Scrummaging prowess is not something you’d necessarily associate with Australia, and granted one scrum penalty against Ireland in the first Test doth not a summer series make, but progress appears to be happening under new forwards coach Simon Raiwalui.
The fact that the 68th minute penalty award happened when they were facing two British & Irish Lions props, Cian Healy and Tadgh Furlong, who were fresh from the bench, made it all the more notable . It was a key moment allowing Australia to go 11-9 up in a tight contest which they’d eventually win 18-9.
When Mario Ledesma quit last October to take over at the Jaguares Michael Cheika said he was “devastated”. Well it appears that the groundwork left by the Argentine has been built upon by Raiwalui.
The New Zealand-born Fiji international has had a varied career, spending over 20 years in Europe as a player and a coach, something which has naturally shaped him.
“I’ve learned so much about the game in the northern hemisphere and I think it’s been crucial for me as a forwards coach” Raiwalui said when he accepted the job with Australia on a deal until the end of 2019.
“There’s so much focus on that side of the game in Europe so I hope I can bring home some of those learnings to Australian rugby.”
So what have Australia got in Raiwalui, huge pedigree certainly. His playing career began with Sale in 1997, he subsequently had four years at Newport and Saracens respectively, captaining both sides, before a move to France to play for Racing 92.
Following retirement in 2011 the 43-times capped player moved in coaching at Racing 92, firstly in the Academy but also acted as a Team Manager and a Forwards coach at the club. He jumped to Racing’s city rivals Stade Francais to take up a coaching position and helped them to the Top 14 title in 2015. He spent last season with Biarritz.
The task facing Raiwalui is a big one, but he’s already impressed veteran prop Sekope Kepu “He demands a lot of us tight five, especially the locks,” the 32-year-old said. “He said he wants them to push like props and run like backrowers, so he’s set the bar pretty high and the two second-rowers did that pretty well on Saturday night.”
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Australia are trying to accrue strength in depth in the front row. Captain Stephen Moore left a vast hole at hooker – it’s hard to replace 129 Test caps, while Tatafu Polota-Nau is playing at Leicester. But with a World Cup a little over a year away it’s action stations. Brandon Paenga-Amosa gave a good account of himself on his debut last week in Brisbane and keeps his place, as did Tolu Latu who earned just his fifth cap when he came off the bench.
Australia will again start with 44-capped Scott Sio and 92-times capped Kepu on Saturday and that has provoked a reaction from Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt with Healy and Furlong looking to atone for their lack of impact from the bench last week. It’s also notable to see Niall Scannell at hooker, a nod to the threat posed by Australia with the Munster man’s superior scrummaging ability winning out over Sean Cronin, whose speed and ability in the loose are without question.
The confidence within the Australian set-up is highlighted by the fact they’ve gone for an unchanged 23-man squad for the first time in Michael Cheika’s tenure. On the bench props Taniela Tupou has just two caps , while Tom Robertson has 19, but Australia are building solid foundations. “Blooding a lot of players last year was to boost competition in the tight five was really smart“, captain Michael Hooper said on Friday. The 2007 World Cup 12-10 quarter-final loss to England was a low point for the Australian scrum, they’re trying avoid a similar fate in 2019 and whisper it quietly they’re hoping it could be an area of strength when they get to Japan.
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