Rennie can't turn rocks into diamonds but not all hope's lost for Wallabies
Dave Rennie is a smart operator, but he’s no miracle worker.
Contrary to what’s been said over the past few weeks, although there may have been much chopping and changing to the Wallabies team throughout the year, you can bet your bottom dollar that Dave Rennie has a very clear idea in his head who would make the line-up in a World Cup knockout match if it were being played next weekend.
There’s a narrative going around that Rennie needs to settle on a first-choice side now but that’s not the approach the Kiwi adopted when he led the Chiefs to back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013. Every week, five or six players would shuffle in and out of the run-on XV, bar a few men who simply couldn’t be left out. Come the finals series, however, Rennie picked a team and stuck with it – and it paid massive dividends.
Undoubtedly, Rennie is taking a similar approach to his stint in charge of the Wallabies. A clear selection pattern has emerged in some positions and the vast majority of punters could select the bulk of the starting side that Rennie would opt for if Saturday’s match against Wales were a World Cup final.
In the loose forwards, Michael Hooper is nailed on at No 7 and Rob Valetini has started all but two Tests this season at the back of the scrum (he was rested against Italy and shifted to the blindside flank in the second Bledisloe Cup clash).
There are a number of strong back-ups across the board too, with Angus Bell, Taniela Tupou, Folau Fainga’a, Pete Samu, Jake Gordon and Hunter Paisami regularly featuring in the 23 or stepping into starting roles when injuries have forced Rennie’s hand.
Said injuries have complicated things in a few positions, of course – as well as the unavailability of some players throughout the season.
The locking situation is somewhat unclear, with Rory Arnold and Will Skelton getting limited opportunities due to the above issues. Matt Philip, Cadeyrn Neville and Nick Frost have all been afforded plenty of minutes throughout the year while Jed Holloway has split his time between the second and back rows.
The No 10 jersey remains the biggest concern, with Quade Cooper ostensibly the first-choice in the position but getting just one start there this year. Bernard Foley is serviceable, as is James O’Connor – but they’re not going to win Australia a World Cup.
Perhaps the biggest blight of Rennie’s career has now been bringing in a new talent at flyhalf but the only real option in that role is Noah Lolesio. If Rennie had stuck with Lolesio throughout 2021 and 2022, would the Wallabies be in a better position heading into next year’s tournament?
Outside of Lolesio, the cupboard is bare. The likes of Tane Edmed, Ben Donaldson and Will Harrison will never be greats of the game and putting Australia’s faith in one of that trio to lead them to glory in 2027 will backfire spectacularly.
That really emphasises the biggest problem in Australia – and it’s not Rennie’s selection policy.
The fact of the matter is that the players are simply not as good as the generational talents of the past. Perhaps that’s a product of the resources in Australia or the ongoing battle for talent with the NRL, but it’s clear as day that the youngsters coming through the ranks aren’t up to the standards of a top-three Test rugby nation – and that means no matter who’s in charge of the Wallabies, they’re always going to struggle to compete with the likes of New Zealand, Ireland, France and England.
That doesn’t mean they can’t grab wins against those nations. The recent loss to Ireland showed that it’s entirely possible for Australia to remain competitive with the best sides in the world, but there’ll also be a few 40-point thumpings along the way. The Australia of 2022 is no different to the Ireland side of the early 2000s, or a post-2003 England.
In years gone by, the Wallabies would be able to put out a second-string side and still put Italy to the sword – but that’s just not the case anymore, as Rennie found out in Florence.
A World Cup title looks out of reach for the Wallabies at present but with Rennie at the helm, there’s the distinct possibility that a semi-final finish is in reach – and that would be a mighty fine achievement for the current Australian side. Should Rennie’s men top their pool in France (their main competitor is Wales), they’ll almost certainly face off with Argentina in the quarters, giving them a very real chance of progressing to the next stage of the competition.
They could even cause an upset in the semi-finals – as they almost did in Dublin in the weekend gone.
But ultimately, Australia’s lack of success this year or next won’t be a result of too much chopping and changing by Rennie. There are bigger issues at play.
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