As one longstanding Australian rugby partnership comes to an end, another has been reaffirmed. On the same day that Qantas announced their 30-year sponsorship of the Wallabies will finish at the end of 2020, Michael Hooper has been re-appointed Wallabies captain.
On the one hand, it’s a sensible call from new coach Dave Rennie. Hooper has 99 caps to his name, is exceptional at every facet of the game, and likely has plenty of respect both inside and outside the Wallabies camp.
On the other hand, Hooper’s captaincy record with the Australian national side is far from impressive. Under the loose forward’s term as captain, the Wallabies have managed just 19 wins from 46 matches.
Of course, those losses aren’t born off the back of poor leadership from the captain. It simply hasn’t been a great decade for the men in gold and Hooper’s poor record is a reflection of the team and country’s weaknesses as a whole, not one individual player’s strengths or limitations.
Despite that, there were rumblings that a changing of the guard might help galvanise the Wallabies to shake off the poor results of recent times.
Gone is Michael Cheika, the head coach who ostensibly refused to acknowledge any of his own shortcomings and persisted with a gameplan that simply didn’t suit the skillset of his squad.
Gone is Raelene Castle, the fish out of water Rugby Australia CEO whose every move was questioned and criticised.
But Michael Hooper remains. Not just as captain, mind you, but as a likely starter for the foreseeable future.
Hooper’s appointment effectively means that the Waratah must be Dave Rennie’s first-choice openside flanker – and that has significant implications for the loose forward trio.
Rennie has included seven loose forwards in the first squad named under his tenure.
Hooper and Fraser McReight are the only out-and-out opensides in that group, while McReight’s Reds captain, Liam Wright, can cover both flanker positions.
20-year-old Harry Wilson and former Crusader Pete Samu are the likely options as eighth man, and Lachlan Swinton and Rob Valetini will contest the blindside flank.
Purely on form, it would be hard to go past the young Reds trio – of which only Wright has played international football before, and just two games at that.
It would be a huge wager on Rennie’s behalf to throw the trio into the cauldron with New Zealand next month. Form counts for little when you’re overcome by the occasion and the first international match of rugby played in almost six months is about as big an occasion as it gets – especially when your opposition is the All Blacks.
Then again, while McReight and Wilson have zero caps to their names, they also have zero losses against New Zealand to be bogged down by.
Earlier in the year, Rennie suggested that he wouldn’t be afraid to bank on inexperienced youth when it came time to select his team. NZ and Australia have played each other 30 times since 2010 and just five of those games have fallen the Wallabies’ way.
Say what you like about the disparate depth and development pathways in the two countries, but there’s very clearly an invisible, impenetrable wall that exists when Australia are tasked with dismantling their neighbouring rivals. That wall shouldn’t exist for the new breed of players who’ve had limited playing exposure to the Kiwis.
“It’s so much about belief when you haven’t beaten the All Blacks for so long. Players lack confidence,” Rennie said of how he planned to overturn the Wallabies’ poor record of recent times.
“We’ve got a lot of young kids that have had success against New Zealand teams so they’re not scarred from the past.”
Much of that success has come over the past few years in the age-grade set-ups. Both the Australian schoolboys team and the Under 20 side bested their NZ counterparts in 2019 and Rennie has brought five of last year’s Junior Wallabies into the national team this year – including Wilson and McReight.
Of course, the last thing that the new head coach wants to do is scar his young proteges and consign them to the same run of misfortune that the senior players in the squad have experienced.
There still has to be a balance in the loose forward trio between youth, form, experience and belief – which is where Hooper comes in.
Wilson and Pete Samu will be in a head-to-head battle to make the starting XV, and although Wilson has possibly been Australia’s find of the season, Samu has also stood out for the Brumbies for his wide range of skills.
While nine-cap Samu may be a newbie on the international scene, the Melbourne-born loose forward has over half a century of Super Rugby appearances to his name and won three titles with the Crusaders and Brumbies.
He’s effectively the perfect middleman between your Michael Hoopers and your Fraser McReights and for that very reason could have the inside running to lock down the spot at the back of the scrum.
With Hooper and Samu likely occupying two spots in the side that will run out against the All Blacks on October 12th, the smart money would be on one of the Reds wunderkinder occupying the blindside flanker position – likely Liam Wright.
Wright started his Reds career as an out-and-out fetcher but has shifted to the other side of the scrum to accommodate for the young team’s influx of talent this season and he’s not missed a beat since the change.
He’s still impressive over the ball, nabbing the most turnovers of any player in the Super Rugby AU competition (with McReight close behind), but his defence is also superb and he galvanised a young Reds team to a spot in the finals.
In Michael Hooper, Pete Samu and Liam Wright, the Wallabies would have an excellently balanced loose forward trio that would foot it with the best in the world.
That’s not to suggest that other combinations of players wouldn’t function well for Dave Rennie’s new-look Wallabies, but it possesses the right amount of function, form and flair to cause problems for oppositions near and far.
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