It’s time for test rugby, people. Get into it!
The Wallabies are back and I’ve got a spring in my step. The series against Ireland is going to be a cracker, and here is why I think our blokes will get it done:
Hitting form at the right time
The last few weeks have seen a noticeable step up in quality from our Super sides, and the numbers back up the eye test. At this point last year, our five teams had only mustered 18 wins between them. This season the picture is looking better, with four sides notching 23 wins so far. It’s far from perfect, but things are definitely on the up.
The most pleasing aspect of this form reversal is that it’s our Test players that are leading the charge. Adam Coleman was back to his rampaging best against the Blues in Auckland. Michael Hooper and Bernard Foley played their best games of the season against the Reds at Suncorp, while Israel Folau has been blitzing it all year. Caleb Timu was steamrolling from the bench, Marika Korobeite was cracking ribs with impunity and Scotty Sio was rock solid in Canberra.
Couple that with the emergence of Tom Banks, Jack Maddocks, Taniela Tupou, Izack Rodda, Pete Samu, Curtis Rona and Brendon Paenga-Amosa and you’ve got a sumptuous mix of youth and experience, and they are all hitting their straps at the right time.
The return of the king
David Pocock – remember him? The man who has been arguably our best player of the past decade, and carried us to a World Cup final three years ago? It’s fair to say we struggled without his presence at the ruck last year, and having him back will be a major boost this season.
I can’t wait to see him back where he belongs – in a gold jersey, jackalling an Irish ruck with seven or eight Paddies trying to unsuccessfully remove him. We’ll see more turnovers in defence, which means more opportunities on the counter, where we can set Kurtley, Izzy and Marika free to wreak havoc.
If ten years ago you told me the Wallabies would have an abundance of world-class tighthead prop options I would have laughed at you. But that’s the beautiful reality of 2018, with Sekope Kepu, Taniela Tupou and Allan Alaalatoa all genuine candidates for the starting #3 jersey. They have put the runs on the board at Super level, and each player brings a different mix of skills to the table.
I expect Cheika to side with the experience of Kepu to start the series, but I hope Tongan Thor gets a chance to show what he’s made of. He could be a superstar, and I love his ability to sniff out a try from close range.
While we’re here, the story at loosehead looks pretty good as well. Scott Sio and Tom Robertson are both in great form, and I expect them to put forward a strong showing against an experienced Irish propping unit.
A settled backline
While we all love a bit of selection intrigue, the backline is largely settled. Will Genia, Foley, Kurtley Beale, Koroibete and Folau are all certainties (in my opinion), while I expect Tevita Kuridrani to fill the 13 jersey and Reece Hodge or DHP the vacant wing spot. All are experienced players who’ve shown their class at the top level, and they have enough minutes under their belt to be confident in the first test.
In past mid-year internationals we’ve been ambushed by visiting teams who are settled, with combinations that have been battle-hardened in the Six Nations and European Cup. Ireland will be similar, but with such a settled backline we should be able to fight fire with fire.
Lock stock and two charging flankers
OK so I ran out of steam with the wordplay there, but I am a bit excited about the form of Adam Coleman, Izack Rodda, Caleb Timu and Pete Samu. Coleman and Rodda should start the first test (though with Cheika you never quite know which locks he’ll pick), and both are raw-boned animals who will be salivating for a taste of Irish blood. They’ve been accurate and physical all season, and I’m looking forward to seeing them get stuck in.
The selection picture at 6 is a little murkier, but I challenge you to watch Caleb Timu’s try on the weekend and not be a little bit excited about him. Meanwhile Pete Samu is also waiting in the wings, with a chance he’ll be the Scott Fardy-esque Cindarella journeyman. Slotting in next to Hooper and Pocock is no easy task, but I hope they are both up to it.
There’s only one time when you can ever be confident against an Irish side, and that’s when you face them in a World Cup Quarter Final. Now is a very dangerous time to be playing them – their confidence is sky high, they know how to win and the memories of their last World Cup choke have all but faded.
Their squad is littered with class, with Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray leading the way. Their battle against Genia and Foley will be great to watch. Add to that names like Tadgh Furlong, Cian Healy, CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahoney, Robbie Henshaw and of course Garrrrrrrry RRrrrrrrrringggrrrose and you’ve got yourself a red hot side.
They play ball-in-hand footy that is mature and patient. They are miserly in defence, giving away few penalties. We’ll be forced to make our own luck, which may lead to pushed passes, risky kicks or over-eagerness at the breakdown.
My only hope is they’ve gone slightly too hard on the celebratory Guinness at the end of the European season, and are playing on tired legs. It’s been a long year and maybe their thoughts may drift to the post-season holiday instead of focussing on the task at hand. It’s unlikely, though.
Izzy on fire
It’s easy to run out of superlatives when you talk about Israel Folau. We’ve always known his aerial ability is something special, but he’s taken his skills to another level in 2018. He’s snatching kick-offs and general play kicks in a way I’ve never seen before, and the Waratahs have won games because of it. Bernard Foley has dialled in his attacking kicking game, and I expect to see numerous opportunities to attack the Irish backs through up-and-unders close to their line.
A settled backline and solid scrum should give us plenty of chances to profit from this strength, and I expect to see us scoring in excess of 20 points a game because of it. The question will be if our defence is good enough to hold out the Irish onslaught.
Test rugby baby
It’s just the best. The pinnacle of our sport, with top quality rugby played in front of big crowds. I can’t wait to see the series unfold – it promises to be a ripper.
Make sure you get to the game if you can, or just deck yourself out in gold and cheer on from the couch. The Wallabies are here, let’s all get behind them!