Wallabies coach Dave Rennie is itching to get back on the grass.
Or at least to feel it under his feet again, having finally put 44 names on paper for a two-game Bledisloe Cup battle across the ditch and then six straight Rugby Championship Tests, all amid the quarantine requirements in both Australia and New Zealand.
There are still several issues to be sorted on the quarantine front, not least of which is the current situation that will prevent the Wallabies from training as a complete unit for little more than a week before they face the All Blacks in New Zealand.
But what else stood out from the official starting point of a new Wallabies era?
NO FAVOURS FOR ESTABLISHED WALLABIES
There were two big omissions in Rennie’s squad on Sunday and a further Wallabies mainstay whose Test career might officially be over.
Missing from the list of 44 names were Isi Naisarani, Jack Dempsey and Tevita Kuridrani. Given he has been on the outer at the Brumbies – though not officially dropped – it was little surprise to see Kuridrani miss out given the presence of Reds young guns Jordan Petaia and Hunter Paisami; particularly given Kuridrani is restricted to outside centre while a player like Reece Hodge can offer cover across No. 13 and the back three.
But certainly the axings of Naisarani and Dempsey both came as a shock and reading between the lines on what Rennie said on a Zoom conference later Sunday afternoon, both men need to work on their defensive output.
“I’m not going to talk about it in detail around why those players missed out but if you look at Isi for example, we know what he is capable of but we’ve picked on form and we’ve constantly talked about earning the right to play and we think others have played better,” Rennie said.
“He’s been given feedback throughout the comp and I spoke to him again this morning so he knows the shifts we want to see in his game. It’s likewise with the other guys.
“If you look at Jack, he’s been excellent with the ball in hand but again he’s been given feedback around the shifts we want to see and likewise with Jock [Campbell] and Tevita. We’ve spoken to those guys and they’re pretty clear on the messaging.”
Naisarani’s omission is probably the most troubling of the lot considering how effective the Fijian-born No. 8 had become with ball in hand. His 56 run metres were the highest of any forward from the Reds’ 25-13 win over the Rebels and while his 10 tackles were the most of any Rebels player, there were also four misses.
And then there has been the irresistible form of the young Reds back-row while the Brumbies’ Pete Samu and Rob Valetini provide further cover at No. 8 and No. 6 respectively.
‘HE COULD STEP YOU IN A PHONEBOOTH’
What an incredible rise it has been for Reds winger Filipo Daugunu.
Daugunu is set to follow in the footsteps of both Naisarani and Marika Koroibete as Fijian-born players to don the gold jersey, the Reds winger’s selection rubber-stamped with arguably his best showing yet in the 12-point qualifying final win over the Rebels.
His fast feet have been a feature of the Reds’ resurgence this year but on Saturday night it was his defensive efforts that really caught the eye and reflect just how far he has come in the past three years.
Daugunu picked off two breakdown turnovers against the Rebels and also left a lasting impression on Rebels centre Reece Hodge with a driving tackle that put Hodge squarely into the Suncorp Stadium turf.
And there was no drop off in Daugunu’s attacking game either as he laid on a try for Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, scored a further five-pointer himself and generally created headaches for the Rebels throughout the 80 minutes.
“The sky’s the limit for him,” Rennie said of Daugunu. “Incredibly aggressive defender – he’s not a big man – his ability post-tackle; again last night he would have got a couple of turnovers. He can beat you in a phonebox and his ability with the ball above his head [is excellent]; I think he’s got a massive upside, it’s exciting. And we’ve got a number of those players in this squad who are still a bit green, but could go on and play a helluva lot Tests for Australia.”
GITEAU LAW TWEAK CAN BOOST LOCK STOCKS
Last week’s change to the Giteau Law, just for 2020, put a number of overseas based players on notice. Many are only a few weeks back playing while those who are plying their trades in Japan are only just reporting for preseason training.
But after Sunday’s squad unveiling there is no hiding from the fact – not that there was beforehand to be honest – that the Wallabies are genuinely light on in the second-row.
Certainly Rebels lock Matt Philip deserved his call-up while 20-year-old Trevor Hosea is a player who Rennie will look to develop towards the 2023 World Cup. You know what you get from Rob Simmons and Ned Hanigan while Lukhan Salakaia-Loto is enjoying having an extended run at lock rather than switching between the second- and back-row.
But what a difference it would make to the Wallabies forward pack if Rennie was to bring back two of Rory Arnold, Will Skelton and Izack Rodda.
Given the logistics, it’s hard to see how any of the trio could be available for the first two Bledisloe Cup Tests in New Zealand, while their respective French clubs aren’t likely to be interested in releasing their players for training purposes a couple of weeks before the start of the official World Rugby Test window on Oct. 24.
“That could be an option,” Rennie said of using the Giteau Law update on some locks. “We’re working through that process and I guess we’ll make any announcements when it’s possible. With Ned Hanigan it gives you a little bit of extra cover from a second-row point-of-view.”
Certainly with the absence of Naisarani, it appears Rennie is going to ask a lot of likely No. 8 Harry Wilson on the carry. The five locks named in the squad will hardly strike fear into the All Blacks, who have a reinvigorated Patrick Tuipulotu ready to step in for the resting Brodie Retallick.
LOLESIO, HARRISON IN THE SELECTION FRAME, BUT LIKELY NOT IMMEDIATELY
Rennie has a number of injury concerns to come out of Saturday night’s bruising qualifying final between the Reds and Rebels while he admitted he will be a nervous man watching the final this weekend in Canberra.
News on Matt To’omua, Dane Haylett-Petty and Jordan Petaia should be known in the coming days with To’omua [groin] perhaps the biggest concern considering he may well form an interchangeable 10-12 combination with James O’Connor.
If the news on To’omua isn’t so good then perhaps an opportunity could be created for either Noah Lolesio or Will Harrison with O’Connor shifting to No. 12; Rennie also has the option of bringing Samu Kerevi back from Japan, particularly if he feels he requires just the one lock via the Giteau Law change.
Asked directly about Harrison and Lolesio and whether the rising young playmakers were a chance to start or merely had been included to get a feel for the Wallabies environment and the “shifts” needed to play Test rugby, Rennie said: “We want everyone pushing for a starting spot. You would have thought at the start of the year, James hasn’t played a lot at 10 recently, Matt hasn’t played a lot of 10 so they’ve been most comfortable probably in midfield and James all over the place but they’ve been excellent.
“I think James has done a great job running the Reds’ backline so he’s given us a lot of confidence he can run the ship at 10. And likewise with Matt, he’s probably played a lot more 12 recently for the Rebels but you’ve got a couple of very experienced guys there who have played 50-odd Tests each and keen to be the 10s.
“Then Noah was in great form prior to injury then you’ve got young Will snapping at their heels so hopefully they’ll learn a lot off those more experienced guys but the idea is that they’ll put pressure on to get a starting jersey.”
PLENTY TO BE SORTED IN TERMS OF TRAVEL, QUARANTINE & TRAINING
Has a Wallabies coach ever had a tougher start to his career than what Rennie is facing?
Not only is he heading off for back-to-back Bledisloe Cup Tests in New Zealand – a result of Australia hosting the Rugby Championship in what is a huge win for Australian rugby – but he also has to overcome quarantine restrictions that, at this stage anyway, will see the Wallabies broken up individually, and then in smaller groups, when they get to New Zealand.
New Zealand Rugby had hoped to play a Test on Oct. 10, but Rennie says there is no way that will be happening.
“Well hopefully they’re [quarantine protocols] still up for negotiation,” Rennie said. “I mean Mark Robinson said when New Zealand missed out on the Rugby Championship it was because of the quarantine protocols which were restrictive and made it difficult for the way teams wanted to prepare.
“But New Zealand Rugby’s got an expectation that we jump on a plane a day after the Super Rugby final, have two weeks in quarantine where we can’t prepare as a team and play a Test seven days later and under those quarantine arrangements I can assure you we won’t be playing a Test that weekend.”
Rennie said a Test on Oct. 17 was a stronger possibility, while the Wallabies would likely depart for New Zealand around the middle of next week rather than Sunday morning immediately after the Super Rugby AU final.
And we are also likely to learn early next week whether Michael Hooper has retained the captaincy or if Rennie wants to take the Wallabies leadership in a new direction.