A few days after naming themselves the “Wallabies” and a few weeks before playing England in the first official Test between the nations in 1908, the Australian national team lost a beloved member of the squad: Bertie the carpet snake, who had spent six weeks at sea and been smuggled into England down the strides of backrower Tom Richards, died an hour before kick off. Bad mouse, apparently.
So when Edgar Mobbs, the powerful English winger crossed the stripe two minutes into that first Test on 9 January, it was just another slap in the face for Australians in an era when British rugby fans derided them not as Wallabies but as “Rabbits”. Little wonder flanker Norman Row celebrated with cartwheels after his kick and chase sparked a 9-3 Australian victory that day.
It was the start of a beautiful rivalry that has now reached 52 Tests, with honours pretty much even. England have won 26, Australia 25, with one draw in 1997. However, the stat that matters most for Dave Rennie’s Wallabies side is that England have won 12 of the last 14 since 2010, including eight straight under the coaching of Eddie Jones. The Wallabies are England’s “Rabbits” once more.
The 23-man Wallabies side selected on Thursday has the flair, firepower and experience to succeed. With Michael Hooper leading the horns and Quade Cooper conducting the strings, Australia has both perspiration and inspiration covered. There are two debutantes – Caderyn Neville and David Porecki – but they are 33 and 29 respectively. Rob Leota and Noah Lolesio have played only six and nine Tests but are in red-hot form. Hooper and James Slipper have 118 and 114 Tests with no loss of vigour.
There are weapons up front. No 8 Rob Valetini has been the leading forward in Super Rugby and, at 23, is coming into his prime. Neville has waited a decade for this moment and will not let it slip. He and partner Darcy Swain stand two metres tall and are renowned ball-carriers through the middle, masters of the rolling maul that served the Brumbies so well this year. Hooper is a lionheart at the ruck and a dervish in open play. He will show blindside colleague Rob Leota to embrace the collision. Angus Bell is a rock – just 21 but 16 Tests already.
And there are weapons out wide. Marika Koriebete is the reigning John Eales medal winner and returns fresh from Japan after a wrecking ball performance leading Panasonic to a League One title. Len Ikitau and Samu Kerevi’s centre partnership is now 10 Tests old and was key in the Wallabies’ two victories over world champions South Africa last season. They will monster an England backline missing centres Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade to injury. Halfback Nic White has spurned overseas offers and beaten off the challenge of younger rival Tate McDermott to marshal the pack again.
But there are weaknesses too. England will pump the sidelines and expose Australia’s lineout, leaving Porecki, a Waratah, throwing to two Brumbies in Swain and Neville. Bell is a target at the set piece, having given away 18 penalties in Super Rugby this year, mostly for scrum collapses. Ill-discipline will kill any Wallaby momentum and court death by a thousand kicks from Owen Farrell who nailed 23 from 26 attempts in 2016 to lead the whitewash, despite Australia scoring more tries in two of three Tests.
And in Freddie Steward, England have a leaper. Against France in the Six Nations, England peppered the corners regularly for their towering back. Jones is sure to replicate the tactic, particularly with Australia’s best aerial expert Jordan Petaia on the bench and fullback Tom Banks yet to nail down the No 15 jersey. Perhaps that’s why Rennie has picked specialist winger Andrew Kellaway, a nominee for World Rugby rookie of the year in 2021 after nine tries in the internationals, and a calm head.
Australian rugby is hurting. Nineteen seasons without winning the Bledisloe Cup, 22 years without raising the Webb Ellis World Cup trophy and six years and eight games without a win over England. For a proud sporting nation, it’s not good enough. Many rugby fans have stopped wearing the gold jersey, and many sponsors have stopped believing in it. There may well be a golden decade coming for the code’s administrators with home soil World Cups, Lions tours and Commonwealth and Olympic Games, but none of it matters if the Wallabies aren’t winning.
With a 40% win rate from his 20 Tests, Rennie badly needs to hold this inaugural Mobbs-Ella Trophy. Will he storm the enemy’s machine gun nest as Mobbs did at Ypres in 1917 and pass into everlasting glory? Or will we calmly cast the net for mullet as Ella did in his boyhood, some hidden force leaving the sea and becoming a flash of hands and a breath of magic that too briefly stunned the rugby world.
It’s a crossroads. Win and the path is a brick road of Wallaby gold, a ramp to a World Cup title shot. Fall to the old foe again and a thousand miles of bad road lies ahead, all littered with dead rabbits.