played very well for the Brumbies and probably in the best nick he’s been in a lot of years.
“It’s great to see him back in the group and also in the 23 this weekend.”
On having more experience and competition in the ranks
Rennie said it was significant that the team was more experienced than the young outfits he put out to start last season against France.
“We picked a lot of young men over the last couple of years who have got their foot in the door and cemented a place in the Wallabies,” he said.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who’ve been with us in the past. We had two weeks to prepare. We hadn’t had these boys since November last year. So certainly, that continuity has helped.
“No doubt Dan and the continuity and connection he has with the Brumbies boys (helps). There’s certainly a lot more competition for places.”
On the style we should expect from the Wallabies – and England
Although he’s picked a big pack set for close-in combat, and Dan McKellar has flagged the maul as crucial, Rennie was adamant that his team will ‘still want to play’.
“But there’s no doubt that that’ll [the maul] be a focus for them. Big scrum, they’ve got a very big pack and they’ve brought back a fair bit of experience assuming they name who we’re expecting them to,” Rennie added.
“The line out, the mall, the scrum are big aspects of their game. They’ll want to scrum and maybe scrum for penalties to get territory, and put us in the corner or kick for the posts.
“It’s an area that we feel if we can overshadow them, then it gives us an opportunity to get our game going and put a bit of heat on at the right end of the field.
“There’s no doubt at international level, if you haven’t got a group of men functioning up front, you’re not going to win.
“We’ve got a pretty big pack as well. We’ve got a lot of powerful athletes and that’s the nature of the game. We’ve got confidence in our set-piece, a fair bit of continuity there, there’s strong connection and we’ve got a scrum we think can be competitive with anyone, even with Taniela missing.
“We’ve got to have that mindset going into this because it’s such a crucial area.”
He added: “The lineout maul is a massive part of the game now.
“If you don’t have a genuine threat up front it’s pretty easy to defend that. If you’ve got a good maul, it creates opportunities elsewhere off that.”
On England’s recent struggles
A poor Six Nations campaign and loss to the Barbarians have seen the knives sharpened for Rennie’s rival Eddie Jones.
Asked why he thought Jones had been relatively quiet so far in the lead-up to the series, Rennie replied: “He’s probably got the same mindset as me. It’s not about us. It’s about the players and we’ll let them do the talking.”
Rennie ruled out the old enemy’s recent form as irrelevant.
“I wouldn’t read too much into the Baa Baas game. Most of the squad that we’ll face this weekend were playing for Leicester and Saracens, and it’ll be a completely different approach being a Test match,” Rennie said.
“We know the Six Nations is a competitive competition. France have been outstanding and the depth they’ve created is amazing. Ireland are a very good side so we know how tough that is and we’re not going to read too much into it.
“We’ve got a lot of focus on us getting our game right and that’s going to be crucial for us this weekend.”
On where the Wallabies are headed
Rennie was asked to explain the course he has the team set on, with the World Cup on the horizon.
“We’re still growing our game and that’ll continue,” he said.
“While there is more we wouldn’t have minded getting into the boys, we don’t want them to get on there on Saturday and their heads are spinning because they’re trying to work out what call is and where they’re supposed to be standing.
“We’ve got a fair bit of work in, but we’ve kept it reasonably simple so we can just get out and implement.
“It’s not just about a World Cup for us; it’s trying to build a game and have an understanding that when we play different opponents in different conditions, you got to play other sorts of tactics.
“Game awareness has been a big focus for us and will continue to be.”