Connolly: Wallaby punt on youth is a real winner

John Connolly Profile
by John Connolly

We may look back at 2016 as a difficult year for Australian Rugby. The England Series whitewash, a missed opportunity in South Africa and a howler against the All Blacks in Sydney during The Rugby Championship are what sticks in the mind at this point in time.

However right now, four weeks into the Spring Tour, things are looking a lot more promising.

Regardless of whether the above happens, there has been a sudden change in outlook for this Australian team looking towards the future.

For the first time in recent memory, the Wallabies are flush with options across many positions, thanks to the strong development of some of their young players.

You have to think back to the Rod Macqueen era to remember a time when Australia’s depth compares to the current squad. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, players were queueing up behind the established stars for a crack at a Test jersey.

Fast forward to the current day, as the Wallabies suddenly have their sights set on a Grand Slam, and there is strong competition in almost every position for those run-on jerseys.

There is now a lot of debate around which is the best Wallaby XV, whereas if you look back only 18 months there was a clear-cut starting team and it didn’t appear as though anyone’s position was under any serious threat.

The current Wallabies team has four or five props who can start on any given day. At lock, Adam Coleman and Rory Arnold have stated their case to be Australia’s long-term pairing and their form has prompted a strong response from the veteran Rob Simmons, who has had a great tour.

Simmons is an interesting case. A couple of years ago Toulon went hard after him and rated him among the top two or three locks in the world, but his form dropped a little after that and he has never really cemented his place in the Wallabies starting team. 

"The backrow is the most interesting conundrum for Cheika, as we see once again he is trying a different combination for the Test against Ireland this weekend." - John Connolly

My view - and I’m sure this will stir up some debate – is that the back row combination that offers the best balance is Scott Fardy at No.6, Sean McMahon at No.7, and David Pocock at No.8. I’m a huge Michael Hooper fan but as I’ve said before, he plays more like a No.6 or a No.8 and I’m not sure where he fits into the puzzle, despite being one of our most consistent players throughout the year.

Starting positions in the backline are becoming just as sought-after with the arrival of Reece Hodge, Dane Haylett-Petty and Samu Kerevi, as well players on the fringes such as Luke Morahan stepping up and taking their opportunities on this current tour.

Tevita Kuridrani is one player who has responded to the challenge of Kerevi, producing some of his best Rugby in the past three Test matches after the bullocking young Reds centre was forced to miss the tour through injury after a solid winter.

On the wings, there are any number of players capable of holding down a starting spot. Marika Koroibete is going to be one to keep an eye on, and if you look at past history with the likes of Lote Tuqiri and Wendell Sailor, Rugby League wingers have made a strong fist of the 15-man game.

One ex-league star who the Wallabies could use a lift in form from is Israel Folau. He has parts of his game that are world class and others which aren’t. He is still probably our best option at fullback, but it is yet another position which is becoming more competitive and there are suggestions Folau might be better utilised at centre or on the wing.

This Wallabies team can beat anyone on its day, but they will ultimately be judged on whether they can win these next two Tests and end their drought against the All Blacks next year.

The most encouraging development for me this season is that the Wallabies appear to be a very united team, which is a credit to the coaching staff and management. Long seasons and long tours can be tough and there is a constant balancing act between getting the work done which needs to be done and allowing the players to enjoy the tour.

"The Wallabies have a real purpose about the way they are going about their work. They’ve had their share of luck on tour, but they’ve put themselves in a position to win every game." - John Connolly

We can be reasonably confident of getting another positive result on the weekend against Ireland. 

How the Irish approach this game mentally will be key after a brutal contest against the All Blacks. They will also be without their playmaker Jonny Sexton, who I think will prove to be too big of a loss for them to overcome against an in-form Australia. 

The battle I’m most looking forward to is the back row clash of Pocock and Irish No.7 Sean O’Brien, arguably the best players over the ball in the world. This battle alone will be worth setting the alarm clock for. 

The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the ARU.

Australia takes on Ireland at Lansdowne Rd on Sunday at 4:30am AEDT, LIVE on SBS and beIn Sports 3 (Foxtel Channel 515), live streamed on Foxtel Go and SBS on Demand.