Wallabies take first steps towards RWC'15
November 21, 2011
All eyes will be on James O'Connor come Saturday as he steps into the void left by Quade Cooper © Getty Images
With the celebrations and recriminations of this year's Rugby World Cup still reverberating around the globe, the Wallabies are about to commence preparations for the next four years with a whirlwind tour of Britain. In the space of eight days they'll face off with World Cup winning coach Graham Henry's star-studded Barbarians line up at Twickenham, before crossing the River Severn for a Bronze Final re-match with Wales at the Millennium Stadium.
It will be a new look Wallabies team, more out of necessity than choice for Robbie Deans, who has lost the services of nine genuine first team players. Among the casualties are fullback Kurtley Beale (hamstring), winger Drew Mitchell (hamstring), inside centre Pat McCabe (shoulder), flyhalf Quade Cooper (knee), No 8 Wycliff Palu (hamstring), flanker Rocky Elsom (hamstring), lock Dan Vickerman (shoulder) and Sekope Kepu (eye). The Wallabies have also lost halfback Luke Burgess, who's now plying his craft with French club Toulouse.
From an on-field perspective the tour after a long season doesn't make a lot of sense, but that's because the decision to go on tour is not really team-related. While Robbie Deans is likely to enjoy the chance to test some fringe players so soon after a largely disappointing world cup campaign, the tour is much more about balancing the books. While it's been a big year for international rugby, it's been a financially challenging one for the national unions who have missed out on hosting a number of home matches to accommodate the World Cup. The IRB do allocate some revenues from the World Cup to national unions but according to the ARU it's not enough to make ends meet, hence the money spinning matches against the Barbarians and Wales.
From a squad perspective the two matches do give a number of the fringe World Cup players a chance to breakthrough into the first XV for next year's Rugby Championship series. Twenty-two of the 30 that played some part in the World Cup campaign have been retained with only Queensland backs Ben Tapuai, Ben Lucas, Waratahs forward Dave Dennis and Western Force prop Pek Cowan the only members of the 26-man touring party to come from outside the World Cup squad. Cowan has perhaps the most to gain, given the Wallabies front row was again its weakest link at a major tournament. With Benn Robinson now only taking his first steps back to full fitness after knee surgery, there is all to gain for the four-Test capped prop.
The tour alone will be worth watching to see the new midfield pairing of Berrick Barnes and James O'Connor, arguably two players that enhanced their reputation in New Zealand. A fair criticism of the Wallabies selectors at the World Cup was the under use of Barnes, especially with Quade Cooper struggling for form in the key matches. At face value his combination with O'Connor at No. 12 should be productive, with Barnes bringing his game management skills to the Melbourne Rebel recruit's X-factor and elusive running.
No doubt, O'Connor's move to Melbourne, where he will partner Danny Cipriani in midfield, has also precipitated his switch at international level and hopefully signals an end to the 'crash and bash' tactic of playing a physical ball-running centre at inside centre. One hard lesson learnt from New Zealand was the Wallabies need to be far less predictable in the playmaking positions and two pivots will help keep the opposition defences guessing.
The tour will also give centre Rob Horne the chance to put his unlucky run of injuries behind him. This is his third year with the Wallabies after being selected for the 2009 European tour, but several injuries have restricted the 'Horan-style' Waratah to just nine Tests in the past two seasons. With Drew Mitchell out and O'Connor and Adam Ashley Cooper filling in other positions, Lachie Turner gets another chance to press his claims on the wings with Digby Ioane . There's plenty at stake in the pack as well. Stephen Moore and Tatafu Polota-Nau will continue their bout for the starting hooker role, while Ben Alexander should hang on to his starting berth, with James Slipper on the other side of the scrum. Captain James Horwill is an automatic selection at lock and will be joined by Nathan Sharpe. Often on the outer in Robbie Deans' time at the helm, Sharpe has become one of Australia's most dependable forwards and will build on his century of caps against Wales. Going into the World Cup, Sharpe was fourth in the queue behind James Horwill, Vickerman and Rob Simmons, but by the end of the campaign he was a standout, particularly at lineout time. Fitness and current form permitting there's no reason why Sharpe can't be considered a genuine Test option for the next campaign, regardless of his 33-plus years.
The back-row also has more cover after the Wallabies were brutally exposed by Ireland in David Pocock's absence. Openside flanker Matt Hodgson can expect to come off the bench in both matches, while Scott Higginbotham is likely to start at No.6 in Elsom's place, with either Samo or McCalman to start at the back of the scrum.
Despite the quality of the Barbarians which includes several World Cup winning All Blacks, the Wallabies squad is more than competitive and Deans would love to get one back on Graham Henry and Steve Hansen in their final game together in the coaches box. The 2015 campaign starts Saturday.
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