Wallabies coach Dave Rennie has admitted Taniela Tupou needs to improve and his benching reflects his dip in from ahead of a massive forwards battle against the Springboks on Saturday.
Tupou was replaced in the starting side by Allan Alaalatoa in one of six changes to the first XV for the clash in Adelaide.
Reece Hodge was named at fullback and Andrew Kellaway is back seven weeks on from hamstring injury on the bench.
Meanwhile Rennie addressed a statement by former All Blacks halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow that he’d be keen on representig Australia under new eligibility rules.
Here’s everything Dave Rennie said at Thursday’s press conference
On the make up of the back three
“We thought about starting ‘Kells’ [Kellaway], obviously we rate him highly, but the fact he’s been away with injury, the fact that we’ve got a 6-2 split, we think it’s better managing his minutes off the bench,” said Rennie.
“Between Tom [Wright] and Jordie [Petaia], they’re both excellent players, but Tom’s been in the best form in a Wallaby jersey, maybe not as clinical last time out, but we’re going to back him to do the job.
“He’s a very good communicator, with ‘Hodgey’ [Reece Hodge] at the back it gives us a big kicking game, which we reckon will be important this week.
Rennie said the back three was picked with the expectation of a Springboks bomb barrage.
“Yes we are [expecting that], and we’ve put a lot of time into it because it wasn’t good enough last time out,” he said.
“So we know the importance of that, they’ve got a good kicking game and they’ll back their D, we’ve got to make sure that we can win that air battle.”
On the decision to leave out Bernard Foley and go with a 6-2 bench split
With Quade Cooper’ on the sidelines, Rennie has opted to bring Bernard Foley back from Japan; but his lack of recent game time – he last played on May 22 – means he is yet to reach match fitness.
“It’s been great having Bernard in, a good man, a wealth of experience, but he hasn’t got a lot of footy under his belt the last couple of months, he’s done a little bit of training,” said Rennie.
“So he’s in reasonable nick, but not Test match fit, so we just wanted to get a good solid week into him.
“There’s a hell of a lot lot of language and things to get his head around around our structures, because he’s the key man around implementing the plans. We felt it was unfair on him to throw him in the mix straight away.
“So he’s had a good week of training and he’ll be better for it next week.”
On what’s needed from Noah Lolesio
Recalled in the number 10 jersey following his controversial axing from the team that lost to Argentina in the second Test, Lolesio has more reason than most to want to defy the doubters against the Springboks.
With Cooper a long-term absentee and James O’Connor disappointing against the Pumas, it was the 22-year old’s turn to try and make the spot his own.
“He’s trained well – he was disappointed with the third Test against England,” Rennie said of Lolesio.
“He wasn’t disastrous, but he certainly wasn’t as good as he was in Test 1. So we said we’ve still got confidence in him.
“Obviously with Quade now out of the picture, James [O’Connor] got a crack last time, so Noah’s got an opportunity now to try and cement that jersey.”
On getting more out of Taniela Tupou
Down on form recently, a full firing Tongan Thor was hugely influential in the Wallabies’ shock wins over South Africa in last season’s Rugby Championship.
Rennie admitted a poor series against Argentina has resigned Tupou to the bench against the Springboks, but conceded expectations for the star prop were exceptionally high.
“We need more out of him, he’s well aware of that,” the coach said.
“He was pretty disappointed with his effort in the second Test. We know he’s very good scrummager, but we expect him to dominate with and without the ball as well.
“He was disappointing in those areas. So I guess the repercussions for that is that he comes off the bench.”
Adding to the pressure on Tupou is the looming return of Angus Bell, with the 21-year old man mountain expected to be available for the second Test against the Springboks in a week’s time.
With Scott Sio and Dave Porecki returning to the 23 for the first Test, plus recent debutants including Matt Gibbon, Billy Pollard and Pone Fa’amausili waiting in the wings, Rennie is confident the Wallabies’ prop stocks are in better health than for months.
“When you look at the bench, you’ve got Scott, Dave Porecki and Taniela – there’s a fair few years of experience in amongst that group,” Rennie said.
“Last Test out we had Pone on debut, we had Billy on debut and Matt with one Test. So certainly a lot more experience and steel about the bench.”
On the continuing absence of Suliasi Vunivalu
After being given the briefest of tastes of international rugby coming off the bench on debut in the Wallabies’ third Test loss to England, the former NRL star is again on the outer heading into the remainder of the Rugby Championship.
However, while Rennie is adamant he still sees ‘value’ in Vunivalu as a long-term international prospect, it will be at least until the end of year tour before he comes into serious contention for a spot in the team.
“We talk a lot about earning the right to play. It’s [wing] a competitive position,” Rennie said.
“We see the value, that’s the reason he’s in the group, we’re going to send him back to play a bit of club footy this weekend.
“The plan is to get him up to a stage where we think he can dominate a starting jersey, and that could well be the end-of-year tour.”
On what he needs to see from Jock Campbell
Reds fullback Campbell, long seen as a candidate for the 15 jersey, will again miss selection against the Springboks, despite being the only specialist fullback in the squad.
However, he might not be on the outer for much longer, with Rennie saying his efforts at training have ‘really impressed’ selectors.
“Jock’s been excellent; and having him in the group, he’s really impressed all of us,” the coach said.
“He’s a smart footy player, really good skill set, he’s deceptively quick; so he’s pushing hard.
“He’s certainly in the discussions and fair to say we’ve been really impressed with him.”
However, Rennie backed his choice at 15, Reece Hodge, to get the job done against the Springboks, with the versatile veteran recalled again after spending the last few years in and out of the team.
“He was an important part of it last year,” . His ability to identify space and find grass in behind them with his booming boot is a big part of the reason we picked him.
On Tawera Kerr-Barlow and the Giteau Law
A former All Black and squad member during their 2015 Rugby World Cup triumph, Kerr-Barlow caused a stir by publicly expressing his interest in playing for the Wallabies.
The 32-year old halfback has previously worked extensively with Rennie at Super Rugby side the Chiefs, winning two titles together; and the now-Wallabies coach is keen to renew the partnership down the track.
World Rugby’s eligibility laws were changed this year to allow players to make an international switch after three years out of their national teams – if they were born in another country or have a parent or grandparent born in that country.
“He’s great man. A hell of a player. You’ve got a guy who’s a former All Black putting his hand up,” Rennie said of Kerr-Barlow.
“I had a conversation with him maybe four, five, six months ago, where he rang up just to say that if we ever got under any pressure, if there were injuries; obviously he’s born in Australia, he’s a former All Black, but the change of rules makes him eligible, and he’s a hell of a player.”
However, Rennie made it clear that Kerr-Barlow was seen as a future rather than a present prospect, saying he would be ‘loyal’ to the current crop.
“It’s probably our strongest position to be fair, we’ve got three excellent 9s here and Ryan Lonergan in behind that,” he said.
“But as we’ve seen this year things can change quickly, so we’ll certainly keep in contact with Tawera.
“It’s a hell of a resource behind what we’ve already got.”
With World Rugby rules making the switch possible, Rennie doesn’t think the Giteau Law, which presently restricts the Wallabies from playing more than three international-based players at a time with several other limitations, will be much of a barrier.
“I guess all of that sort of stuff is doable… that’s the thing with unintended consequences. There’s potentially former Wallabies playing for Scotland, type scenario,” Rennie said.
“It’s open for debate but once you open the floodgates, it’s available for everyone I’d say.”
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back in the mix.
Rennie will also be out to curb the influence of Lukhanyo Am, with the Springboks centre’s dominant recent form seeing some consider him as a contender for the best player in the world.
“We’re well aware of the threat he has with ball in hand and so we need to shut down his space,” Rennie said.
“But he also has a smart kicking game as well. So you need to cover all bases. He’s also going to push out really hard defensively.
“So again, smart kicking options for us and our ability to hold our depth so we can still play.”
On needing a win
With two wins from five matches thus far in 2022 against England and Argentina, the injury-hit Wallabies are desperate for a boost to brighten the spirits ahead of next year’s World Cup.
Rennie believes the disappointment of the team’s disaster against the Pumas will give his charges some extra incentive to redeem themselves, citing the evenness of the Rugby Championship leaderboard, with all teams tied at a win and a loss, as proof that all is not lost just yet.
“Yeah, massive for us, to bury the disappointment of the previous game,” Rennie said of the upcoming clash at the Adelaide Oval.
“The Rugby Championship’s pretty even at the moment, everyone’s had one win. So [we have] a chance to stay in the fight, and we go to the trophy at the end of it.
“We’ve had an excellent week of preparation and pretty brutal review and a fair bit of honesty and an excellent reaction. We need to see that on Saturday.
“The detail’s been excellent. The attitude has been great. It’s been a lot more clinical which has been a bugbear for us in the last couple of Tests. You’ve got to be accurate against South Africans, because if you turn it over they hurt you. They’re happy to go 3-6-9 2 if you overplay. The response has been good.
“We’ve talked a lot about how respect is earned daily. We showed a lot of character in that first Test [against Argentina], and you’ve got to back it up each week, and we didn’t do that. Our job is to work hard and earn that again.”
Rennie refused to cite a lack of experience as a reason for the Wallabies’ humbling loss in San Juan, urging a relatively new-look team, with six changes, to lift.
“We’ve certainly got a lot more experience on the park but we are not looking for excuses,” he said.
“In Argentina we had a good enough side on the field but didn’t play well enough. And so we’ve got to take that on the chin and need to see a response on the weekend.”
Rennie is also looking forward to a rare Wallabies match in a non-rugby heartland, with South Australia traditionally dominated by the AFL.
“We’ve just about played in every possible venue this year. Sydney Football Stadium will be cool in a couple of weeks but we’re really excited to get down to Adelaide and connect with a different rugby community,” the coach said.
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