How Wallabies fill Kerevi-sized hole holds key to success in Scotland
The Wallabies indicated they will need to change their game-plan on their tour of Britain in the absence of the influential Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi, after so much of Australia’s impressive play in the Rugby Championship revolved around the former’s superb game management and the latter’s powerful ball-running and off-loading in the midfield.
James O’Connor, who returned to the national team from injury via the reserves bench during the Rugby Championship, is an adequate replacement for Cooper, but Kerevi is seen as irreplaceable.
With Cooper and Kerevi opting not to tour to rejoin their Japanese clubs, the Wallabies have been boosted by the addition of several France-based players, including second-rowers Rory Arnold and Will Skelton and utility back Kurtley Beale. Arnold will start for the Wallabies against Scotland at Murrayfield, while Skelton and Beale will come off the bench.
Although he is a forward, not a back, the 2.03m and 140kg Skelton has the potential to play the role of a super-sized Kerevi. Skelton is one of the best ball-handling tight-five forwards in world rugby with an Arthur Beetson-like ability to draw in defenders and slip a pass away. The former Waratahs lock has the potential to do for the Wallabies’ forward attack what Kerevi did for the backs’ play, by getting across the advantage line and putting support players into space. And strange as it may sound, Skelton could even play Kerevi’s role at inside-centre.
Despite his great height, Skelton is not a ball-winning lineout forward. Instead, he could position himself at second receiver in the backline at lineout time. Just like Kerevi, he could get across the advantage line in the midfield and put players away. The Wallabies may not want to adopt this tactic at every lineout, but it could be devastatingly effective inside the opposition 22, with Skelton charging down the Scottish channel.
In this way the Wallabies’ game-plan would not have to deviate too much from that with Kerevi in the team, but it would still have to change somewhat, especially as Skelton is not starting at Murrayfield.
In their unconvincing 32-23 win against Japan in Oita two weeks ago, the Wallabies attempted to cover for the absence of Kerevi by continually attacking down the blindside, but this was a largely fruitless exercise. Without Cooper’s long passing game the Wallabies may not feel quite as confident utilising the width of the field in attack.
O’Connor has the ability to get the backline moving, but centres Hunter Paisami and Len Ikitau are ball runners rather than ball distributors. Instead of shifting the ball from one side of the field to the other the Wallabies may want to direct their play towards the middle and split their forces on either side of the breakdown. O’Connor and Paisami could stand on one side of the ruck, while fullback Andrew Kellaway and Ikitau could position themselves on the other, giving the Wallabies attacking options on both flanks.
This is an old rugby league tactic that was introduced to union by former Wallabies coach, and current England mentor, Eddie Jones almost 20 years ago. It is bread and butter for Australia’s attack coach Scott Wisemantel, who spent many years working under Jones with Australia and England.
And there are more options. When Beale is introduced into the game at either fullback or inside-centre, he will provide the Wallabies’ attack with x-factor – not in the same way as Kerevi, but still a handful for defenders.
Cooper’s tactical kicking, which is an important part of any game-plan devised by head coach Dave Rennie, will certainly be missed. We can expect the Wallabies to kick a lot against Scotland, testing their back three, but whatever strategy employed, it will need to be on point or they will risk an upset loss against a bogey team.
Since their controversial 35-34 win in the quarter-final of the 2015 World Cup, the Wallabies have lost two of the last three Tests they have played against Scotland, including a 53-24 thrashing in Edinburgh four years ago.
It will be a special occasion for Rennie, who coached Scottish club Glasgow, and Rugby Australia’s director of coaching Scott Johnson, who held a similar position in Scotland. There have been reports Johnson is under pressure and a loss to Scotland, ranked seventh in the world, would certainly exacerbate any tensions that may exist.
Coming off a 60-14 win against Tonga, the Scots are always tough to beat at home where they play with tremendous enthusiasm. They will come at the Wallabies like men possessed in the first 20 minutes and it is important the Australians deal with the situation.
With players coming in and out of the squad, the Wallabies have been a team in transition all year, but, outside of the All Blacks, they have somehow managed to find ways to win, which is a positive sign for the clash at Murrayfield.