Over the past few weeks, we’ve explored the need for both the Wallabies squad to find some consistency under new coach Dave Rennie, and for Rennie himself to find a level of consistency within his squad.
After the loss in Auckland, where he made some surprising changes, considering the strength of the performance in Wellington, Rennie flagged more alterations for the third match in Sydney. He made nine in total, five of them to the starting side.
After the thumping in Sydney, he swung the axe again, with six changes to the starting side and another six on the bench.
“I guess the first thing we reminded the boys that it’s Test footy. We were just way too loose with ball-in-hand, and as we’ve learnt the last two Tests you can’t keep giving the ball back to the All Blacks,” Rennie explained after naming his side for Brisbane.
“Really, we need to be at our best to knock the All Blacks over, and we need to apply pressure to them so they’re not at their best and that’s what we saw in Wellington and that’s what we need to see this weekend.”
In naming his fourth side of his tenure, Rennie took his tally of first gamers to ten in four Tests, in naming Tom Wright, Lachie Swinton, and Angus Bell on the bench.
He wanted a reaction and there’s no question he got it.
If Rennie’s tweaking around the edges each game hasn’t already got players on edge and removed any possibility of anyone becoming comfortable in their position, then the performance of the team in Brisbane after so many questions were posed about combinations that just didn’t look right surely did.
Now, with a weekend off before facing Argentina at Bankwest Stadium in Sydney next weekend, the entire squad comes back into camp on edge.
Taniela Tupou had earned a start after strong Super Rugby form, but a couple of so-so games and consistent Allan Ala’alatoa showings off the bench sees the Queensland tighthead back in no.18. And what’s more, his second-half impact off the bench has renewed discussion about this being the best way to bring out him best. You can easily picture Rennie and Tupou having that same conversation.
Rennie won’t have Swinton available again this year, but it was abundantly clear he was thrilled with what the New South Wales hard man brought for 35 minutes on debut.
“I thought Lachie made a big statement in the 30-odd minutes that he was on the field,” Rennie said post-match in Brisbane.
“Everything that we asked of him bringing a bit of edge; what we know about tackle, around clean, around work-rate, he was massive.”
The challenge now for Ned Hanigan, or Pete Samu, perhaps Liam Wright or Fraser McReight, or maybe even Isi Naisarani, is going to be to find that same edge Rennie wants.
Essentially, the coach will be asking who of his back-row options is ready to be his 2013 Liam Messam.
Filipo Daugunu was one of the form players in the competition by the end of Super Rugby AU, and even carried that through to his Test debut in the first Bledisloe Cup match of the season. But a couple of less-than-stellar performances opened the door for Tom Wright in Bledisloe 4, who promptly scored a try with his first touch in international rugby and looked dangerous enough in attack that he’ll be had to drop.
Irae Simone had what most though to be a pretty solid debut in Bledisloe 3 and was surprisingly overlooked for Brisbane. Yet Hunter Paisami turned in a stormer in the relatively unfamiliar inside centre position and will be similarly difficult to overlook.
Yet he may be moved back out to his more familiar outside centre spot. Rennie conceded that Reece Hodge’s display at flyhalf in the win over New Zealand meant that he too would be difficult to leave out, even if James O’Connor is ready to return next week as hoped.
Which yet again fuels debate about Hodge’s best position, something Rennie said last week was something the player himself would probably like to sort out too.
“I know he wants to cement a spot, and, to be honest, probably his preferred spot is 12 or 13 or 15, not winger, but he’s very excited about playing 10, so maybe 10,” Rennie said before the Test.
After it: “I thought he was really good. As we know he can kick from a long way out, we did talk about if we got options early we would kick for goal and try to create some scoreboard pressure. I thought Reece was excellent.”
“We’d expect James O’Connor to be back available for the next game and he’s been excellent in the first two Tests, so good to have choices,” he also said, when pressed if Hodge had done enough to play a third Test at flyhalf.
It’s the Rennie way shining through already. He’s set the expectations of his players high and now they’re all on edge in trying to make the coach happy.
As it stands right now, the average Wallabies fan could struggle to list Rennie’s strongest available side, and the same applies for the players, too. But it would be reasonable to assume the man himself has a good idea after what he’s seen so far.
It’s not unreasonable to expect the All Blacks to make short work of Argentina this weekend in western Sydney, and the challenge for the Wallabies will be to do similar next weekend in Newcastle.
The question over these last two Tri Nations games will be whether he wants to run out that strongest XV, or instead play some more aces up his sleeve.