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Experimentation time for the Wallabies must end now for a World Cup run

By Nick Turnbull
Wallabies head coach Dave Rennie talks to Tate McDermott of the Wallabies and Nic White of the Wallabies after winning The Rugby Championship match between the Australian Wallabies and the South African Springboks at Adelaide Oval on August 27, 2022 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Recently I was asked what my opinion was on the current state of the Wallabies.

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It’s an open-ended question but to answer appropriately I will aim to do so in the context of their chances of lifting the William Webb Ellis Trophy after the final whistle at Stade de France on the 29th of October 2023, still some 14 months away.

To establish where the Wallabies are at, the question is where are they not?

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The Wallabies are a side that can defeat the best sides in the world at home. A 2021 series defeat of France, who despite not selecting their best possible squad were a very good side nonetheless.

Coupled with defeats of New Zealand, England and South Africa is cogent evidence that the Australians are a very competitive team on home soil – yet the next World Cup isn’t being played down under.

Since Dave Rennie and his team have taken the helm, the Wallabies are not a team that has toured with any great success.

The northern tour of 2021 is the most recent evidence to rely on how the Wallabies might handle three back-to-back tests against opposing nations away from home.

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The fact the Wallabies were defeated by Scotland, England and Wales doesn’t bode well. Of course, there was some eye-brow raising officiating at times, key players not available to tour, yet a 14-man Wallabies were impressive against a Welsh team who only sealed victory at the death of the match with a penalty goal.

So, winning away from home against different opponents presently is an issue for the Australians.

The set-piece has been a facet of play that has significantly improved over the past decade for the Wallabies yet would you put your house on the scrum and line out delivering consistently? One can think back to CBUS stadium in 2021 where Taniela Tupou caused the Springbok scrum all manner of issues and that was the genesis for a penalty that led to the now famous penalty kick of redemption for Quade Cooper.

However, against the same opponent last Saturday in Adelaide, Tupou’s questionable technique was under greater scrutiny and was penalised. I think it fair to say that the starting front row of Slipper, Fainga’a and Alaalatoa performed admirably, and had their wins, but also their losses but were not the dominant trio.

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Therefore, the scrum shouldn’t be a significant issue for the Australians moving forward but it is not without its gremlins either.

Turning to the lineout this is an area of recent concern. Against Argentina in San Juan, it was politely forgettable. But again, against South Africa in Adelaide, the Wallabies were forced on several occasions to play to the front off basic slip moves simply to ensure possession and forced to work their way down the ‘Fat Mans Track’ that prohibited the unleashing of the backline without having to encounter significant defensive line speed.

The positive is that the Wallabies possess the cattle to have a formidable lineout. They do not struggle for height or weight considering they have the likes of Rory Arnold, Nick Frost, Will Skelton, Matt Phillip and Darcy Swain at their disposal.

Dave Porecki appears to be more consistently accurate than Folau Fainga’a on the throw but perhaps the issue is how hard are they making the lineout for themselves. At times their choice of lineout appears overly complicated to execute thus appearing more of a mosh-pit than an organized movement.

If the Wallabies can overcome these issues their lineout can become a weapon. Considering Brumbies duo of Dan McKellar and now Laurie Fisher are both working for the Wallabies such a lineout is likely on the near horizon.

The Wallabies do not lack in players who can bend the line. Few could argue that Rob Valentini isn’t now one of the premier line runners in world rugby. Add Rob Leota, Jed Hollaway and Harry Wilson into that mix and it is safe to say the Australians have big bodies than can move on the edge and offload when required.

How Coach Rennie will use these larger bodies in concert with his centres such as Len Ikitau, Hunter Paisami and potentially Samu Kerevi could make the Wallabies an exceptionally difficult beast to deal with if they get their rhythm and tempo to facilitate such play.

To allow for that desired facilitation the Wallabies halves must manage the game appropriately.

In Nic White, Tate McDermott and Jake Gordon the Wallabies have three halfbacks who are each capable of getting their side into the right part of the field. White and Gordon are the better game managers, yet McDermott is the X-factor who can take a game away from any opponent in an instant.

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It is the balance of the flyhalf and fullback selection that could cure or kill the Wallabies.

Write Quade Cooper off at your peril, but returning from a serious injury takes time. James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale are yesterday’s answers to today’s questions.

The re-selection of veteran Bernard Foley is intriguing as he never possessed the tactical kicking game in his previous Wallaby career to convince that he could steer Australia to World Cup success.

To suggest at 32, he will possess the speed or want the contact to re-establish himself as a first-choice test flyhalf is a bit farfetched.

The reality is that the Wallabies now must go all in on Noah Lolesio. Yes, he was good against South Africa on Saturday but so much more will be asked of him over the next 14 months.

The uncapped Waratah Ben Donaldson is in the training mix and he may yet be the steady understudy to Lolesio however the safe bet will be the Mr Fix It of Australian Rugby in Reece Hodge whom I’m sure would do a fair job at lock if required.

If Hodge were to start at No 10 that could open the pathway for Queensland’s Jock Campbell, who is also uncapped, but is surely a better option at 15 than Tom Wright or Jordan Petaia.

How Coach Rennie and his assistants select those who will have the ball in their hands the most and are willing to execute their plan will be a significant factor in how these Wallabies will go in 2023.

Presently it appears it is still a grey, undecided area for them. The Wallabies coaching set-up must establish a 9-10-15 spine and stick with it from now moving forward. I lean towards the White, Lolesio, Hodge combination with McDermott, Donaldson and Campbell behind them.

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So presently the Wallabies are a team that has some questions of themselves to answer.

How do we establish a mentality that can win at least six games against different opponents away from home? Where is the point of difference in the set piece? They have the potential to produce a weaponized lineout if they can remove so many moving pieces that presently exist.

And finally, establish who is their best game managers and give them time. The experimentation time must cease and it’s time to pick and stick.

This is where I think the Wallabies are at present, but address those aforementioned issues and I think they could go deep at the Rugby World Cup in 2023.

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