Wallabies captain James Slipper's message to squad as winless tour looms
A difficult road is about to come to its end for a bunch of bruised, battered and homesick Wallabies – but stand-in captain James Slipper is determined their extraordinary 2021 journey finishes on a high in Cardiff.
The 14th and final test of their strange COVID bubble-wrapped year, against an equally patched-up, injury-racked Wales outfit, could be portrayed by both weary sides as a game of no consequence.
Yet both camps swear a lot is riding on the result at the Principality Stadium on Saturday (Sunday morning, AEDT), with Slipper promising: “At no stage does a Wallaby team go out there and not be desperate to win.
“When you pull on that jersey, you rip in.”
The prop, who’s taken the armband after Michael Hooper’s injury withdrawal, has seen plenty of pleasing progress from the side this year, topped by the five-match winning run that featured two wins over world champions South Africa.
Yet like coach Dave Rennie, he’s wary that a lot of the encouragement from their Rugby Championship resurgence could evaporate should they trudge home as the first winless Wallaby tourists to Europe for 45 years.
“We want to end the year on a high. You can build through to next year and the World Cup (in 2023) on the back of a nice win here in Wales; it’s a tough place to win,” said Slipper, who’s achieved that feat, remarkably, six times in six visits.
Rennie’s team have had their problems on this tour, with key personnel leaving after the Asian leg to rejoin their Japanese clubs, while also trying to integrate European-based players, including an absolute beginner at test level like Ollie Hoskins, at short notice.
If they lose in Cardiff, their 2021 record will read ‘won seven, lost seven’, which might not feel a fair reflection of the improvements Rennie has overseen in a squad forced to pull together in a way that no previous Wallaby outfit has.
“The morale’s been great, I don’t think I’ve been involved in a more tight group of players and staff,” said Slipper, who’s in his 12th year at the test coalface.
“We’ve handled the COVID situation well – a lot of players haven’t been home since June.
“Players have missed the birth of their babies, missed their kids growing up for six months, so it’s been tough.
All Blacks captain Sam Whitelock has outlined what he expects from his team and France when they clash at the Stade de France in Paris on Sunday [NZT]. #AllBlacks #FRAvNZL #AutumnNationsSeries https://t.co/4ATqkBT1Lv
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 19, 2021
“In the times we’re living in at the moment, in COVID times, I think we’ve done exceptionally well. You have to find that positive (attitude) while being on the road, and though there’s been some battered bodies, everyone is ready to go.”
Rennie, too, has enjoyed seeing his players’ commitment and heart even when frustrated at how they let themselves down with skills execution and ill-discipline against both Scotland and England.
Now they face a Wales side who’ve suffered even more than them with injury woes and are looking to rebound after losses to New Zealand and South Africa.
They’ve won their last two matches against the Wallabies, most recently in the 2019 World Cup, but Australia have a terrific record at Wales’ national stadium, having won 11 of their 15 clashes there over 22 years.
One more for the road would do nicely for Rennie. “There’s still plenty of energy in the group,” he said. “We’re all keen to finish on a strong note.”
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