Rugby Championship Preview: Australia

 

There is an awful lot of hype about the 2018 Wallabies coming out of Australia, together with Steve Hansen’s contribution, suggesting that the Wallabies are, in his view, favourites to win both the Bledisloe trophy as well as the Rugby Championships.

Which is all a little confusing.

The Wallabies do appear to be a bit better equipped than they have been for some time, although there are some questions about this 2018 squad. They have the likes of a refreshed David Pocock back after time-out from the game. Michael Hooper is said to be back to full fitness and ready to play too. But there is a serious hole in the midfield with Test regulars Tevita Kuridrani and Samu Kerevi out injured. This leaves Kurtley Beale as the only established midfielder, with a yawning gap next to him. The gap or gaps are to be filled by the call-up of no less than 6 rookies and the possible redeployment of Reece Hodge as a midfielder.

The return of Matt Toomua to Australian shores has helped to bolster mid-field stocks somewhat, as an alternative at 12 to Beale, although he is more likely to be seen as an alternative to Bernard Foley at 10.

Putting the dire results in 2016 and 2017 behind them, they spoke of improving in 2018, but then suffered a series defeat to Ireland in the mid-year.

The confusion I mentioned at the beginning of this review is that everyone says Australia are improving, yet they have lost four of their last five Tests. I am unsure of their actual development.

They have taken a beating since the World Cup final of 2015, with slim pickings across the Rugby Championship, and inbound and outbound touring visits. In 2016 they played 19 and won just 6. They beat the Argentinean Pumas twice and South Africa once, yet somehow contrived to lose to Allister Coetzee’s woeful rabble 18-10 at Loftus Versveld.

In 2017 the count is perhaps a bit better, the Wallabies won 7, which included wins over Fiji, Italy, and Japan, the Argentine (twice), Wales, and a very good win over New Zealand by 23 to 18 in Brisbane. Somehow they still could not beat the struggling Springboks, drawing both games against the South Africans.

The series defeat at home against Ireland in the 2018 June international tests does not bode well for the rest of 2018.

The Australian scrum has been a weakness for some years, if not decades, but the arrival of the young Thongan Thor, Taniela Tupou, has given the scrum a massive boost in 2018, especially when he has been used later in the game as an impact substitute. They have looked far more solid and competitive than in previous seasons and will probably consider this aspect of their game as a strength. It will be interesting to see whether Tupou’s raw strength will overcome his lack of experience when he comes up against some of the better loose-heads in world rugby in the next few weeks.

As the Wallaby scrum has improved, so their line-out has deteriorated. The retirement of Stephen Moore has deprived the team of an accurate lineout thrower, while the youngsters stepping up to fill his shoes have struggled with consistency. The return of the experienced Tatafu Polota-Nau might help in this department, especially with Jordan Uelese suffering a long-term ACL injury.

The lineout has some good jumpers, with the likes of Rob Simmons, Adam Coleman, Rory Arnold and Izack Rodda in as primary jumpers and the bulk of Lukhan Tui at flank. If the hookers can find accuracy and consistency, the Aussie lineout should be competitive in 2018.

While the Wallabies have some of the best attacking backs in the world, especially with the likes of Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau on form, there are some serious question marks around their defence, with Beale’s name again prominent amongst the defaulters. Foley at 10 is something of a turnstile too.

Israel Folau is a superb attacking full-back with the ball in hand, and will punish anyone who kicks the ball onto him. His kick-chasing is remarkably effective. However, his positional play is often doubtful and teams have worked out how to kick the ball away from him, depriving him of counter-attacking opportunity, and forcing him to turn on defence, which is a weakness.  His tackling is also suspect, especially covering in the wider channels. He will be thoroughly tested by clever flyhalves.

Bernard Foley is the first choice at flyhalf, and has been in better form in the latter part of the Super Rugby season, although there are still questions about his game management skills and the lack of variation that he brings to the game. He may find himself playing second fiddle to Matt Toomua before the Championships has run its course.

The loose-trio, with Hooper and Pocock on form, is always formidable, depending on who plays at 8. It does look as if Pocock is going to be used primarily as an eighth-man, with Pete Samu combining with Hooper as ball chasers.

The fitness of Michael Hooper remains the Wallabies’ biggest concern, though we are told that he will start in the first Test this coming weekend. Whether he is match fit remains a question that only time will answer.  Some doubts also remain over the fitness of wing Dane Haylett-Petty, who is also well short of game time as he hasn’t played since the Rebels’ loss to the Reds on July 6.

Prospects

The Wallabies will be aiming to beat Argentina both home and away, and will target a home victory over South Africa.

There is also much talk about the focus on an early win against the All Blacks to set up a decent run in the tournament as well as some solid preparation for next year’s RWC.

The Wallabies play three of their first four games at home, with only a short hop across the Tasman in between. This gives them a massive opportunity to head into the final rounds away, with some wins and confidence under their belt.

The real issue is whether all the talk can translate into something real and positive out on the field of play?

Prediction. Joint Second with South Africa.

The Squad:

Forwards: Jermaine Ainsley, Allan Alaalatoa, Rory Arnold, Adam Coleman, Folau Faingaa, Ned Hanigan, Michael Hooper (c), Sekope Kepu, Tolu Latu, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, David Pocock, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Tom Robertson, Izack Rodda, Pete Samu, Rob Simmons, Scott Sio, Caleb Timu, Lukhan Tui, Taniela Tupou

Backs: Tom Banks, Kurtley Beale, Israel Folau, Bernard Foley, Will Genia, Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge, Marika Koroibete, Jack Maddocks, Billy Meakes, Sefa Naivalu, Jordan Petaia, Nick Phipps, Joe Powell, Curtis Rona, Matt Toomua

Fixtures:

Saturday, 18 August: vs New Zealand (home)
Saturday, 25 August: vs New Zealand (away)
Saturday, 8 September: vs South Africa (home)
Saturday, 15 September: vs Argentina (home)
Saturday, 29 September: vs South Africa (home)
Saturday, 6 October: vs Argentina (away)