Now that the guessing is all over, the respective coaches of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia have released the names of the players in their squads. There are not too many surprises, and few new faces on the roster, but all three coaches have opted to stay with experience over a youthful gamble.
There are the new guys in the team, but they will most likely be given game time off the bench or played in at an opportune time and not gambled with unless there is a catastrophic injury crisis and no option left.
Let’s quickly go over the Wallaby squad first. (I’ll break down the other squads in follow-up blog posts). The forward pack consists of: Ben Alexander; Pek Cowan; Sekope Kepu; Scott Sio; James Slipper; Nathan Charles; Stephen Moore; Tatafu Polota-Nau; Sam Carter; James Horwill; Luke Jones; Rob Simmons; Will Skelton; Scott Fardy; Scott Higginbotham; Matt Hodgson; Michael Hooper; Ben McCalman; Wycliff Palu.
The backs consist of: Will Genia; Nick Phipps; Nic White; Kurtley Beale; Bernard Foley; Tevita Kuridrani; Christian Leali’ifano; Matt Toomua; Adam Ashley-Cooper; Nick Cummins; Israel Folau; Rob Horne; Pat McCabe.
When we break down and take a look at what franchises are represented, we can see that the Waratahs and the Brumbies contribute 21 players combined and the other franchises only contribute a combined total of 11. This is a reflection of the teams that are performing in the Super Rugby at the moment.
The squad is relatively young at almost 26 years of age and a total of 831 caps, so there is some experience around the park with 91 caps belonging to Stephen Moore and Adam Ashley-Cooper.
Now that the numbers are out of the way, there are a few problems that will be addressed by Ewan McKenzie before kick-off on 7th June. One of these issues is to appoint a captain.
There are really only three possibilities of who would be captain. Last year James Horwill was relieved of captaincy so that he could focus on being a better player so I doubt that he would be given the responsibility again even though he is captain of the Reds.
The captain needs to be a consistent performer in the team and would lead the Wallabies to next year’s Rugby World Cup in England, so a long-term captain needs to be selected now and not change unless through injury or massive form drop.
The three men that have their names in the hat are Stephan Moore, Will Genia and Michael Hooper. These three names have been thrown around the press and each have a legitimate argument to be captain even though publicly they have denied thinking about the role.
Stephan Moore is the most capped and most consistent of the three. He has been in battle more times than I can count and seems to keep a cool head even when provoked. His off-the-field record is clean and he avoids the downfalls that some players find themselves in. After a number of years at the top of the game, he has the experience to lead a team forward. He has the respect of his fellow teammates and the skills to match. There aren’t many hookers in the Australian leagues that can compete with Moore and this will solidify his nomination as captain.
Will Genia survives these days on reputation and has been exposed in the past for his weaknesses. He has been captain before after Horwill was injured last year and has been deputy a number of times. He has the experience and know-how to run a game but his form, of late, has been average at best. He may have worn the armband before but his form might play against him and if we are looking to choose a captain through to next year, Genia might not be considered.
Michael Hooper has been the talk of the town and is tipped by journalists to take over as captain. He has received the John Eales medal even though he debuted in 2012. McKenzie has admitted that Hooper has what it takes to be captain and his consistently good form only helps his chances. He has proven this season in the Waratahs camp that he is able to play excellently, week in week out. There isn’t too much in the way of Hooper being selected as captain.
If I were to choose a captain, it would be Moore with his experience and attitude on the field and someone that I would pick to lead the Wallabies into the Rugby World Cup.
Now that the captain dilemma has been talked about, let’s look at the team that we have starting with the front row. Obviously Moore will be selected as first choice hooker but his propping partners create a conundrum. McKenzie has only selected one specialist tighthead prop in Kepu with Alexander able to switch. The technical differences in tighthead and loosehead are subtle but can be exploited by a good opposing scrum. I worry for the front row as they might be under a lot of pressure in tight games. I would pick Kepu and Slipper as the starting pair but I wouldn’t disregard the others with Alexander and Sio on the bench. Polota-Nau will fill in for Moore.
The lock stocks of Australia aren’t really experienced with three players uncapped. James Horwill has had a good season so far and without the pressure of captaincy, he can focus on being better and can concentrate on line out calls. I would partner him with the only other capped lock and Reds teammate, Simmons. I would purely put these two in the starting lineup because of experience and the fact that they know each other well. Having a great locking pair can create advantages in the scrum and line out which can only benefit the Wallabies. I don’t have enough confidence to select an uncapped player as a starting member but would keep my options open as to who would be on the bench. The three uncapped players need exposure to the international arena before I can comfortably select them into the starting XV.
The back row options are stocked with experience and great players. Higginbotham, Hooper and McCalman would be my automatic picks at the back. In Higginbotham, there is the mongrel that is missing from the aggressiveness of the Wallabies’ front pack and that’s what they need these days. Higginbotham can bring some fire to the front and control his aggression. He is a big runner and a very good line out jumper. As captain of the Rebels, he brings leadership to the core and can switch from flanker to number 8 when needed. Packing on the other side of the scrum would be Hooper. This man has been spoken about as a future captain and is one of the best on the ground. Australia need a man that can get over the ball in a ruck and force a turnover and no one really does it better than Hooper. McCalman would anchor the scrum at the back. He has done excellent work at the Force and may have convinced McKenzie that he is the right man to wear the number 8. Palu just misses out on the jersey as I think that the youth and style of McCalman is what the future needs. Remember that I am keeping an eye on the Rugby World Cup and beyond, so I’m trying to strike a balance of youth and experience.
Now here is where the Wallabies have a problem. The pivotal roles of scrum half and fly half are shallow for selection with the majority of players not performing as well as they should. Genia has been well below par this season and isn’t playing smart rugby. Even with his ‘partner’ Cooper at his side for the Reds, he hasn’t been anywhere close to his form two years ago. I believe that he was named in the team on his reputation and the fact that there aren’t many scrum halves available at the moment. Each scrum half has experience in the gold jersey but Genia has amassed over 50 caps, so his experience on or off the field will be priceless. I would pick the in-form Nic White as the starter. He has been in top form for the Brumbies and has a good box and tactical kicking game and ball distribution is quick and accurate. He may need to work a bit on his sniping runs but his overall game is solid. The bench is a toss-up between Phipps and Genia.
The fly half ranks are equally as thin but there have been two in-form players at the moment in Foley and Toomua. Even though Toomua has been named as a centre in the squad, he is able to play at fly half. He has been a strong performer this season with the Brumbies and his combination with White can add better communication on the field. His tactical kicking has improved and his defence is strong. He would be my pick at number 10 with Foley just missing out.
The centres of the back line offer some depth, versatility and experience. Beale, Ashley-Cooper, Kuridrani and Leali’ifano offer some great options in defence and kicking alternatives. Beale and Ashley-Cooper are able to break a game open but he may be shifted to the wing to make way for either Kuridrani or Leali’ifano. I would have Beale at inside centre to offer a solid running option with the ability to off load and kick if needed. The man on the outside would be Kuridrani, a solid runner and difficult to stop. He can break the advantage line and make the big tackles. Leali’Ifano would be on the bench.
The back three are some world class players and can launch a counter attack from almost anywhere on the field. The only problem would be the capability of clearing the ball off the boot. They all can kick but none can blast the ball from their 22 to pin the opposition back in theirs. They would benefit more from running the ball. The selection seems easy with Folau at full back as he is strong under the high ball, a good defender and can join the attacking line adding an element of attack. The top try scorer this season so far, we all know that he can cross the chalk and take two or three defenders with him. Ashley-Cooper has the experience to match his skill. By shifting to number 14, he can fall back in defence and make the telling tackles as well as joining the attacking line. On the opposite wing I would have Cummins. This man is full of fight and spirit and converts this to great play in the field. He can attack from anywhere and isn’t afraid to have a go, which Australia need as a counter attack option. Horne and McCabe have played well this season and deserve their call-ups, but are just out of it for the starting XV.
Australia do have some weak points in their armour, but are capable winning with the members that they have. When discussing this team, I look forward to the Rugby World Cup and have experience balanced with youth. There may be a massive exodus after the World Cup and some players may eye international retirement, but the youth are able to fill the gaps. The strength of Australia lies with the backline and loose trio. If they can create turnovers and quick ball, they can score tries with good strike power. The scrum may be a target for opposition teams to exploit and the weak scrum half can be pressured creating disruptions in the back.
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