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Miracle at Murrayfield: The Wallabies win that leaves me scratching my head

31st October, 2022
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31st October, 2022
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A win is a win is still a win in the grand scheme of international rugby these days, but every now and again a win leaves more questions begging for answers.

I said on the Instant Reaction podcast to the Wallabies’ 16-15 win at Murrayfield on Sunday morning that I wasn’t really sure how they managed it and now, two full days later, I’ve not gained any clarity.

I do know this, however: the Scotland win was a game they’ve lost many times in the recent past, and it’s much better to be going to Paris with confidence and momentum than without.

Nevertheless, questions remain and now there’s one less game on tour to solve them.

Does White’s bench impact mean McDermott and Gordon battle to start?
Tate McDermott enjoyed a strong start to the Test, and I had to laugh at a Queensland suggestion that perhaps he was left isolated after line breaks because he was too quick for the support players!

And with this his first start for 2022 and his first Test since the Springboks in Adelaide, McDermott has certainly put the pressure back on Jake Gordon, who will undoubtedly get his chance.

But such was Nic White’s impact off the bench – with his lift in speed and accuracy of service, and especially the way he flattened the attack and dragged Bernard Foley forward – that I found myself in the same line of thought that often accompanies Taniela Tupou.

When should he be deployed? From kick-off or soon after halftime to do exactly what he did against Scotland? Lift the tempo, spark the attack, provide strong leadership amidst substitutions and injuries, and finish the job.

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I have to concede I’ve never thought this about White before. He’s generally been the sort of guy you want to start games, but there was no denying his impact in this game. I’m not sure how many other players, let alone scrumhalves, would have had the foresight to drill that last 22 restart low and into touch on the bounce to end the game and secure the win.

That kind of thinking could be crucial in a Rugby World Cup knockout match.

Which means maybe McDermott and Gordon might be better suited to setting up the game from kick-off?

Wallabies head coach Dave Rennie talks to Tate McDermott of the Wallabies and Nic White of the Wallabies after winning The Rugby Championship match between the Australian Wallabies and the South African Springboks at Adelaide Oval on August 27, 2022 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Will Frost be backed to supersede an overseas lock?
Nick Frost put in exactly the kind of shift against Scotland that Dave Rennie and Dan McKellar would have been sweating on after they talked him away from a lucrative contract in Japan to remain with Rugby Australia and the Brumbies earlier this year.

He was really good across so many aspects of the game, with his defence and his deft handling the clear standouts. He was a constant in the lineout, and his attacking and defensive maul work was pretty solid too.

Rennie gave every indication before the first match that Will Skelton is expected to start every game he’s available for, and that remains the expectation for France this weekend. Many fans are now excited by the prospect of Frost and Skelton lining up together, and it feels like a bold move to not make it happen in Paris.

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But what about beyond that? With no Matt Philip and no Rory Arnold in the short term, could Frost-Skelton be the preferred lock partnership?

The current eligibility allowances only make room for three overseas picks, so it’s unlikely Australia would use two of them on a pair of locks. Certainly not with four different backs used this already, and Tom Banks about to join the overseas ranks as well.

So Frost’s coming of age could be timely. He could partner Skelton or Arnold, but they won’t partner each other. The question then becomes, who becomes surplus to needs with Frost’s arrival?

Where does Samu fit in the Hooper-restored world?
Pete Samu was a late withdrawal from the Murrayfield Test (allowing Langi Gleeson’s debut) and Michael Hooper played a whole lot better than a guy who’d not played since July.

Gleeson will be a guy the coach wants to get more game time into, and Fraser McReight obviously remains ready and willing to add to his eight Tests.

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So where does this leave Samu? Is he still the first-choice openside, or has he dropped down a couple of pegs? Does he revert to the ‘super sub’ role he played with some distinction through The Rugby Championship? And is the intention to start Hooper in every Test on this tour?

Does Banks get all four remaining Tests to make his RWC case?
Tom Banks, in his first match back in a Wallabies jersey since that gruesome arm break against England, didn’t have a great time of it against Scotland – though, to be fair, neither did any of his back-three colleagues or Jock Campbell off the bench.

The Scottish kickers consistently aimed away from the fullbacks all night, and with the evident disconnect between the Australian players at the back, were able to isolate Andrew Kellaway and Tom Wright on their respective wings. This, in turn, pushes the heat-lamp back on the defensive positioning of the fullbacks.

But Banks joining the overseas contingent after this tour means he only has this tour to make himself indispensable. And will he really get all four matches to do that based on that first performance?

Tom Banks of the Wallabies runs the ball during The Rugby Championship match between the Australian Wallabies and the South Africa Springboks at Suncorp Stadium on September 18, 2021 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Kellaway and Wright have both played fullback this season. Campbell will surely get his chance. Reece Hodge, Jordan Petaia, and even Ben Donaldson remain in the squad patiently waiting for their chances as well.

This feels like an unnecessary selection risk coming up and it’s all of the coaching staff’s own doing.

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Do Foley and Paisami-shaped pegs both fit in the midfield holes?
Part of the reason it’s still not clear how the Wallabies won in Edinburgh was the stuttering performance of the backs, of which McDermott and Foley couldn’t really spark.

Hunter Paisami has come in for his share of criticism as well, and he and Foley do not make a particularly good midfield pairing. The depth Foley played at meant Paisami was well contained before he even got the ball, and there wasn’t a lot of linkage with the outside backs either.

Foley was partnered with Lalakai Foketi through the Bledisloe Tests and it worked surprisingly well – certainly when compared to what Foley and Paisami produced.

But the question around Foley remains. If these last three Tests we’ve seen are the best he has to offer, then why won’t Rennie back the younger options now and build a team around them in the years to come?

Bernard Foley of the Wallabies kicks the ball during The Rugby Championship & Bledisloe Cup match between the Australia Wallabies and the New Zealand All Blacks at Marvel Stadium on September 15, 2022 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Morgan Hancock/Getty Images)

Bernard Foley of the Wallabies (Photo by Morgan Hancock/Getty Images)

Play Noah Lolesio and play Ben Donaldson. Hell, play Lolesio and Donaldson together as a 10-12.

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Let them develop an attacking game plan between them that suits both their strengths, let them swap between first and second receiver as required, and just back them to deliver.

Lolesio has been in all five Wallabies squads in 2022 and Donaldson has been in three of them, plus both Australia A squads. Lolesio has played six Tests, but never more than three consecutively, and played those three against England because Quade Cooper went down with a calf injury. Donaldson, obviously, is yet to debut.

Just play them. And back them. It’s crazy that these young guys – who will be the Wallabies future beyond next October – are being cast aside and/or overlooked so consistently.

Particularly when they’re definitely no worse than the current offering.

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