All five Aussie franchises played in the Super Rugby tournament on the weekend and just one of the five had a win – and that against another Aussie team! Not a very reassuring thought, perhaps, but there were still plenty of positives to be taken.
For a start, Berrick Barnes, Stephen Moore, David Pocock and Matt Hodgson were all back on the pitch and looking secure. Over the next few weeks their form will continue to improve, but their performances were all OK for early days. Cameron Shepherd has played a few games now and adds another player of genuine international class to the list. Emerging players like Sam Wykes, Beau Robinson, Dan Palmer, Luke Morahan, Mike Harris, Nick Phipps and Richard Kingi have all made their mark in one way or another to indicate they could handle the game at Test level.
There are still some concerns, of course. Luke Burgess is a long way from delivering the requirements of a scrum-half. Actually, if he were a flanker, his form would be OK! His defence is excellent and he carries pretty well. Kurtley Beale is not at the superlative level that he showed last year, but I’m confident that he will be just fine when settled at fullback, surrounded by quality players.
The Waratahs’ form slump appears to have bottomed out, not surprisingly, with the return of Berrick Barnes. The Force continue to be super-competitive. Even against the Crusaders, they showed a real ability to break the line and create tries. The Reds have been clearly the best of the Aussie franchise, but, in the words of their captain, James Horwill, they just “didn’t show up” against the Hurricanes. The Brumbies continue to struggle without Rocky Elsom and Stephen Hoiles, but there were some positives. Matt Giteau appears to be working his way back to form, after an extended period of what looked like the sulks.
We’ve now completed eleven out of sixteen Super Rugby rounds, so it’s worth another look at the possible make up of the Wallaby squad for the World Cup. I made a start five weeks back, suggesting the contenders for the extended squad, which will, no doubt, go into training for the international series that kicks off in mid-July. The selectors will name a final World Cup squad of 30, and at this point I’m suggesting a squad with 17 forwards and 13 backs. I’ve listed players in positions, with other possibilities bracketed.
Benn Robinson (#1), Ben Alexander (#1 or 3), James Slipper (#3), Sekope Kepu (#1 or 3)
[Dan Palmer, Laurie Weeks, Ben Daley, Pek Cowan]
Stephen Moore, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Huia Edmonds
[Saia Faingaa, James Hanson, Ged Robinson*]
Nathan Sharpe, James Horwill, Rob Simmons, Dan Vickerman*
[Sam Wykes, Hugh Pyle, Mark Chisholm, Dean Mumm]
#6 & #8
Rocky Elsom, Scott Higginbotham, Wycliff Palu, Ben McCalman
[Radike Samo, Richard Brown, Ben Mowen]
David Pocock, George Smith
[Beau Robinson, Matt Hodgson, Jarrod Saffy]
Will Genia, Luke Burgess#, Richard Kingi
[Nick Phipps, Brett Sheehan]
#10 & #12
Quade Cooper, Berrick Barnes, James O’Connor, Matt Giteau
[Mike Harris, Anthony Faingaa]
[Nick Cummins, Stirling Mortlock]
Digby Ioane, Drew Mitchell*, Lachlan Turner
[Luke Morahan, Peter Hynes, Cooper Vuna]
Kurtley Beale, Cameron Shepherd
[Pat McCabe, Ben Lucas#, Luke Rooney#]
Some players are selected subject to availability and are marked with *. If Ged Robinson qualifies for Australia, I would say that he will go close to inclusion.
Other players have been included, and marked #, for differing reasons. I am assuming that some quality, focused coaching can get Luke Burgess playing scrum-half again! Ben Lucas is a quality player and offers extreme versatility at 9, 10 and 15. I have seen Luke Rooney play very well at wing and fullback for Toulon. I assume that he can do so again, this time for Australia.
This is a very strong squad by any standards, and is potentially excellent. Quality coaching, focusing on the fundamentals, is required to assist the players to reach their potential. I live in hope!
The front row is versatile in the set piece and Benn Robinson is slowly getting back to his world-class best form. Michael Foley deserves great credit for the development of Sekope Kepu’s scrummaging. Sekope is a wonderful athlete, but the scrum must come first. All of these seven front row players can make significant contributions around the park, and it’s a long while since we’ve been able to say that.
The locks are very good, without being dominant players. If Horwill can reach his best, we will go up a notch. I have included Dan Vickerman on the assumption that he will return as he left. We need him! Sam Wykes is going ahead in leaps and bounds and carries the ball probably better than any of the locks.
The back row has talent – size, speed and attitude. George Smith is in top form for Toulon and remains world-class. We should select him. Beau Robinson is probably our form #7 and Hodgo has never let us down.
I like Richard Kingi. He offers something extra. He has great speed and footwork, excellent strength and he backs himself. Even if the Rebels don’t give him any game time at scrum-half, I would play him off the bench in the early internationals. I took a bit of a punt on George Gregan a few years back, and that worked out OK. I’d do the same with Kingi – and he’s already had a Wallaby tour!
The midfield is loaded with talent. I have only selected one outside centre, but obviously Digby Ioane can play there also. All the various combinations look strong. Mike Harris looks a great talent, and an outstanding goal-kicker. Stirling Mortlock may still force his way in.
The other two wingers and the two fullbacks offer great versatility, as well as real talent. If Drew Mitchell can make it back in time it will be a real boost.
The real quality of my squad is emphasised by the standard of the players left out. This is as it should be. When you narrow the group down to the first choice match-day 22, this becomes even more obvious.
Over the next couple of months, some fringe players will strengthen their claims and our ideas will change – but I think not by much!