Wallabies coach Dave Rennie appears to have both eyes on the 2023 Rugby World Cup in selecting the squad for tonight’s clash with France, naming four uncapped players alongside 10 others with fewer than 10 Tests to their name.
- The four uncapped Wallabies will start on the bench against France
- Rennie has opted for Waratahs captain Jake Gordon over Reds’ number 9 Queensland Reds Tate McDermott as scrumhalf
- The three-Test series will be played over 11 days
The Wallabies will run out onto Lang Park in Brisbane for the first of three Test matches in 11 days, a tight schedule partly forced by quarantine measures for Les Bleus.
The compressed series could see a steady turnover of players from one match to the next — France brought 42 players on tour and Australia assembled the same number in camp since the conclusion of Super Rugby trans-Tasman.
French coach Fabien Galthié included more than 20 uncapped players in his touring squad, naming seven in his side for the first Test. Only a handful of veterans remain from Les Bleus’ Six Nations team that lost 27-23 to Scotland in their final match in Paris.
Rennie has named four uncapped players — all of them on the bench.
Queensland flyhalf James O’Connor still hasn’t recovered from the groin injury he picked up at training more than a fortnight ago, giving Brumbies young gun Noah Lolesio first shot at the number 10 jersey.
Melbourne Rebels skipper Matt To’omua has recovered from a neck injury, however, and will provide a valuable voice and experience outside Lolesio at inside centre.
With the possible exception of their scrumhalf, the first Wallabies side of the year met with almost universal agreement among pundits and fans — parochialism likely a factor in their preference of NSW Waratahs captain Jake Gordon over the Reds’ livewire number 9 Tate McDermott.
Rennie had a simple, but clear explanation about the decision.
“Jake’s a very good running halfback as well, and he was outstanding against the Kiwi sides and did a great job leading the Waratahs.
“Tate, we know, is electric off the bench and that’s going to be important against hopefully some tiring forwards.”
McDermott was challenged at different points during the season by Reds coach Brad Thorn, and Gordon made an enormous impact on the otherwise hapless Waratahs when he returned from injury. Considering he thought his season was over only a month ago, Gordon’s healing powers probably need bottling.
Set piece is always hugely important in international rugby, and it might just be the Wallabies’ biggest test over the next fortnight, given the French have always presented strong forwards contests.
Already, the public talk from the forwards has been around the impact Brumbies coach Dan McKellar has had since taking up the role as forwards and set piece coach under Rennie. Both McKellar and Rennie have spoken about adding a lot of detail in camp, and it’s becoming clear that a lot of that revolves around attacking opportunities from the lineout and maul.
That puts pressure on starting hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa and debutant Lachlan Lonergan coming off the bench. Winning the lineout will be crucial in unlocking whatever plans are being hatched.
There’s plenty of excitement about the debutants; both Rennie and McKellar have spoken of Lonergan’s “x-factor” — not something normally associated with front-row forwards, Taniela Tupou notwithstanding.
Lock Darcy Swain and centre Lenny Ikitau were school mates in Brisbane who went down to Canberra together, won a club premiership together on their way up through the Brumbies pathways, and now they’ll play for the Wallabies together.
And then there’s Andrew Kellaway — the 25-year-old started his career as an underage superstar who broke try-scoring records at international under-20s level and transitioned into professional rugby with the Waratahs. But after several years — some tough ones among them — he found himself playing for Northampton in England, before finding his way back to Australia and the Melbourne Rebels via New Zealand, and then headed to Japan late last year.
He starred for the Rebels upon his return this year during the trans-Tasman series, so much so that he caught Dave Rennie’s eye, claimed one of the last spots in the squad and will now get a chance at Test level.
Three Tests in 11 days is going to be a hell of a challenge for the Wallabies, but there is a real chance to set up not just this season, but perhaps the next few seasons with a series win over France.
Australia vs France Test Series
1st Test – Lang Park, Brisbane; Wednesday July 7, 8.00pm AEST (relocated from Sydney Cricket Ground)
2nd Test – AAMI Park, Melbourne; Tuesday July 13, 8.00pm AEST
3rd Test – Lang Park, Brisbane; Saturday July 18, 8.00pm AEST