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Dave Rennie lifts the lid on decision to recall exiled Wallabies trio

By Alex McLeod

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It has been quite some time since Will Skelton, Rory Arnold and Tolu Latu each wore the green-and-gold jersey of Australia, but that is set to change over the coming weeks.

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The trio were named in Dave Rennie’s 37-man Wallabies squad to tour Japan, Scotland, England and Wales throughout October and November, ending their exiles from the Australian national team.

Under the historical Giteau Law, all three players were deemed ineligible to play for the Wallabies as they hadn’t met the 60-cap threshold required of players based abroad.

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That was until this year, when Rugby Australia [RA] relaxed its eligibility rules to enable Rennie to pick two offshore players who don’t meet the Giteau Law criteria to help build depth within the Wallabies squad.

That exemption, which has been relaxed even further amid Covid-19 restrictions to allow Rennie access to whoever he pleases, worked wonders for the Wallabies in recent weeks.

Japan-based five-eighth partners Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi have been in sensational form for the Wallabies since their respective returns to the test arena as the Wallabies won four matches on the trot for the first time since 2017 en route to a second-placed finish in the Rugby Championship.

Suntory Sungoliath loose forward Sean McMahon has also been allowed to return to test rugby under the eased selection restrictions, and now all of those players will be joined on Australia’s end-of-year tour by Skelton, Arnold and Latu.

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Rennie said the selection of the France-based players was a concept he had considered for some time, but has only now become a reality due to the omissions of promising youngsters who he has left in Australia to develop their game over the course of a full pre-season.

“We’ve been speaking to a number of guys for a long time about potentially coming home and their desire to play for the Wallabies again,” Rennie told reporters on Friday.

“Obviously the situation with Covid, the desire to leave some guys at home to have a decent off-season and make shifts in their game has created an opportunity to utilise some of those guys.

“As we know, I was really disappointed that Rory Arnold had already committed to leave Australia post-World Cup.

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“He’s gained more experience over there [in France], but still has a strong desire to play for the Wallabies, so I’ve been in constant contact with him, even when I was in Scotland.

“I’ve also spoken to Will a lot. I coached against him a fair bit when he was at Saracens and I was at Glasgow and, since then, he’s been off to La Rochelle, but also very keen to play for the Wallabies again.

“Likewise with Tolu, he’s obviously been plying his trade in France. All of these guys, they’ve had an understanding that there could be an opportunity, so it’s great for us. It’s good experience. It’ll be good for our young group and fantastic to have those guys back in the mix.”

For Skelton, his selection comes five years after he played the last of his 18 tests before jetting off to London to sign with Saracens in 2017.

It was there where the 29-year-old lock became a leaner and meaner prospect as he shed 21kg from his enormous frame to help realise his devastating potential and help Saracens to two Premiership titles and a European Champions Cup.

A move to La Rochelle ensued last year as part of the fallout of Saracens’ salary cap breaches, but Skelton continued to dominate as he played a key role in guiding his new side to the final of the Top 14 and the European Champions Cup.

Both times, La Rochelle fell short at the hands of Arnold’s Toulouse, but Rennie believes Skelton’s impact for his current and former clubs both in domestic and continental competitions illustrates what he is capable of.

“Will, he really leaned down. Saracens did a great job with him. They probably used him more in the last couple of years as a guy off the bench with 30 to go and he was devastating,” Rennie said.

“La Rochelle, he obviously played with them last year. They were runner-up in both competitions and Will was regarded as the best player in Europe, so that tells you the impact he’s had over there.”

At 2.03m and 125kg, one criticism of Skelton’s game before he left Australia for Europe was his jumping ability at the lineout, but Rennie dismissed those concerns.

“He’s definitely a lineout option. Obviously he’s a big man and a very good lifter as well, but if you pick him as a lock, he’s got to be a jumping option.”

Similarly, Rennie isn’t worried about the inclusion of Latu, who has been the centre of unwanted attention in years gone by for two drink-driving incidents.

However, the Wallabies boss said he has addressed those controversies with the 28-year-old hooker, pointing to the contributions of former bad boys Cooper and James O’Connor as examples of how players have overcome previous indiscretions upon their inductions back into the Australian set-up.

“With all these guys, we spend a lot of time having a conversation. Tolu’s a little bit different. His is via WhatsApp and Zoom.

“The other guys like Quade and that, we’ve had a chance to sit down and have a coffee and have a decent chat around expectations and where things are at and, invariably, we’ve got some guys who, as younger men, made some poor decisions.

“They’ve made shifts around that and I’m going to judge guys on how they behave within our environment as opposed to what other people are telling me about them.

“With James coming back in, with Quade coming back in, they’ve been outstanding, made massive contributions to the group and we certainly expect the same from Tolu.”

Arnold, meanwhile, was described as a “world-class” lock by Rennie, who was impressed by the 31-year-old’s efforts for Toulouse in their title-winning successes over the past year.

“I think he was one of the biggest losses [from Australian rugby] and, looking from afar, obviously that was really disappointing and it was too far down the track [to bring him back],” Rennie said of Arnold, who, like Latu, hasn’t played for the Wallabies since the 2019 World Cup.

“He’d already committed to Toulouse and so there was no way backing out of that. He’s been outstanding for Toulouse. Obviously they won the European and French competitions last year. He’s had a big hand in that.”

When exactly Skelton, Arnold and Latu, or any of Australia’s other foreign-based players, will play for the Wallabies on their tour remains to be seen.

Their opening match against Japan in Oita in a fortnight falls outside of World Rugby’s November test window, meaning their respective clubs have no obligation to release them for the Brave Blossoms clash.

Rennie said discussions are ongoing with Suntory Sungoliath and the Kintetsu Liners about the release of Cooper, Kerevi and McMahon for that test.

There also remains uncertainty about the availability of Skelton, Arnold and Latu who won’t be free to link up with the Wallabies squad until the day after round 10 of the Top 14, which falls a day before the Scotland test.

“The first one [against Japan] is tough because of Regulation Nine [of World Rugby]. Even though we would have been in the UK for two weeks prior to the Scottish game, chances are those guys won’t join us til Sunday night after they play,” Rennie said.

“We’ve given them a bit of work and they’ve done a bit of homework. The key thing is they need to be really well-conditioned and I know they’re doing additional work there.

“They’ve obviously got a commitment to their club and so we’ll make a decision around how they shape up when they come in, but we certainly won’t be using all three of those guys against Scotland.”

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Dave Rennie lifts the lid on decision to recall exiled Wallabies trio

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