The Wallabies and coach Dave Rennie have faced all kinds of challenges in their two seasons together, and there’s no questions they’ve taken some major strides forward in 2021.
But Australia’s last three matches of the Autumn Nations Series might just present the biggest challenge yet.
Scotland, even when battling through Six Nations series, have long been a team that causes problems for Australia, and coming into this weekend’s clash at Murrayfield, they will be buoyed by a combination of sky-high confidence and recent-ish history.
The Scots have beaten Australia in their last two outings, both coming back in 2017.
Up to 2006, the Wallabies had enjoyed a dominance at the home of Scottish rugby, with seven straight wins stretching back to the Grand Slam tour of 1984.
Since 2009, however, it’s two wins apiece, with the aforementioned record win in 2017 coming at the end of a year in which Scotland finished fourth in the Six Nations.
The Scots were sensational in their 10-tries-to-one, 60-14 thumping of Tonga last weekend.
Left winger Rufus McLean kickstarted things with two tries in the first 14 minutes of his Test debut, but South African-born former Scotland Sevens player Kyle Steyn topped that, bagging four tries from the right wing.
Scotland played an expansive, high-tempo game in attack —not unlike the way Rennie had the Wallabies firing through The Rugby Championship.
They will only be better again this weekend, with their English and French-based players re-joining the squad for the final three matches of the series within the regulated Test window.
Chief among those inclusions should be fly half Finn Russell.
Now playing with Racing 92 in France, there remains a strong train of thought that the British & Irish Lions might have caused more trouble for South Africa in this year’s tour to the Republic had Russell been able to make more than just his one appearance from the bench in the final match in August.
The Wallabies on the other hand, still grappling with how to replace fly half Quade Cooper and barnstorming centre Samu Kerevi after the pair elected to remain in Japan with their clubs, are also trying to integrate their own French contingent.
Locks Rory Arnold and Will Skelton (Toulouse and La Rochelle, respectively), and hooker Tolu Latu (Stade Français) were named in the tour squad before it left Australia, while injuries and withdrawals mean full-back Kurtley Beale (Racing 92) and midfielder Duncan Paia’aua (Toulon) have been called in this week.
Former Brumbies and Melbourne Rebels backrower Colby Fainga’a (Lyon) earned his first Wallabies squad call-up this week, too.
Defensively, the Wallabies have a very strong platform that has served them well this year, and that, along with their excellent set piece, will form the basis of whatever attacking game plan they can now fashion with the remaining squad players and arriving reinforcements.
The Scots will be wary of what’s coming.
They were quick to put the Tonga win to the side on the weekend, and set their focus on Australia straight away.
“Defensively we’ll have to be at our very best,” Scotland coach and former legendary fly half Gregor Townsend said immediately following last weekend’s match.
How that confidence has fared since the departures of Cooper and Kerevi will be seen soon enough.
As expected, James O’Connor has been named to start at number 10. His tactical kicking and game management was a major factor in the Queensland Reds securing the Super Rugby AU title earlier this year.
And after doing the job asked of him two weeks ago against Japan, Hunter Paisami has retained his place at inside centre, but the bigger question will be how the attacking plan has been tweaked to suit his natural game, rather than squeezing him into the plan created around Kerevi.
This is why this Scotland game looms as the Wallabies’ and Rennie’s biggest challenge of the year.
Yes, confidence within the team will still be high, as it should be after such a strong home season and a solid victory over Japan en route to the UK. But now there are significant variables at play as well;
- New players coming into the squad and bringing them up to speed.
- A game plan requiring tweaks to cater for those new players and other withdrawals.
- And just their second game in over a month, on the other side of the world, against a team coming off a big win and who love nothing more than playing right in the faces of Australian opposition.
A huge challenge awaits: a challenge well worth Wallabies fans at home setting the Monday morning alarm for.