Australia: Full Report Card for Every Position Entering Rugby Championship
The Wallabies enter this year’s Rugby championship with several reasons to be cheerful.
The New South Wales Waratahs, stacked with Australian internationals, just walked off with the Super Rugby title after a thrilling final against the Crusaders; their marquee players have had fantastic seasons; they are unearthing some new young talent in key positions; and under Ewen McKenzie they have won their last eight internationals.
They are, however, missing one or two key men with vast experience when it comes to mixing it with the other big guns from the Southern Hemisphere.
In assessing McKenzie’s squad, I have decided to apply the following criteria to come up with a final grade.
- Experience: The number of caps held by the players likely to be first-choice in the tournament counts for a lot.
- Form: Players coming off the back of a strong Super Rugby season can boost a position’s grade.
- Star men: The big names deserve respect in terms of their grade for what they can do on the field.
- The opposition: Australia will be up against the two strongest rugby nations on earth. How their players rank against their opposites will be the final factor applied to these grades.
Stats courtesy of Opta's wealth of information housed on the New Zealand Herald.
Israel Folau: A+
Folau helped himself to 12 tries, topped the charts for offloads and generally continued to establish himself as possibly the best player ever to have crossed codes to play rugby union. He is Australia’s main attacking threat and is good enough to damage any team given the chance.
Pat McCabe: C
As a utility back we might see McCabe deployed anywhere in the three-quarter line, but he has been named in the back-three group. As impressive as his return from serious neck grief has been, it is questionable whether he will stand up to a pummeling from the Southern Hemisphere heavyweights despite his obvious talent as a player.
Rob Horne: C
Five tries in 15 games and a 95 per cent tackle rate made for a solid season for another of the winning Waratahs. Only one of his 16 caps came at full-back, with the rest in the centre.
Peter Betham: C
Betham was called up this week in place of the hamstrung Henry Speight, so we can expect him to be a peripheral figure in the squad unless form or injury dictate otherwise. Not that he hasn’t had a decent campaign with the Waratahs, albeit seven games in total, yielding two tries. In a competition housing the likes of Julian Savea, Bryan Habana and other legendary names, Betham, with one cap to his name, could be considered to be in at the deep end should he find himself on the field.
Adam Ashley-Cooper: A
The squad was announced with no discernible split between wings and full-backs, but Ashley-Cooper has been around long enough to know he covers both. With Israel Folau pulling up trees by the forest-load in the No. 15 jersey, his Waratahs mate is rightly considered as a wing first and foremost these days. Ninety-four caps, 27 tries and an ability to maintain a high level of form pretty much, well, forever, make him a Wallaby great.
Joe Tomane: B-
Three tries in 11 games for the Brumbies is not an eye-catching return for the wing, but Kiwi-born Tomane has the pace and power to go up against the All Blacks and not be cowed. He is likely to start in a back three comprising Folau and Ashley-Cooper and has the ability to produce fireworks given the chance.
Tevita Kuridrani: B+
The muscular Kuridrani has proven himself at this level and is capable of mixing it with any other outside centre in the competition. A solid season for the Brumbies yielded five tries, but what Ewen McKenzie might like to see from him—should the team persist to put width on the ball early—is a better return from his offloading stats. He completed just eight all term. In relation to the tournament’s other No. 13s, he cannot yet be classed in the same quality as Conrad Smith, who sets the benchmark still.
Matt Toomua: A-
Toomua regularly displays that happy knack of seeming to have time and space in every situation. There is less of the dash and dare of a Kurtley Beale and certainly less of the bash and bosh than that possessed by Ma’a Nonu. The simple things done perfectly is Toomua’s modus operandi, and that is a valuable commodity. So were the seven tries he scored this season.
Christian Lealiifano: B-
Lealiifano is going through a rotten case of the yips with his goal-kicking. Eleven misses and 15 successes does not make for great reading from his Super XV campaign. Outside of aiming the ball at the sticks, he has had a solid season. Ask the man on the street who he would want at No. 12 out of Beale, Nonu or Jean de Villiers and the Brumbies man, and the answer would tell its own story.
Kurtley Beale: A
Beale has spent the season playing No. 12 inside Bernard Foley but has been picked in the Wallabies squad as the other fly-half alongside his club mate. It’s either a sign of the paucity of options below Foley in the No. 10 shirt or a sign of Ewen McKenzie’s genuinely held belief that this is Beale’s best position.
It is hard to judge Beale fairly as a fly-half against the others in the competition because he has spent no great length of time playing there. Nevertheless, he has the brain, the boot and the magic to unlock any defence from 10 or 12. A wonderful season should be capped by a fine international series, but that will not happen if Beale is confined to back-up fly-half status. A victim of his versatility? It would seem so.
Bernard Foley: B+
Foley has blossomed at the Waratahs this season and started the three Tests against France in the No. 10 jersey. His only true rival for that position is the injured and enigmatic Quade Cooper, whose loss seems far less a blow than at first thought thanks to Foley’s form this season.
The litmus test is now upon him both to remain composed in attack and resolute in defence when the Wallabies visit New Zealand and South Africa. Despite his form, his relative inexperience and lack of exposure to this level precludes him for now from top marks.
Luke Burgess: C
With Will Genia out of the picture, Burgess is the most capped No. 9 of this trio with 30 appearances. He played 14 times for the Rebels this season and beat 19 defenders, 10 more than his rival Nick Phipps. But Burgess hasn’t featured for the Wallabies since the end of the 2011 World Cup and has been firmly behind Phipps, Nic White and even the overlooked Genia in Mckenzie’s tenure.
Nick Phipps: B+
Phipps has enjoyed a successful season behind a near-Test quality pack at the Waratahs, but not just for the service he has supplied to that stellar back division. His effort in defence in the Super XV semi–final won the plaudits of his teammates with the player’s Player of the Match award and could earn him the starting slot for the tournament. He may not be as explosive as Aaron Smith or as cunning as Fourie du Preez, but Phipps is in great form.
Nic White: B+
White proved less defensively sound than Phipps during the Super Rugby campaign in terms of his tackling percentages. But he was certainly the first choice of Ewen McKenzie during the summer series, starting all three Tests against France and striking up a decent understanding with Bernard Foley at fly-half. Could that be enough to give him the jersey for the tournament? He also brings an extra goal-kicking option to the side, something neither New Zealand nor South Africa can say about their No. 9 stocks.
Wycliff Palu: A
Palu had a stellar season for the Waratahs. An impressive 24 offloads in 15 games made him the highest-offloading forward in the competition. But it’s the hard yards that also make him so vital. His strength enables him to gain ground without much pace, and his upper body attributes make it possible to wrestle himself round the back of tacklers and feed on-rushing players.
He doesn’t have the box of tricks of a Kieran Read, but used properly he can be just as effective. A half-century of caps also means he has been there, done that.
Scott Higginbotham: B
No. 8 Higginbotham has 24 caps but only 13 starts under his belt. He still managed 20 offloads for the Rebels in 15 appearances and provides solid experience that will more than likely be used from the bench by Ewen McKenzie.
Scott Fardy: B-
Fardy put in a huge shift this season for the Brumbies with 18 appearances and 122 tackles made. He is a grafter in the traditional mould of blindside flankers and performed that role admirably against a weak French outfit in all three summer Tests. He doesn’t have the explosiveness of a Jerome Kaino or the ground skills of a Willem Alberts, but he is fast becoming a key cog in the Wallaby machine.
Matt Hodgson: B-
Hodgson was the best tackler in the Super Rugby season if you go by sheer volume, but he also weighed in with his fair share of tries. As an out-and-out No. 7, he is, in the latter part of his career, to be admired for proving himself an able deputy to Michael Hooper, but whether he can mix it with the No. 7s in this competition is yet to be seen. He does carry great form into the championship.
Michael Hooper: A
Hooper can do no wrong in 2014. He took the captaincy of the Waratahs after injury to Dave Dennis and led from the front, making tackles, hunting for the ball and geeing up his men. He performed the same trick when stepping into the breach left by injured Wallabies skipper Stephen Moore early in their summer series against France. He capped the lot by lifting the Super Rugby title for his team and goes into this set of matches as the form No. 7 in world rugby.
Ben McCalman: B
Four tries in 14 games for McCalman in 2014, a decent return for a player not known for his raids on the whitewash. His appetite for work was certainly in evidence with 170 carries and 24 defenders beaten. A tackle rate nudging 93 per cent was also impressive.
Rob Simmons: A
Simmons is the fixture in the Wallaby engine room around which the other men have rotated this year. The Reds’ totem took the fourth-highest number of lineout catches in the Super Rugby season with 62 and is the organiser–in–chief of the Wallaby set-piece.
His battle with Sam Whitelock and Victor Matfield in the coming weeks will go some way to indicating just how high Simmons can go. With 40 caps, he will also be key to leading a relatively inexperienced front five should Will Skelton or Sam Carter partner him in the second row behind a front row lacking some key men.
Sam Carter: B-
Carter has just one cap, won against France this year, which came as reward for an outstanding term with the Brumbies. Carter’s work rate is the most impressive thing about him. He put in the eighth-highest number of tackles in the entire Super Rugby season with 163.
You have to question his ability to scrummage at the top level at present, such was the job done on the Brumbies pack in the Super 14 on occasions, but he is one for the future who could make a big statement in this tournament.
James Horwill: B
There must be a strong case forming itself in Ewen Mckenzie’s mind that, with injuries sustained in his front row, he needs as many caps as he can muster elsewhere in his pack.
James Horwill not only ticks that box, he also plays alongside Simmons for the Reds. A pair who know each other inside out will be immensely helpful in this campaign.
Add to that the fact Horwill and Simmons were the only duo to feature in the top 10 lineout catchers of the Super Rugby season and the argument is bolstered. Horwill has the experience, the know-how and the quality to mix it at this level.
Will Skelton: B
Skelton provides the X-factor in this cluster of locks. His size and strength make him a huge weapon in the Wallaby armory, but picking him in the starting line-up reduces Australia’s lineout capability. As the Waratahs have shown successfully in the latter stages of this season, Skelton could be effective off the bench in the last 20.
His performance against France on debut was certainly eye-catching with strong runs, great offloads and a short–range try that was all about his sheer bulk. Some more of the same would do nicely against tiring players.
Nathan Charles: C
Western Force hooker Charles only earned his two caps off the bench in the summer but now faces the prospect of starting against the All Blacks with the losses of Stephen Moore and Tatafu Polota-Nau.
The latter could be back in the tournament if his injury status improves. If not, Charles will have a stiff challenge to front up against the likes of Dane Coles, Bismarck du Plessis and Agustin Creevy.
James Hanson: D
If Charles is still taking baby steps in the world of international front row play, Hanson’s career remains comparatively embryonic, with one start back in 2012 to his name and no further appearances. He is in the squad ahead of the more experienced Saia Fainga'a, which is surprising given the loss of Moore and Polota-Nau.
Tolu Latu: D
Latu was added to the squad this week as a replacement for Polota-Nau. He is uncapped, untested and unlikely to feature unless this hooking curse gets severely worse.
Sekope Kepu: B+
After a string of caps off the bench, Kepu was given the starting No. 3 shirt in last autumn’s win over Ireland and has held it ever since. His form has grown stronger during this successful Super Rugby campaign for the Wallabies, and he has the damaging running ability to match the best props from the other nations in the tournament.
James Slipper: B
The Queensland Reds loose head started all three Tests against France in the summer and enjoyed a good Super Rugby season in the statistics stakes with 144 metres of ball carrying. With the loss of their two first-choice hookers, experience either side of the man in the middle will be no bad thing in this season’s rugby championship. Slipper is that man.
Ben Alexander: B
Alexander had a fine season for the Brumbies and is the most experienced prop in the squad with 62 caps. He underlined his ability to offer a threat in broken play and was also effective for the Canberra men in doing the hard yards. His scrummaging at tight head was erratic, however, and against the Springboks and Argentinians that could be exposed.
Laurie Weeks: C
The Melbourne Rebels man has been drafted into the squad as a result of injury to Scott Sio. The Waratahs man was being groomed for a switch from loose head to tight head, hence Weeks’ arrival as a backup No. 3. With just two sorties off the bench this summer, Weeks is unexposed at the highest level.
Pek Cowan: C
Ewen McKenzie has opted to ignore the experience of Waratahs man Ben Robinson in favour of Cowan, who has just a handful of caps and only one start. Should injury strike further into the Wallabies' front row stocks, there are some callow options that could leave their opponents licking their lips.