Wallabies captain Michael Hooper has set his sights on a Buddy Franklin-like charge of the SCG as Australia looks to end its long run of outs against Eddie Jones’ England, while coach Dave Rennie has flagged multiple positions where players can still stake a claim for a starting spot via Super Rugby or by playing abroad.
The Wallabies on Tuesday wrapped up a three-day camp on the Gold Coast, coinciding with the announcement of the three-Test series against England and the Wallaroos’ tri-series against Japan and Fiji.
The Wallabies’ much-anticipated showdown with the Auld Enemy is now under three months away, with the matches to be played in Perth, Brisbane and Sydney, respectively.
And while the likes of Samu Kerevi, Rob Valetini, Andrew Kellaway and of course Hooper, at this stage, look to have their names firmly embedded on the teamsheet that runs out in Perth, there are a number positions still up in the air, none more so than hooker, lock, fullback and, seemingly, fly-half.
“If you look at what we picked here, we picked six locks because it’s an area of focus for us,” Rennie said Tuesday when asked whether fullback was the chief position of concern. “We’ve got four hookers here, we’ve got a number of guys who can play 10 and a number of guys who can play 15.
“But yeah you’re right [fullback is up in the air], we were very happy with Tom [Banks] last year prior to getting injured and he’s been in excellent form. It’s been great to see Jordie [Petaia] play back-to-back games and he’s got better and better, and obviously Hodgey’s [Reece Hodge] played there a bit for us last year and we’ve still got Kurtley [Beale] to come back. So we’ve got some options.
Beale won’t count among Rennie’s three overseas selections, as slated under Rugby Australia’s new policy, but the veteran custodian is battling injury while a long run into the Top 14 playoffs with Racing 92 could leave him short on time to prepare for the first Test against England.
“Well he’s available because he’s signed to the Waratahs next year and committed to us, so that will be great,” Rennie said of Beale. “But he’s got a hamstring injury at the moment and the severity of that and how much footy he gets in prior to the English series may dictate that.”
Rennie and his fellow selectors also have some thinking to do at fly-half.
So good was Quade Cooper’s second coming last year that many thought he would return to the No. 10 jersey he only vacated when he decided to rejoin his Japanese club, Kintetsu, for preseason, in October last year, rather than venture on to the United Kingdom for the remainder of the Wallabies’ spring tour.
But James O’Connor has since been among the standout performers in Super Rugby and, given he will be battled hardened following matches against New Zealand’s teams, the Queensland Reds star could yet get the nod to start against England.
“James has been excellent and very influential in the form of the Reds, which is great to see, Rennie said of O’Connor. “And he had a big year last year as well and then got injured prior to the French series and took a long time to come back from that, so he’s certainly a front-runner.
“Quade’s still an option for us and he was excellent last year. And we’ve got Noah [Lolesio], who’s obviously injured at the moment, too; Ben Donaldson, who’s injured at the moment, we would like to see those young kids playing as much footy as possible.”
Asked about the recent spate of red cards in Super Rugby Pacific, Rennie said tackle height would be a focus for the Wallabies when the squad for England is named in June.
“It’s around tackle technique and we’ve got to be able to drop our height,” he said. “We understand that; Bobby [Rob Valetini] got red-carded in the last game against Wales and it’s hard to argue that. He’s come in upright and there’s been a head clash.
“So it’s the way forward in the game and so we’re putting a lot of time into tackle technique and decision-making around that. It’s not something we’ve focused on in these two days, but it will be a big part of our focus when the boys come in proper.”
Hooper, meanwhile, believes the Wallabies have shown they are trending upwards with their performances over the past two seasons.
Having recorded a 1-2-3 return in the COVID-affected 2020 Test season, Rennie’s first season in charge, and then improving to a 7-7 ledger last year, which could have been even better had it not been for the debacle in Japan, Hooper is confident this Wallabies group are on the path to success.
That would only further be enhanced should they at last defeat England for the first time since 2015, with a winning finale at the SCG on July 16, to secure a series triumph, perhaps inspiring similar scenes to those which Buddy Franklin enjoyed upon kicking his 1,000th AFL goal.
“It would be epic wouldn’t it, can we have everyone charge the field,” Hooper joked, in reference to Franklin. “That would be good, for a third game down there…that’s the plan, to charge then.
“We haven’t played in Sydney in a long time, we’ve been starved of games in the city. Selfishly, it’s my home state, home city, it would be great to get there and definitely get there for this one at least. Can’t wait, full house there is going to be epic.”