The Queensland Reds are leading the Super Rugby AU competition, but that does not necessarily mean they should dominate selection for the Wallabies.
The Reds have put themselves in a splendid position to win the title, their 24-22 victory against main rivals the Brumbies in Brisbane last Saturday night guaranteeing them a home final. But there is a strong argument that the Brumbies should still supply just as many players as the Reds to the Wallabies’ starting line-up.
The Reds’ two two-point wins against the Brumbies this season followed a similar pattern. In both games the latter established early leads, 17-0 in last month’s 40-38 loss in Canberra and 12-0 on Saturday.
It was when the Brumbies went to their bench that they lost their go-forward and control of the game, supporting the point that it is their starters – not their reserves – who are Test candidates. When the Brumbies’ best players were on the field they were the better team.
Brumbies such as front-rowers Allan Alaalatoa, James Slipper and Scott Sio, second-rower Cadeyrn Neville, back-rower Rob Valetini, halfback Nic White, centre Len Ikitau, wingers Tom Wright and Andy Muirhead and fullback Tom Banks should still be high on Wallabies coach Dave Rennie’s list of Test contenders.
The Wallabies team to play France in July is likely to be a mixture of Brumbies and Reds with the odd Melbourne Rebel such as winger Marika Koroibete.
Some of the Reds who have put themselves in strong contention are front-rowers Taniela Tupou and Alex Mafi, second-rower Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, back-rowers Fraser McReight and Harry Wilson, five-eighth James O’Connor, centre Hunter Paisami and wingers Jordan Petaia and Suliasi Vunivalu.
There has even been talk of O’Connor captaining the Wallabies following his outstanding leadership of the Reds in the absence of injured skipper Liam Wright, who returned to play on the bench against the Brumbies.
A key feature of the Reds’ win last Saturday night was O’Connor’s decision to change tactics. Without the injured Paisami’s punch in the midfield, the hosts were unable to breach their visitors’ highly physical and aggressive defence. O’Connor responded by switching to a tactical kicking game, which turned the match.
If the Reds could not go through the Brumbies or around them, they would go over them with high balls and cross-kicks. Both of their tries, to Josh Flook and Petaia, came directly or indirectly from cross-kicks, with O’Connor channeling Quade Cooper or maybe Dan Carter.
Asked about his decision-making process, O’Connor revealed he did not think about it too much, but rather relied on his “feel” for the game. That would have been music to the ears of Rennie, who is attempting to get the Wallabies playing what is in front of them, rather than slavishly over-structured rugby.
Queensland coach Brad Thorn too would have been pleased with another strong performance by the Reds’ scrum, which had previously demolished a weakened Brumbies front row in Canberra to set up their come-from-behind victory.
Even though the Brumbies’ scrum was strengthened by the return of Alaalatoa after a three-week suspension at tight-head, and loose-head Sio on the bench, the Reds still dominated the set-piece.
The Brumbies outscored the Reds three tries to two, but O’Connor landed four penalty goals, including the match-winner in the 77th minute after the Brumbies’ scrum collapsed for the third time in the match.
The encounter was a class above the standard being served up by Australia’s other three Super Rugby sides in the Melbourne Rebels, NSW Waratahs and Western Force.
One commentator enthusiastically described the Force’s upset 16-15 win against the Rebels in Melbourne last Friday night as a “classic arm wrestle”. In reality, it was an arm wrestle made only vaguely interesting by the closeness of the score.
The Rebels’ conservative points-accumulation strategy kept them in games against superior opposition earlier in the season, but this percentage-style approach also keeps inferior opposition in the contest, enabling the Force to snatch victory.
The battle for third place between the Force, Rebels and Waratahs is like a separate second-division competition.
The Force will have a fair chance to move up to third position when they host the winless Waratahs in Perth on Saturday night, while the Rebels must show something extra to upset the Brumbies in Melbourne on Sunday afternoon.
The Brumbies and the Reds are bound to meet again in the final. As much as the former will be smarting, Thorn must also keep his players grounded, after they celebrated as if they had won the season.
It is true that modern rugby is a 23-player game and the Brumbies have put much effort into developing their squad, but patterns do not lie, and losing two close games to Queensland after being well in front should throw up questions. The team’s finishers, as former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika would call them, are not finishing the job.
If the Brumbies are to avert a whitewash by the Reds and retain their Super Rugby AU title, they will need their best players on the field for longer against the only Australian team with any real depth.