Mendoza was the scene of one the Wallabies most courageous victories, but now the team head to San Juan with a growing injury list and yet more team reshuffles.
With Michael Hooper stepping away from camp on the eve of the Test and Quade Cooper suffering an Achilles injury, the Wallabies’ depth in experience was already tested, but with the loss of Allan Alaalatoa and Hunter Paisami during the week, it appears not much is going the way of the Wallabies this year.
With a win under their belt, a second would go a long way in setting themselves up for a shot at Rugby Championship silverware. Despite an injury crisis and facing a fired up Pumas side, the Wallabies can’t afford a slip up.
IS JAMES O’CONNOR’S EXPERIENCE ALONE ENOUGH?
Dealing with several niggling injuries, James O’Connor has had little game time over the last few months, with just his one appearance off the bench against England in a lackluster performance. Now, with Quade Cooper sidelined for the rest of the year, Dave Rennie has been forced to turn to O’Connor to plug the gap.
His experience is what has got him over the line this week, with Rennie desperate to add old heads to his side with the losses of Alaalatoa and Paisami during the week, but against a hurting Pumas pack and alongside a young centre in Lalakai Foketi, O’Connor will need to bring more to the table.
Disappointed with O’Connor’s display against England, Rennie has pushed the 32-year-old to sharpen up, find some speed and develop his skillset.
“For a start we talked about him needing to sharpen up and he’s been doing that over the past month,” Rennie said during the squad announcement on Friday [AEST].
“Obviously with Quade gone, with no Hooper, no Allan, we’re keen to get a bit of experience out there as well and he’s an important voice in and amongst that back line. He’s prepared really well, he’s really excited to get a crack and keen to make the most of it.
“What we talked about was really around acceleration and sharpening up his skillset. Attitude-wise he’s been brilliant, he couldn’t be more supportive when players missed out, but he’s constantly had a clear picture of what he needs to do and he’s been fully supportive of everyone else and helping them prepare well.”
Missing out this time, Noah Lolesio has proven himself a strong candidate to take hold of the No.10 jersey, with solid performances in the latest England series, but still developing at international level there’s a clear shortfall in the Wallabies fly-half depth and it’s now more than ever a position of worry for Rennie.
“I would say so [it’s a worry]. We’ve talked about two, we’ve talked about 10, we’ve talked about 15 and the second row for a little while, but we’ve got pretty good depth there already with a couple of young guys coming through… but ten’s just getting us.”
Now, with just over 12 months until the Rugby World Cup, this match is proving pivotal for O’Connor to improve his stocks following his underwhelming minutes against England.
Meanwhile, Paisami is just the latest to be added to the casualty ward, joining fellow centre Samu Kerevi, who will miss the remainder of the year with a torn ACL. It’s forced yet another reshuffle and means an untested flyhalf-inside centre pairing will run out on Sunday morning [AEST].
Thrown in at the deep end, Foketi sports just one Test cap – won off the bench — and has been forced to fill a big hole. An untried combo, the Pumas will no doubt be ready to expose the pairing, and how well the two manage to communicate and run off each other will be crucial.
Still, a highly entertaining player, Rennie’s shown faith in the 27-year-old to get the job done in a highly combative environment.
“I thought Lalakai had his best season ever from a Super point of view. He’s a good athlete, good feet, he’s got the ability to beat people through that or ball transfer and fend; he’s sharp, he’s as quick as I’ve seen him. He’s worked really hard on his defensive game and his post tackle and his kicking and he makes good shifts.
“We picked them based on who we thought could do the best job… we’re excited. Obviously, we contemplated playing Irae [Simone], from a combination point of view, him and Lennie [Ikitau] have played a lot of football together, but you know, we genuinely believe that Lalakai’s ready to go and he’s earned the right.”
GREEN FRONT ROW BENCH AS PONE GETS HIS CHANCE
After years of being in and around the Wallabies set-up, Pone Fa’amausili is finally in line to earn his Wallabies cap in a bench front row that sports just six caps.
With Rennie desperate to find experience across the park, a lack of game time through his front row bench will be worrying with Lachlan Lonergan the most experienced of the trio with just five Test appearances, with Matt Gibbon making his first appearance last week.
Still, Rennie will be happy he’ll finally be able to give the hard-hitting tighthead his first run after he’s missed several opportunities in the past.
“He’s missed a few opportunities, we’ve had Alan and Taniela out at different times and unfortunately Pone’s been injured as well,” Rennie said. “He’s very excited, again he’s a massive man, so when Taniela comes off we’re gonna replace him with somebody with pretty similar dimensions. He’s prepared well and he’s excited and ready to go.”
It’s a testament to Fa’amausili’s patience and hard work that he will finally get his chance to run out in gold after a shocking run of injuries.
In the squad for more than two years, the prop has endured a multitude of calf injuries, the worst occurring last year where he missed the whole Rebels’ season. In another back step, his expected debut on last year’s end of season tour was dashed through injury. All together the 25-year-old says he’s had 13 calf injuries across both legs.
Finally given his chance in San Juan, Fa’amausili is one of the few good news stories to come out of the Wallabies camp in weeks.
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