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FEATURE Joe Schmidt must make political sacrifices to ensure Wallaby success

Joe Schmidt must make political sacrifices to ensure Wallaby success
3 months ago

It is only April, six rounds into Super Rugby Pacific, but already the international jungle drums are beating. By the beginning of July, and the arrival of Warren Gatland’s Welshmen on Australian shores, that train of noise will have become an unstoppable locomotive for Joe Schmidt’s Wallabies.

The New Zealander is putting things together slowly but very surely indeed on the coaching front. He started by cajoling ‘Lord’ Laurie Fisher out of aggrieved semi-retirement to do defence and the contact area. Now he has added probably the best scrum coach of the professional era, Western Force boss Simon Cron’s uncle Mike, to look after the Australian set-piece.

Cron is a natural ‘seeker’ and self-improver, he knows his area of expertise inside-out but he is always on the lookout for new ideas that can be cross-fertilised from other sports, or even the arts.

Mike Cron, celebrating New Zealand’s 2019 Bledisloe Cup triumph with Kieran Read, is a renowned scrum sage (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

“In the past I have been to sumo wrestling in Japan or in America, the New York Giants [in the NFL], [New York] Knicks [in the NBA], the Yankees [in Baseball’s Major League], the Pittsburgh Penguins [Ice Hockey’s NHL],” Cron said.

“This year I went to the Royal New Zealand ballet for their lifting [lineout] and I went into cage fighting on the Gold Coast, looking at activities, how to get off the ground quickly.

“Every year you have to be better than last year, otherwise you shouldn’t be here, so that’s the first thing.”

You would have to look very hard to find two stouter and more knowledgeable rugby men anywhere, or two coaches with a better grasp of the science of biomechanics and leverage. With Schmidt likely to manage the Australian attack structure himself, the only vacancy on his leaner, more sustainable backroom staff remains the lineout.

The role of team manager has been filled by Chris Thomson, who has occupied the post of general manager of professional rugby and pathways for the Brumbies for the past two seasons. He was a colleague of Schmidt’s at World Rugby, so the new Wallaby boss knows his worth.

All the appointments are prime examples of Schmidt introducing men of proven value in their respective fields. It is a far cry from the Eddie Jones era, which featured an ex-French scrum-half mentoring the driving maul, a scrum expert overseeing the lineout, and a raw, inexperienced leaguer looking after the defence. In Schmidt’s new model army, it is very much a case of round pegs fitting into round holes. ‘Hope ain’t a tactic’, to adapt a well-known movie saying.

There is little doubt Schmidt’s first Wallaby squad, when it is selected ahead of the Welsh series in early July and the supporting fixture to follow against Georgia, will be just as solidly grounded in fact.

The framework for those facts will be provided by the two franchises who are head and shoulders above the rest in Australia in 2024, the Brumbies and the Reds. The Brumbies have the best defence among the Australian sides, conceding only 17 tries in six rounds at an average of under three per game [2nd overall in SRP]. Schmidt will rely on Lord Laurie to translate the Midas touch at international level.

The Reds possess the best attack, lying second in the overall standings for tries and points scored [30 tries at five per game, 201 points at 33.5 per game]. Moreover, Queensland share many of the characteristics Schmidt likes to build into the teams he has coached. The Reds control possession of the ball best of any Australian franchise [over 19 minutes of active time-of-possession per game], and they build their attacking game off lineout, another Schmidt speciality: Queensland has the best own-ball retention rate among the five Aussie sides [88%] and they have scored 20 of their 30 tries off it.

I believe there could be as many as 23 Brumbies and Reds in an initial squad of 36.

This group – allowing for injury availability and overseas picks – is just the sort of Wallaby squad which could play the Schmidt way. But it would also depend heavily on a rejection of the political need to provide inter-state balance in selection, particularly in relation to the New South Wales Waratahs, who may have as few as three representatives.

Schmidt will want to accommodate as many high-quality ball-handlers in his tight five forwards as possible while maintaining total scrum integrity, and that will give the likes of Angus Bell, Taniela Tupou, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Seru Uru, Nick Frost, and of course World Cup skipper Will Skelton, a big leg up in the selection stakes.

Both Salakaia-Loto [54 ball-carries] and Uru [78, with seven offloads] have demonstrated their facility on the carry in 2024.

 

 

Uru’s point of difference, his ability to get his arms over the top of the tackle and offload with telling impact, will give him a real shot in Schmidt’s green-and-gold revival, even if either he or Nick Frost needs to move to number six to accommodate the best lineout caller in the Aussie game, Izack Rodda in the second row.

In the front row, the trifecta of Bell, Tupou and Ala’alatoa are likely to be propping up one of the two Queensland hookers, Matt Faessler or Josh Nasser. Faessler is an excellent tight forward but Nasser is the fast-riser with the highest ceiling. He really got to grips with his scrum work towards the end of the sixth-round game against the Brumbies.

 

 

At three successive scrums right at the death, ex-Junior Wallaby prop Nasser destroys the bind on the right side of the Brumbies scrum between Rhys van Nek and Billy Pollard, and was unlucky not be rewarded by more peeps on referee Ben O’Keeffe’s whistle.

The back-row looks well-stocked and the competition at six will be especially fierce, with all of Harry Wilson, Tom Hooper, Liam Wright likely to be competing for just one spot. If Skelton also starts, that will only ramp up with the potential to shift one of either Uru or Frost to the blind-side flank and provide a second big lineout target.

The single biggest issue in the backline will be the lack of real experience at number 10. Noah Lolesio’s reliability off the tee [85% success rate in 2024] will keep him ahead of both Carter Gordon [65%] and Harry McLaughlin-Phillips, but none of the three has yet shown they can be Richie Mo’unga or Johnny Sexton – at least, not yet.

In the back three, it is becoming increasingly hard to look past the claims of Tom Wright and Jordie Petaia for two of the spots, although both will be pushed all the way by the Rebels’ Andrew Kellaway.

With Mark Nawaqanitawase having pledged his future to the Roosters in the NRL, the door is wide open for Petaia to play the inside-carrying ‘big wing’ role Schmidt loves so much.

 

 

Petaia could become Schmidt’s new Mark Telea on the opposite side of the Tasman, and he may finally find a home where he truly belongs, in the green and gold number 14 jersey.

The fight for the full-back shirt could turn into a battle royale with Kellaway’s dependability weighed in the balance against Wright’s razor-sharp breaking and finishing.

 

 

On the other wing, Corey Toole may resist the challenge of Max Jorgensen as the best young back three prospect in the country, although the shadow of Marika Koroibete’s international retirement-backflip hangs over both in the long run.

Things are coming together slowly, but very progressively for Schmidt’s Wallabies. He may have to turn his back on players from New South Wales, at least temporarily, to open his reign with three wins out of three against the touring Welsh, but the short-term political sacrifice will be well worth the long-term gain.

Comments

148 Comments
P
Paul 98 days ago

Please tell me why people keep picking Vunivalu? Have you been watching his games? Far from top standards!

E
Euan 99 days ago

To help save rugby, reduce the scope of the mall to ten metres max and forwards only, then introduce the captain's challenge of sus. decisions.

c
carlos 100 days ago

Just make sure they pronounce Porecki’s name the correct Polish way. The “c is pronounced like “ts”, sounds like PoreTSki. NOT “Porekki”. 😡

L
LjA 100 days ago

Didn’t realise Aussie had to pick equal amounts from each province? Surely I have misunderstood? Thats pc gone mad right there.

A
Adrian 101 days ago

Thanks once again Nick.

I more or less agree with the squad, though I think that not having someone who is available, but leaving, is irrational. Nawaqanitawase must be picked IMO … if his form warrants it. Having said that, his form has dropped a bit as the year has progressed, but if he is rated as a top 2 winger he must be selected.

We (Australia) cannot afford to play anything other than our best side in every match.

We must win.

The general sporting public have had enough. Rugby Union can no longer display the unwarranted hubris that it has become famous for over the last 25 years in Australia any more. The game has become a laughing stock because of the hubris as much as for any other reason.

That’s why I agree with your premise that Waratah players shouldn't get a walk up start. Nor should chaps who went to a particular school, or chaps who friends of friends.

Overall it looks like we are developing some good players,… though their form seems to drop in all of the Oz sides when a decent front row isnt present. We are a fair bit behind in this area, notwithstanding Bell, Tuopo (occasionally), Gibbon, Nonggor (maybe), Taleki, and Alaalatoa (hopefully soon). Not sure about Slipper. We don't have enough, and that effects the back rowers and the backs.

I'm liking Dungunu as a bench 23, because he can certainly liven things up if needed.

H
Hamish 101 days ago

Please explain Nick what McLaughlin Phillips and Isaac Fines have done this season to deserve a spot in your squad. I must have been watching different games to you!

A
Ardy 101 days ago

Loved it Nick. I am getting excited for the first time in 20 years. I am wondering what Schmidt can do about our woeful passing/catching, ball retention, offloading and rush D.
This assumes of course that he can first get our forwards to compete in the set and breakdown with controlled aggression.
Big hill to climb but I like what is going on and your summation is excellent.

J
Jon 101 days ago

I think the rugby gods have been listening to aussie john and have bestowed upon the Wallabies the best NZ has to offer, after decades of jokes being played on them.

Now the only thing they have left to meddle in is the continued decline of the Tahs, in order to keep them well away from any similar ‘NZ’ type sabotaging.

Great article Nick

J
Jen 101 days ago

I’m really pleased for our Aussie cousins - surely the team will be looking pretty good this year with this coaching line-up. There are some exciting players there who should be on fire with the support of some decent coaches. Hoping the Bledisloe can go back to being a proper arm wrestle, like back in the olden days when I used to watch rugger with my Dad - he’d refer to them as the ‘Bloody Aussies’ cause they were a real threat and there was a very real chance our ABs could get beaten.

M
Mitch 101 days ago

Where does Tom Lynagh need to improve to make it into your suggested Wallabies squad?

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