The Rugby Championship starts this weekend, and while there’s so much importance in the Wallabies returning to winning ways in their first hit-out against Los Pumas, there are some finer details I’d love ironed out over the course of this Rugby Championship:
1. Backup for the tighthead props
The 2020 campaign gave us a clean run of our No. 3 jersey, with three starts each for Taniela Tupou and Allan Alaalatoa, the pair alternating between the starting and impact roles. In 2021 though, with the additional eight, matches, we got a few headaches when we faced four matches without one or both of them.
This trend continued in the recent English series, and the timing of injuries seems particularly problematic at tighthead when their absences are often compounded by the unavailability of Harry Johnson-Holmes and Pone Fa’amausili.
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This tour to Argentina includes the still-uncapped Fa’amausili, and the time is nigh for his debut. 2021 showed we didn’t have a set plan as we scrambled to include a 38-year-old Greg Holmes off the bench for a solitary cap and then did the same with Ollie Hoskins, who was plying his trade in England and was nearly the only available, eligible option. Neither of them performed poorly, but they were also clearly never part of the original plan. It was similar to when Tom Robertson and James Slipper both filled in on that side despite spending the majority (if not all) of their club season playing loosehead.
For this campaign, all I really want to see is the health of Fa’amausili – and ideally Johnson-Holmes, who has one cap off the bench against South Africa from the Michael Cheika era – so that they can be given some game time or at least adequately assessed in training so we have some tested depth at tighthead and aren’t forced to call upon the ever-reliable Slipper, who is so impressive on the loose in his 1-17 partnership with Angus Bell.
2. Lock hierarchy
Who are our two best starting locks, who is the primary caller, the lineout disruptor, the heavy-traffic carrier and our impact off the bench?
Dave Rennie has had a look at a wide range in his tenure, from making Rob Simmons a centurion to making Matt Philip a Wallabies mainstay – he’s the equal fourth most used Wallabies player since 2020 – and to blooding three Brumbies in Darcy Swain, Nick Frost and Cadeyrn Neville for their first caps.
Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Will Skelton and Simmons being overseas simplifies the equation somewhat despite Rory Arnold being overseas and still gaining selection in the current squad.
It also appeared that with all options available last year Izack Rodda and Rory Arnold would be the starting combination, which is a very impressive duo, but with Rodda’s injury and no more Skelton, who do we turn to as the starting option alongside Arnold and who comes off the bench?
It seems to be between Philip, Swain and Frost at the moment based on injuries and the potential to use Jed Holloway as a backrower. However, the permutations are quite open and I’d love to determine a bit of a lock hierarchy.
Personally, an Arnold-Philip starting combination with Frost off the bench would excite me and provide a nice blend of all the things sought after in a lock, but that is far from consensus or a settled and tested split. Time will tell.
3. Who is the No. 6? (Wilson, Leota, Valetini, Swinton, Holloway, Samu, Hanigan)
Going hand-in-hand with the previous debate, who plays at No. 6? Our blindside flank has been on rotation since Scott Fardy vacated the role in 2016, and while there have been some good performances and some less good ones, there hasn’t been any amount of consistency as we juggle unique options.
A lot of this is determined by perhaps an uncertainty as to what we want our No. 6 to do. Is it a lineout option, like a Holloway type? Do we just want carries and tackles, in which a Harry Wilson or Fergus Lee-Warner would look quite good? Is it a hybrid role, where someone like Rob Leota or Pete Samu could do a bit of everything, or do they want an ‘enforcer’ in the form of a Lachlan Swinton?
Michael Hooper stands as the immovable No. 7, as does Samu in the No. 20 jersey it seems. Rob Valetini has shown the form to be starting somewhere in the back row – he’s currently at No. 8 but could be at No. 6 if needed, so it begs the question: who joins them?
I selfishly want it to be and think it should be Wilson, but in a key position where we have seen the likes of Pieter-Steph du Toit, Peter O’Mahoney and Courtney Lawes shine, it’d be great to have our No. 6 locked in and delivering consistent performances.
4. The playmaking axis (Cooper, O’Connor, Lolesio, Paisami, Foketi, Simone)
Again, injuries have really ruined a chance to see the best of Quade Cooper, James O’Connor and Noah Lolesio with any form of consistency. Lolesio has been given the most chances, to mixed effect, and Cooper has looked the most in control but often with the added benefit of Samu Kerevi outside him, which won’t be an option to any of our playmakers for the remainder of 2022.
Determining that Nos. 10 to 12 axis is so vital, as we see so many sides that have been dominant at World Cups fall back on that combination, whether it be a Handre Pollard and Damian de Allende or a Dan Carter and Ma’a Nonu set-up.
Nic White (at No. 9) and Len Ikitau (at No. 13) have established themselves as locked starters for our first-choice side, so whether we go for combinations (Lolesio with Irae Simone), experience (Cooper with Hunter Paisami) or hand O’Connor the reins with Lalakai Foketi outside him fresh off some decent Australia A form, there is no clear, set option with Kerevi unavailable.
The experienced lens is the one I’m currently looking through, but what a different story it may be if Simone weren’t heading overseas for next season.
5. Fullback (Banks, Hodge, Haylett-Petty, Petaia, Kellaway, Wright, Campbell, Beale)
Finally, fullback. In 23 tests under Rennie we have had six different players start a match in the No. 15 jersey on top of at least two others who have had to meaningfully fill in during a fixture.
Yet who’s best? Who provides the most and has locked down a spot?
You could’ve argued Tom Banks, though his form never sold a majority of critics and armchair selectors, and his departure to Japan for next year has many (rightly) doubting that we’d use a limited overseas selection to bring him back.
Reece Hodge is versatile and has done a job there at times, but his main asset is his kick and he’s been too pedestrian in most other facets to inspire fans (and now coaches) that he should be the first choice.
Kurtley Beale falls into a similar position, and while he’s experienced, he may be pushing it to deliver at the level required once he returns from his current injury.
It leaves a bit of a battle between Reds teammates Jordan Petaia (only one Test start at fullback for about three minutes) and Jock Campbell (still uncapped) while Andrew Kellaway remains on the sidelines and Tom Wright remains primarily a wing option.
With an important tournament on the horizon and the 2023 RWC next year, it’s time to start putting the eggs in a basket, and frankly, any basket will do at this point.
I hope they persevere with either Petaia (the most exciting athlete), Campbell (the most consistent delivery at Super Rugby level) or Kellaway (perhaps the best rugby brain in the Wallabies outside backs), but with one of those options unavailable, it really is up to one of the Reds to step up and demand repeated selection.
Good luck to each of your respective teams this weekend!
Rugby – The Roar