Cast your mind back to what you were doing on October 17 last year. If you’re a Wallabies fan, chances are you were trying to make sense of the team announcement for the World Cup quarter-final.
That day some 51 weeks ago was the last time an Australian line-up was announced for a Test match, until Dave Rennie unveiled his first matchday squad yesterday.
You always expect change the year after a World Cup, but even so the differences are particularly stark. Just two of the starters from last October – Michael Hooper and Marika Koroibete – are in the run-on side for Bledisloe 1, although there would have been a third had Jordan Petaia been fit to play. A further three – Scott Sio, Allan Alaalatoa and Reece Hodge – have been pushed to the bench.
In three of the vacated places are debutants, all of Harry Wilson, Filipo Daugunu and Hunter Paisami picked on the back of strong seasons for the Queensland Reds. And yet the team isn’t completely inexperienced.
It’s new-look, for sure, but there’s still seven players in the run-on side with more than 20 caps, and four on the bench with more than 30. All of the reserves in last year’s loss to England have made their way into Sunday’s starting XV, with the exception of Jordan Uelese, who has kept his no.16 jersey, and Adam Coleman, who left Australian rugby altogether.
That the line-up has clearly been picked on form is particularly pleasing. Look down the 15 starters and it’s a list of the best player in each position from Super Rugby AU, with the exceptions of Matt To’omua, who played more flyhalf but looked as comfortable at inside centre, and Harry Wilson, who still has some experience at blindside flanker, having been used exclusively there for the Junior Wallabies last year, and gives the back row some size to combat the powerful All Black trio.
Perhaps even more heartening was hearing Dave Rennie talk about the need for a strong kicking game, as well as pointing to excellent defence as a key factor in beating New Zealand.
“The teams that have beaten the All Blacks in the past have limited them to less than 15 or 16 points. That’s our challenge,” Rennie said after his team was announced.
(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)
“The sides that have beaten them have defended really well so you can’t get away from that. We’ve put a lot of time into our defence but it’s got to be constant.
“The ability of the ABs is to score in a heartbeat, or score twice in five minutes, we are well aware of the threats there.”
It’s a far and welcome cry from the stubborn run-at-all-costs gameplan and admission that “I’m not a big analyser of the opposition, I’m always telling my coaches not to watch the opposition so much” of the Michael Cheika era.
And while the kicking emphasis did contribute to one of the more surprising selections – Jake Gordon getting the nod ahead of Tate McDermott on the bench – again there’s a clear method behind it, with Gordon’s better box kick sure to be a valuable asset on what is forecast to be a windy and potentially wet day in Wellington tomorrow.
The obvious weakness in the side appears to be midfield defence. Paisami hits harder than a hangover on a hot day, but he doesn’t read the play half as well as Petaia. With the in-form Reiko Ioane opposite him, it could be a torrid introduction to Test rugby for the Reds centre.
Having said that, he’s surrounded by familiar Queensland faces in James O’Connor, Daugunu and Wilson, and To’omua is an excellent defender at inside centre. With Petaia still a week away and Tevita Kuridrani left out of the 44-man squad entirely, Paisami was the obvious choice at outside centre.
All in all, then, a team which there’s little if anything to complain about and ample to be excited for.
Matt To’omua. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Even so, there’s no escaping the size of the task Rennie’s men are faced with.
While the Wallabies have two survivors from the starting XV against England last year, the All Blacks have nine from their semi-final against the same side. Four of the additions to their starting team have merely been promoted from the bench, and their biggest selection headache was how to fit the Barrett brothers and Richie Mo’unga into the same line-up. Tough stuff for new coach Ian Foster.
That they had to settle with Jordie, the form fullback of Super Rugby Aotearoa, on the wing tells you how stacked this New Zealand side is. Not that an uber-talented All Blacks outfit is anything new, of course.
Yet it bears repeating as a reminder to keep expectations for this new Wallabies side realistic. Yes, it’s exciting to see a team picked on form with a sensible gameplan in mind. Yes, the likes of Wilson, Daugunu, Paisami and Noah Lolesio are extremely promising.
(As an aside, can we take a moment to appreciate Wilson’s carefree confidence in talking about how playing New Zealand doesn’t carry a fear factor for him because he’s been beating them at a junior level and hasn’t lost to the All Blacks yet? I’m scared of them and I’m sitting in front of a computer screen 2200 kilometres away from Wellington.)
And yes, Rennie and his charges will talk about being in New Zealand to win these Tests and the Bledisloe Cup. As they should, too. But that doesn’t mean that’s what should be expected of them.
It might seem all too obvious a point now, but it will be worth keeping in mind throughout the entire Bledisloe series. Thursday’s Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup fixture change means the first four matches of the era will be consecutive clashes with the All Blacks.
Rennie might have joked about preferring five straight as a way to start his tenure, but it’s the most difficult initiation to Test rugby that a new coach with a fresh team could ask for.
So, while we should be excited about the new era, we should also wait a good while before passing any kind of judgement on this Wallabies group. A Bledisloe 1 win would be a beautiful, shocking, glorious victory, but regardless of the result tomorrow, with a bit of patience there a days far less cloudy than the Wellington forecast on the horizon.