There is something in the air at Rugby HQ and for once it isn’t panic. It smells, dangerously, like hope. The Australia-England three-Test series is less than a month away and Eddie Jones’s side are coming off another dud Six Nations tournament (two wins, three defeats). The coach is facing widespread calls to be sacked and his squad is missing powerhouse centres Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade to injury.
That’s quite a bit of blood in the water. But will Dave Rennie’s team have the teeth to rip in and win? Although the Wallabies won five straight last season against South Africa, Japan and Argentina, the Bledisloe was lost again. It left Rennie stuck on an uninspiring 40% win record from 20 Tests. That’s not good enough. The Wallabies must win, win more often and do so with style and steel.
Australian rugby is crying out for a Wallabies team with heart, brains and – let’s face it – mongrel to rouse its sleeping-giant fanbase. Rugby Australia has done its bit, delivering the 2027 and 2029 World Cups. With this England tour in July and the 2025 British & Irish Lions campaign, it should get the game out of the red following a $27m loss last year and back in black by 2023. Build it and the fans will come. Now the players and their coach must deliver.
Rennie, the former schoolteacher (“Teaching, coaching, same thing … the kids are just a bit bigger”) and one-time owner of the Lonely Goat Herder pub in Upper Hutt has been playing the long game, plotting an upward course for the 2023 World Cup in France. He has blooded youth and tested the mettle of his senior men. And the evidence is growing that he, and his side, are on the right track.
The Brumbies shrugged off a red card to beat the Hurricanes and make Super Rugby Pacific’s semis. And although both the Waratahs and Reds lost their weekend quarter-finals to the Chiefs and Crusaders respectively, neither were disgraced. The Waratahs finished their season with eight victories from 14 starts, including beating the all-powerful Crusaders in April, after going winless last year.
The Reds made the finals despite missing their most talismanic players, five-eighth James O’Connor and prop Taniela Tupou. Even the Rebels beat the Highlanders in their final game of the season. Given Australia managed just two wins from 25 games against Kiwis teams in 2021, that’s progress.
Australia’s sides have also been noticeably fitter this year. Endurance was one of Rennie’s “non-negotiables” when he took the job in 2020, and close contact with state coaches and deeper scrutiny of the GPS and intensity metrics from sports scientist, Warwick Harington, is paying off.
The Wallabies roster is secure. Jordan Petaia, Izaia Perese, Darcy Swain, Lachlan and Ryan Lonergan, Izack Rodda, James Slipper, Hunter Paisami, Lalakai Foketi, Dave Porecki, Jock Campbell, Andrew Kellaway, Pete Samu, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Kurtley Beale and Rob Leota have all re-signed. And Michael Hooper is back from his sabbatical (and, let’s hope, cloning program) in Japan to captain.
The Rennie metric which matters most, though, is form. Jock Campbell’s consistency at full-back for the Reds has earned him a call-up. He will duel for the 15 with a fit and firing Petaia, flier Tom Banks and super boot Reece Hodge. On the wings, elusive Force winger Toni Pulu, a Rennie favourite from the Chiefs, is in the mix, as is bullocking ex-NRL Red Suliasi Vunivalu, a smoky to debut at last.
Returning from Japan are the two keys to dismantling this England side. The absence of Tuilagi and Slade leaves a big hole in Jones’s line-up and Rennie can fill it by unleashing his rising-sun connections into the void: stampeding centre Samu Kerevi and star winger Marika Koroibete. Also back from Japan (carrying an Australian passport this time) is 34-year-old Quade Cooper, the maverick playmaker who masterminded last year’s five-Test winning streak. Cooper – like Campo – has his critics, but his vision, hands and chemistry with James O’Connor can free Kerevi and Koroibete to run.
It leaves fledgling fly-half Noah Lolesio, 22, to play sorcerer’s apprentice to not only Cooper, but also Wallabies legend Stephen Larkham, who returns to the Brumbies fold next year. Another 22-year-old, big Brumbies lock Nick Frost, has signed to Japan in 2023, but is cherry ripe to rip into England from the back row alongside teammate Darcy Swain and the redoubtable Hooper, although Lachie Swinton and Rob Leota will also press their claims. Behind them, marshalling the big units and sniping from half-back will be Nic White, who spurned overseas contracts to stay in gold, although dynamic 23-year-old Red Tate McDermott will keep him honest in the run to RWC2023.
With Rory Arnold overseas converting AU$4.5m into yen and Europe-based Will Skelton ineligible, Waratahs utility Jed Holloway, 29, is on the verge of a remarkable debut. However, the future No 8 is Harry Wilson, the Reds leading yardage-gainer. Up front the 22-year-old hooker will be either Folau Fainga’a or Dave Porecki. Either side will be Tupou – the only Australian worthy of a run-on in a World XV right now – and Waratahs firebrand Angus Bell, only 21 but already a 16-Test veteran.
One thing is certain: no matter who Rennie picks in his Wallabies XV to face England on 2 July, Jones will be ready for them. The 62-year-old, Tasmanian-born, half-Japanese England coach has built a 78% win record in seven years in charge. If his unblemished 8-0 slate against Australia is broken by Rennie’s young Wallabies, the axe may fall before his contract expires after the 2023 World Cup. Eddie won’t go quietly and the war of words is about to begin. Will Rennie bite back or fight back on the field? Either way, a battle is on the breeze and the whiff of victory could blow either way.
• The photo caption on this article was amended on 5 June 2022. The image shows Lalakai Foketi on the right, not Izaia Perese as an earlier version said.