There will be no damp squibs, no slow fizzling of the embers on this end of year tour. With Dave Rennie’s Wallabies only winning three of their nine games so far in 2022, despite enjoying home advantage in six of those encounters, there will be an extra edge to the matches in November.
The Wallabies badly need to win in order to prove to themselves – let alone anyone else – that they are travelling in the right direction. Realistically, they should be looking to target three of the five matches: round one versus Scotland at Murrayfield, round three against the Azzurri in Florence, and the final round against Wales in Cardiff.
The other two Tests in Paris on 5th November, and Dublin on the 19th may be a bridge too far. In the current men’s world rankings, only 1.3 points separate Scotland in 6th place and Australia in 9th. Wales and Argentina are the filling in the biscuit at 7th and 8th respectively. To put that in context, the top five nations are more than four points distant, a dust cloud disappearing across the horizon.
With the first and last matches falling outside the agreed international window for player release, both Scotland and Wales stand to lose some of their players based in England too, and that is another reason why these matches should be in Australian crosshairs.
Scotland may well find themselves in a very similar position to the Wallabies in terms of playing resources. For every Matt Philip (lost to the tour with an ACL injury) there is a Johnny Gray, who plays for Exeter and is unlikely to be released.
For every Quade Cooper, there is a Finn Russell, who received unexpected news of his discharge from Gregor Townsend’s squad; for Samu Kerevi, read Chris Harris, the British & Irish Lions’ centre who is also based in the West Country. The Wallabies may be losing Marika Koroibete from their back three, but Scotland will probably be without Stuart Hogg, another Lion, and a 93-cap veteran full-back.
To add insult to injury, Hogg has been relieved of the captaincy, and Russell is once again out in the cold. The pair breached protocol by leaving the team hotel in Edinburgh after the Six Nations win over Italy earlier in the year. ‘Hoggy’ then failed to score a try against Ireland in the final round, in a one-on-one versus Hugo Keenan near the goal-line.
He was heard to mutter “I’ll not miss that” after an acrimonious post-match presser. Now, he doesn’t have to worry about them at all.
Russell has always enjoyed an up-and-down relationship with Townsend. There were reports of a rugged exchange with the head coach after the spectacular 38-all draw with England at Twickenham in 2019, and the disagreement spilled over into a full-scale row at the Six Nations training camp the following season. Said Russell: “Yes, it blew up a little bit but it did get blown out of proportion for me. Gregor and I have spoken a lot.”
He was ignored until the final Test of the Lions tour of South Africa in 2021 (where Townsend was the attack coach) and now finds himself on the outer, almost certainly for the final time in his Scotland career. He is currently ranked behind Blair Kinghorn, Adam Hastings, and Ross Thompson, a lowly fourth in the number 10 pecking order.
A career in stone-masonry beckons: “I was a stonemason before and I would like to get a trade after playing. If I go into coaching or a rugby consultancy, I would want something else, something to take my mind off things. A trade gives you a skill and an interest.” Sensible man.
Between them, Hogg, Russell, and Chris Harris represent 190 Scotland caps and six Lions’ tours worth of experience, and that is impossible to replace in one fell swoop. Whatever Australian misgivings about the absence of Cooper, Kerevi and Koroibete, the truth is that they will be able to find more seasoned replacements than Scotland in all three spots in the back-line.
It is likely to be every bit as close as it was at Murrayfield last year. The litmus test is Argentina, currently sitting between Scotland and Australia in the world rankings. The Pumas shared the spoils in the double-header versus the Wallabies in the Rugby Championship, and came back from a 15-point deficit with half an hour to go, to overhaul the Saltires by a single point, 32-31, with a try on the very final play of the July series.
Scotland’s backline at Murrayfield – lacking Hogg, Harris and Russell – will therefore approximate the one they fielded then. The similarities don’t end there. Both nations have recently suffered at the hands of French referee Mathieu Raynal. Remember this, from the momentous climax to the first Bledisloe Cup game in Melbourne?
There is plenty to question in the consistency of M. Raynal’s refereeing interpretations, but taking definite action against time-wasting is not one of them:
Scotland scrum-half Ali Price takes over eight seconds at the back of a caterpillar ruck after Raynal calls ‘Use it!’ and that is a turnover scrum to Argentina. There are no second chances with the Frenchman.
Scotland and Australia even like to employ the same move to create important line-breaks or tries:
In the Australian instance, it’s the in-pass from James Slipper to Noah Lolesio. In the Scottish version it’s number 8 Matt Fagerson to outside centre Mark Bennett.
In the absence of Harris, who is acknowledged as one of the smartest defensive operators at number 13 in the UK game, the Wallabies can look to try and exploit Bennett:
Bennett bites in on the decoy run before falling over, and that gives the Pumas the width of the field out to their left. The bonus is that it also grants access to Duhan Van der Merwe covering across as acting full-back, who is as much of a liability on D as he is a devastating asset in attack:
First Bennett makes a weak arm grab on Santiago Carreras as he surges through the line, then Van Der Merwe misses him in the last line of defence. In the next example, the big naturalized South African is matched up against Pumas second row Guido Petti, who first fends, then runs away from him on the outside!
Petti may be quick, but that should never happen to any self-respecting wing.
On attack, there will inevitably be a great deal of interest in the performance of Kinghorn at number 10. Until recently, he was a full-back for his club Edinburgh, and at six feet four inches and over 100 kilos, like Reece Hodge he has a typically physical full-back presence. When he hits the line hard and looks to offload, he can be top-class:
Two offloads in the space of 20 seconds within the same sequence of play, leading to an opportunity with ball in hand for Van Der Merwe to finish. It was one of the outstanding scores of the whole series.
Kinghorn drops to distinctly ordinary when he has to make judgements about varying the depth of his positioning, and the use of his outsides:
Those examples again occur within the same passage of play, and there is a concrete sense that Kinghorn does not yet understand how to include all his passing options in the play without tipping off the defence to his real intent. Not like a Sexton, or a Cooper, or a Farrell:
He is too easy to read, and that represents a problem for a Scotland coach who played the same spot himself as a creative number 10.
For the Wallabies to be taken seriously as a global force, they need to win three of the five matches on their Spring tour of the UK and France. They may need that kind of outcome in order to bolster their own self-belief, and their confidence in the ultimate destination of the Dave Rennie rugby journey.
A victory at Murrayfield next Saturday would be a great filip. The experience of a common denominator, in the form of Argentina, suggests that game could be very close. The Saltires only lost a series tied at one-all on the final play of the deciding match, and the two score-lines between Australia and Argentina in the opening rounds of The Rugby Championship provided starkly-contrasting outcomes via very similar margins.
Both teams will be without key players for different reasons. Australia is missing Quade Cooper, Marika Koroibete and Samu Kerevi through injury, while Scotland have dropped Finn Russell and may lose two other key backs (Stuart Hogg and Chris Harris) to unavailability. If that is the case, there is every prospect that the Wallabies will be able to present a more cohesive unit from 9 to 15 before the playing of the national anthems.
Matt Philip and Johnny Gray may be missing from the two tight fives, but there will be little quarter asked for or given in a contest that matters to both nations, and the future of both coaches. With France and La Marseillaise looming at the Stade de France only one week later, the Wallabies need all the confidence they can muster. Trim the thistle, before the cockerel crows.