Wallabies coach Dave Rennie admits he’s taking a risk with his bench strategy for Sunday’s Test against Argentina, while also explaining key decisions behind his team selection.
Rennie told reporters the fitness of Jed Holloway and the physicality of Michael Cheika’s Argentina were contributing factors as he named six forwards on the bench alongside backs Reece Hodge and Jake Gordon.
Rennie welcomes back Quade Cooper at No.10 but Rory Arnold missed out after coming into the camp with a calf injury.
Here’s everything Rennie said during Friday’s media conference
On the 6-2 bench split
Rennie will go with six forwards on the bench for the first time in 24 Tests as Wallabies coach.
“You could always say it’s a bit of a risk in that you lose a back early on, and you’re under a little bit of stress, but we just felt that the battle up front is going to be really important,” Rennie explained.
“They’re a good side. They’ll be really combative. We’ve got genuine guys who can change the game on the bench as well and give us go forward. And then defensively give us massive work rate.
“We tossed it around a fair bit before we committed to it. Jed had a significant calf tear so we don’t see him going massive minutes. So to have someone like Rob Leota on the bench and Pete Samu gives us a bit of flexibility there. And if we got under a little bit of heat, ‘Pistol’s’ quicker than most of our backs anyway, so we’ll slot him out wide.”
On Tom Wright over Jordan Petaia at No.15
Rennie is a long standing fan of Petaia at fullback, but Wright’s cameos in the role against England have given him the edge in a position the Brumbies star is keen to play.
“Our back three all need to be fullbacks,” Rennie explained. “He’s got an excellent skill set, Tom. I thought he was outstanding, probably the best Test he’s played, at fullback, a couple of weeks ago.
“He’s an excellent communicator, a really good organiser of people around him, and just been in really good form. You look at our bench and we’re going to use Jordy to play on the wing and cover midfield. We’d be happy either way but Tom’s been excellent, deserves a crack.”
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On Quade Cooper’s return
The experienced No.10 was a late withdrawal from the England series after injuring his calf in the war up in Perth. He will bring a calm authority to the role in what is expected to be a high pressure environment in Mendoza.
“We’re excited to have Quade back,” said Rennie. “He’s just got a great understanding of the game, when we talk about little details around who we’re trying to sit down and how we’re trying to create space for others.
“His ability to share that and convey that to the other players is excellent, he’s more than happy to sit down in front of a computer and share his knowledge and so it’s been great for all our young men.”
The 6-2 split does suggest Rennie has faith that Cooper is 100 per cent after his injury setback.
“He’s trained really well. His experience, the quality of his skill set is really evident when we train as well and the young fellas outside him have really enjoyed the week,” Rennie said.
“We’ve got a clear plan of how we want to play and while Hunter and Lenny are less experienced than someone like Samu, they’ve been around a while now and have played a fair bit of footy together. They’re no longer rookies and that’s the expectation of them. We expect them to deliver and they’re good players who have prepared well.”
Rennie suggested Cooper has matured as a flyhalf in recent seasons.
“That was the impressive thing about Quade last year. We had a plan going into the game and he implemented it really well. We’ve got a clear plan this time as well,” Rennie said of Cooper’s quality of execution.
“Maybe as a young man, it was important for him to play well and dominate the game but he’s doing it in different ways now.”
Rennie said he hadn’t talked to Cooper about the player’s falling out with Michael Cheika five years ago.
“The Cheik thing, we haven’t spoken about it at all,” said Rennie. “I certainly haven’t spoken to him about anything that’s historical. His focus is on playing well for us and we expect him to do that.”
On Jed Holloway’s selection at flanker
Holloway is set for a debut at No.6, having played at lock for the Waratahs this season.
“From an international perspective, we’ve got some big men who can play in the second row and he’s got a great skill set Jed whether it’s ball in hand or line out as well and he certainly strengthens our lineout,” said Rennie.
“We’re really excited for him, he’s such a good man, had a massive season for the Waratahs and deserves this chance.
“We would have included him against England had he not got injured so he’s had to be patient. He’s got a bit of an edge about him. We think that’s going to be important going into the weekend.
“Jed’s skill set to play in the middle of the park and carry and clean is excellent and he’ll get plenty of opportunity within our structure to do [that].”
On Rory Arnold’s fitness
“We would anticipate Rory will be available for the second Test,” Rennie said. “Even when he arrived here – he did a little bit of training prior to coming in with us and he just got a pretty minor calf strain running. He’s had a good week on his feet training and we’ve increased his load a little bit but he was never really in contention for this.”
On why he chose Jake Gordon over Tate McDermott
Rennie acknowledged the ongoing decision between McDermott and Gordon as back up to Nic White was causing plenty of discussion with the coaching team.
“We talk about it a lot because they’re quite different players. Tate’s X-Factor can carve teams up so you think about that against tiring defences,” Rennie said.
“Jake has speed to the break down and the quality of his skill set. He’s got a very good running game as well. There’s not much between those guys.
“But if we look statistically, Argentina have been excellent in the last 20 minutes of games and we know we need to be really clinical around then and we think Jake’s skill set will be important.”
On having no Samu Kerevi regrets
Rennie stood by the decision to allow Kerevi to play at the Commonwealth Games, even though the ACL injury he suffered there rules him out of the game for at least six months.
“Samu’s the one who’s hurting more than I am, obviously. It’s been really tough for him,” said Rennie.
“I was part of the decision making from the start. When I first spoke to Samu about coming back we were checking was he keen to be a Wallaby and he was, and was he keen to go to the Commonwealth Games and he was desperate to go to that.
“We thought it was a great opportunity to go and contribute to help them win a medal. We don’t regret the decision. That’s footy. He has a freak injury and does an ACL. We’re gutted for him, he was devastated. But it was the right decision for Rugby Australia.”
In Kerevi’s absence the team finished fourth.
On Michael Cheika and how he has Argentina playing
“He’s coached a handful of the guys in our group, and they’ve got a bit of an understanding of how he works,” Rennie said.
“They kicked the ball the least of the tier one teams in recent Test series and so we think that will continue, they’ll play a lot and so there’s a bit of risk of this reward there.
“Some of their attack was excellent, and they scored some unbelievable tries. Our job is to try and force some errors from that. Whether they’ll alter that a little bit, we’ve planned for both, but Cheik’s got an optimistic mindset and I think they’ll want to play, and our players realise it.”
Australia comfortably dealt with the Argentina team last year but Rennie expects a tougher assignment over the next two weekends.
“I think they’re a better side than last year. Getting home has been great for them,” Rennie said.
“They’ve spent a couple of years travelling and that’s been a real challenge. It’s not easy being in quarantine and in situations where you can still train but you’re pretty much trapped in your hotel.
“I thought they were amazing in 2020, beat the All Blacks and drew with us twice. Maybe not quite as sharp last year, but I think having played three Tests at home already, you can see the confidence and the quality lifting.”
On his review of the England series
While Rennie has no regrets over Kerevi, he clearly does about the 2-1 loss to England.
“We had a few days in Queensland prior to leaving. It was a chance to have a decent review, look at the opportunities that we left out on the park and areas we’ve just got to be better,” Rennie said.
“We created chances. You’ve got to grab them at this level. Had we done that England would have had the scoreboard pressure on them and it would have forced them to play out of their comfort zone.
“We weren’t accurate enough or good enough to do that and end up finishing second. It was disappointing. We’re better than that and we need to prove that this weekend.”
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