With only one Australian team in the Super Rugby playoffs, the Wallabies are in real danger of being badly under-prepared when they face the All Blacks in the Bledisloe Cup opener in Sydney on August 19. The Brumbies are Australia’s sole representatives in the playoffs, while four of the five New Zealand teams have reached the top eight as well as three South African sides.
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika lamented the lack of fitness in the Australian squad during the June Tests against Fiji, Scotland and Italy, but the situation is about to get a lot worse. When the Wallabies kick off their Bledisloe Cup/Rugby Championship campaign, the vast majority of the squad will not have played a game for over a month, which means the players will be severely lacking in match fitness. Cheika has organised three training camps for the Wallabies in Newcastle, Cessnock and Penrith and no doubt will work them hard, but there is no substitute for playing games. Even if Cheika holds inter-squad matches, it will not be the same as the real thing.
Conversely, the All Blacks will be well primed after a highly physical and intense Test series against the British and Irish Lions, and you would have to think Kiwi teams will be involved in every stage of the Super Rugby playoffs. This very worrying problem for the Wallabies could be alleviated to an extent if the Brumbies somehow managed to reach the Super Rugby final, but realistically how likely is this to occur? Australian teams have lost all 25 regular season games against New Zealand opposition this season. It would be asking a lot for the Brumbies to upset the defending champions, the Hurricanes, in their quarter-final in Canberra on Friday night.
The vagaries of the Super Rugby conference system, however, give the Brumbies an unlikely chance to at least advance to the semi-finals. If playoff places were determined by overall competition points, the Brumbies would not have made the top eight. They would have been in ninth place with 34 points. But because the Brumbies finished on top of the weak Australian conference – which included four of the seven last-placed teams on the combined table – they gained automatic entry to the playoffs and home-ground advantage in the quarter-final.
If the Brumbies marched into the Super Rugby final, that would solve much of the Wallabies’ match-fitness problem, right? Well, not necessarily. In the Wallabies’ final Test of the June series against Italy only three Brumbies started – Scott Sio, Allan Alaalatoa and Rory Arnold – while another two – Sam Carter and Joe Powell – sat on the bench. That said, Henry Speight would have been in the squad had he been fit.
Notwithstanding the NSW Waratahs’ horror season, it is hard to imagine Cheika omitting the likes of Michael Hooper, Bernard Foley, Israel Folau, Sekope Kepu and Nick Phipps from the Test squad, while Ned Hanigan and Jack Dempsey may get another look in. And you can expect players such as Wallabies captain Stephen Moore, Quade Cooper, Reece Hodge, Dane Haylett-Petty and Lopeti Timani, from Australia’s other under-performing Super Rugby teams, to be in the Test squad too. So even if the Brumbies reach the final, only a few of them will make the Test team if past selections are any guide. But if the Brumbies do advance all the way, Cheika must strongly consider building the Test team around the men from Canberra because they will be in form and match hardened.
It is counter-intuitive that Australia’s best Super Rugby team should not have the most players in the Test squad. The Wallabies’ success in the 1991 World Cup was built on the foundation of an undefeated Waratahs team, while victory in the 1999 World Cup was due largely to the contribution of the Queensland Reds, who won the Super Rugby minor premiership. The Wallabies need at least one high-performing Super Rugby team, and preferably two, to ensure the Test team is internationally competitive.
At present, the ARU and the Wallabies coach are not permitted to influence a player in his choice of Super Rugby team, but perhaps they need to do the opposite to maintain two, or maybe three, strong franchises to underpin the Wallabies.