Heading into the Super Rugby AU season, if you were going to pick a team to enter a Waratahs versus Brumbies clash with nine changes to their starting XV, it’d be the Tahs.
It wouldn’t even have been the most speculative hypothetical, either. The young NSW side dropping to a shock loss against the Force and shaking things up to face the ladder leaders? There were worse predictions hovering around before Round 1.
The notion of Dan McKellar making nine changes to his run-on side – and some 16 in total – after being trounced by the Rebels, and Rob Penney naming the same 23 after a fortnight where his charges have outscored their combined opponents 73-20? Preposterous, surely.
And yet here we are.
This isn’t a case of the coach taking a red pen to Round 6’s teamsheet in fury after the lacklustre effort at Leichhardt Oval, though. It’s giving experienced legs a rest (Joe Powell), a chance to fully recover from a niggle (Folau Fainga’a), or bringing a first-choice player back into the XV (Caderyn Neville).
Even so, while McKellar downplayed the selection upheaval, saying yesterday “I don’t look at it as 16 changes, I’ve picked a team to beat the Waratahs this week”, rolling out such a different matchday squad to the last one will always be perceived as something of a wake-up call for a side which still hasn’t got back to their best since the COVID break.
Tevita Kuridrani, for example, is one of the rested players, but hasn’t found his top form in Super Rugby AU. He remains the best defensive 13 in Australian rugby, but a little nudge to pick up his play, particularly in attack, wouldn’t be uncalled for.
With Kuridrani sitting this round out, it leaves us in the unusual position where the most experienced outside centre in the competition is playing for the Force, where Kyle Godwin will pull on the no.13 jersey.
Bizarrely, that group doesn’t include Jordan Petaia who, instead of being moved into his favoured midfield spot in the absence of regular Reds centre Hunter Paisami, has been left on the wing. It might make short-term sense for the Reds – keep Petaia on the wing where he’s likely to play out the season once Paisami returns in a few weeks – but it’s odd nonetheless to see the young man expected to play outside centre for the Wallabies for some time kept out of the position at club level by youngster Josh Flook.
Joey Walton will start at 13 for the Waratahs having replaced Lalakai Foketi in the run-on side. The 20-year-old has impressed in his appearances to date, proving to be a strong defensive organiser for his age. His match-up with Solomone Kata shapes up as one of the most intriguing of Saturday night’s match.
Kata running at his far slighter and younger opposite looks a physical mismatch, and moving the powerful Brumby into the midfield will ensure he gets more opportunities to bend back the opposition line. His defensive capabilities at 13 – an area Kurindrani excels in – are unproven, though.
While the Waratahs are young, they’re the most free-scoring team in the competition, going along at a healthy 26 points per game.
Sure, falling a try short of the half-century against the Reds has inflated that number, but a) did you see the Queensland defence last week? and b) take out that most recent cricket score at the Sydney Cricket Ground and NSW still have a better points per game clip than the Brumbies.
Having an inexperienced midfielder organising the defence at outside centre could, then, prove dangerous for McKellar, just as Kata’s positional switch could facilitate a healthy helping of line breaks.
Questions surround the Brumbies’ avenue to the scoreboard. Everyone knows their attack is reliant, if not completely and utterly dependent, on the lineout and rolling maul. It’s no surprise that the Waratahs provided quite the scare for the Canberrans back in Round 3 given how successful they’ve been at disrupting opposition throws, nor that Ned Hanigan has been brought back to the starting line-up to reprise the second-row combination which worked so well in that earlier encounter.
Neville’s return will solidify the hosts’ lineout, but he hasn’t played since March. With hooker Fainga’a sitting this one out, the threat of the maul doesn’t look quite as deadly as usual.
So, a chance for the Tahs to sneak an upset?
It’d certainly help their finals chances. While they’re just inside the top three on the back of their last two wins, they’re the only team to have played the Force twice. With the other contenders all still yet to play Tim Sampson’s side a second time, NSW’s current standing isn’t quite as solid as the ladder would suggest.
A loss tomorrow night would thrust Round 9 against the Rebels into must-win waters, and a victory against Melbourne still might not be enough to guarantee a semi-final appearance if other results conspire against them.
There’s no lack of motivation for Penney’s men, then (is there ever against the Brumbies?). If they can get themselves into a winning position, though, the trick will be staying there until the final whistle.
Unsurprisingly for a young team, closing out games hasn’t been a sky blue strength. A try in the dying minutes cost them the win last time against the Brumbies, and their second-half display in their previous trip to Canberra was dreadful, shipping 26 unanswered points in the final 40 minutes before COVID-19 shut the Super Rugby season down.
The Waratahs also went scoreless for the last 55 minutes of their loss to the Rebels, and were even outscored by the Reds after halftime in Round 6 – although how much stock you put into that given the game was won when the teams first made for the sheds is debatable.
Tomorrow they’ll have to finish the game up against a Brumbies side which will deploy Wallabies Nic White, Rob Valetini and Scott Sio from the bench. White, in particular, should make an impact in what will be his first Super Rugby match since 2015 against either a tired Jake Gordon – who himself has been excellent since his return (this one from injury) to the Tahs – or an inexperienced Mitch Short.
It’s a tough ask for the Waratahs, and with the Brumbies in the friendly surrounds of the nation’s capital, it will likely prove too much for Penney’s side.