The true strength of Australian rugby’s pulse will become that little bit clearer over the next week.
The Waratahs, Brumbies and Reds, from who the bulk of the Wallabies will be drawn, play six matches against the four New Zealand opponents that will supply most of the All Blacks.
Who will top the Australian conference?
With three Australian teams in a position to qualify for the finals, it's a very good sign for Australian rugby.
This is rugby how we all – players, coaches, fans – like it, with an edge. Super Rugby has been chugging away rather earnestly thus far. Now the stakes go up. There are Wallabies jumpers up for grabs.
After Tony Woodcock did a job on Ben Alexander in Canberra, in the eyes of everyone except referee Rohan Hoffman, it is impossible not to think of Sekope Kepu’s job against the All Black’s angles and power as anything but a trial. For all their promise out wide, the Wallabies are still in desperate want of an anchor. In Canberra, Sam Carter’s progress – the beanpole has quietly emerged as one of the Brumbies’ best – will be measured against Brodie Retallick. Signs of Will Genia’s form, and legs, will be inspected in Wellington against the energetic T.J. Perenara.
My instincts when selecting a Wallabies 23 so far have a strong bias towards continuity. Memories must be short if the players who finished last season so strongly with the Wallabies suddenly find themselves usurped in proposed selections based solely on the fortunes of their Super Rugby sides.
Yes, a common line is that Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie will select ‘‘on form’’, but that may be a slightly unfair and less-nuanced version of what the coach has in mind this year as opposed to last year’s blank canvas.
McKenzie has been keen to say he will judge players in the context of what they are being asked to do with their franchises. That is enough wriggle room to pick players whose deeds may be being clouded by malfunctions elsewhere in their operation. Look at the set-piece of the Reds, for example (in particular the improved scrum), and the Wallabies in their tight five can be exempted from some of the criticism that has come the franchise’s way. That is not to say McKenzie doesn’t have some new names to consider. The Force and Rebels should press for secession from the ARU if the names Matt Hodgson and Luke Jones are not somewhere in the mix.
But the real wildcard is Will Skelton. The Waratahs behemoth has hints of England’s Billy Vunipola in that mixture of huge potential and conditioning question marks. What the Wallabies do with Jones and Skelton will be telling. In financially restricted times, the model may be to go with two experienced men (James Horwill and Rob Simmons) and two hungry pups, cutting out the middle tier who have been around long enough to attract tasty offers from France without suggesting they can be imposing Wallabies.
Regardless, the Blues (and Hurricanes next weekend) will give us a bit more insight about Skelton’s ability to live with the big boys. The Kiwis will get stuck into him.
The question remains what these trans-Tasman games actually mean with regards to the Bledisloe Cup. In one sense, nothing. In the recent past they have been desperately unreliable indicators.
But let’s borrow a favourite from a modern coaching cliche manual and unclutter the mind. The one thing that really matters to Australian rugby this year is beating the All Blacks, specifically in that first Test in Sydney. Every little win matters for Australian rugby, and every little hint that it could be achievable will be greedily accepted.
Wallabies 23 based on Super Rugby to round 11. 1. James Slipper (Reds) 2. Stephen Moore (Brumbies) 3. Sekope Kepu (Waratahs) 4. James Horwill (c) (Reds) 5. Rob Simmons (Reds) 6. Scott Fardy (Brumbies) 7. Michael Hooper (Waratahs) 8. Scott Higginbotham (Rebels) 9. Will Genia (Reds) 10. Quade Cooper (Reds) 11. Nick Cummins (Force) 12. Matt Toomua (Brumbies) 13. Tevita Kuridrani (Brumbies) 14. Adam Ashley Cooper (Waratahs) 15. Israel Folau (Waratahs). Bench: 16. Tatafu Polota-Nau (Waratahs) 17. Scott Sio (Brumbies) 18. Ben Alexander (Brumbies) 19. Luke Jones (Rebels) 20. Matt Hodgson (Force) 21. Nic White (Brumbies) 22. Kurtley Beale (Waratahs) 23. Joe Tomane (Brumbies).