After their spluttering winter of three wins from nine starts, the Wallabies are now in Europe for a five-Test Spring tour they hope can springboard them into contention for the 2023 World Cup in September. The big bounce must start against Scotland early this Sunday morning (AEST 3.30am) at Murrayfield where Australia haven’t won since 2016 and were pipped 15-13 before a crowd of 63,000 in November.
Scotland, ranked sixth in the world, start favourites against the visitors (ninth, their lowest ranking of the professional era) but in their 33 Tests over 95 years, Australia hold a 21-12 winning edge with a healthy overall aggregate of 785 points to 478. That didn’t count for much last time, as Scotland ended Australia’s best run under coach Dave Rennie, a five-game streak led by Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi.
Alas, Cooper and Kerevi are injured and Australia haven’t won two in a row since. Rennie’s overall win record has slipped under 38% and in 2022 it slumps to 33%. Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan has backed the guitar-strumming Kiwi schoolteacher through to the World Cup but a bad tour here, so close to the global jamboree for the William Webb Ellis trophy, will threaten Michael Cheika’s annus horribilis of four wins from 13 Tests in 2018, the Wallabies’ worst year since 1958.
Although they have beaten England, South Africa and Argentina in recent months, and went within a whisker of beating the All Blacks in Melbourne, the Wallabies have lost their fear factor on the world stage. This European tour is no holiday. Ireland are ranked No 1 in the world and Australia haven’t tasted victory in Dublin since 2013. Wales and Scotland have both won their last three games against the men in gold. France can rip anyone to pieces. Only Italy shape up as easybeats.
Murrayfield hosted the first Test between these nations in 1927 when Australia – still touring as the Waratahs – took on Scotland during an epic eight-month tour of Britain, Ireland, France and North America. Two points was the margin again, as the home side won 10-8 on a field heavy with snow and kept under straw until the kick-off.
The “Wallaby way” – a commitment by all 15 men to free-flowing running rugby – was born on this tour. Captain-coach Johnnie Wallace had played a one-off Test for the Waratahs against New Zealand in 1921 but by 1923, while studying as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, he won a spot on the wing for Scotland. His wing partner that day was Eric Liddell, whose 400-metre gold medal inspired the film Chariots of Fire.
By 1926, after 11 tries in nine Tests, Wallace had traded his thistle in for a waratah and implored selectors to sacrifice size at all costs for a fast, tough side with heart. “Give me a man with skill, pace and pluck rather than a bonehead,” Wallace said. With their all-out attack, the Waratahs went on to beat Ireland, Wales and France. But not Scotland. Wallace had a chance to ice that game late, but slipped… on ice.
Australia’s 2022 cause is helped by having their own captain courageous back in the gold fold. Michael Hooper has returned, not cured of the “mindset” issues that saw him bail from the tour of Argentina in August, but refreshed enough to be named in the starting XV, this time with the wife and baby he so pined for, touring alongside him.
Hooper will flank opposite Scottish debutant and 14-Test Wallaby Jack Dempsey for the first time since they duelled over pinball as schoolboys at Chatswood station. Glasgow Warrior Dempsey, 28, has defected via World Rugby’s new transfer rules which allows capped players to switch allegiance after a three-year stand down if they have a “close and credible link via birthright” (Dempsey’s mother is Scottish).
The former Gordon Highlander is a weapon in a team full of them. Scotland coach Gregor Townsend has drawn a World Cup pool featuring world champions South Africa and world No 1 Ireland, so won’t spare the horses in the quest for momentum. His side has shattered a 38-year, 18-match hoodoo at Twickenham, a 22-year run of losses in Paris and an 18-season losing streak in Wales, so Australia hold few fears for them.
With a raft of injured stars and five uncapped players touring in their stead, Rennie will want to keep experimenting. But if he gambles and loses against Scotland and then France he’ll be loth to roll the dice and blood newbies against Italy. That would be a shame because he has serious firepower in the wings with Suliasi Vunivalu and Mark Nawaqanitawase, a bolter of Fijian-Italian parentage, both itching to get a start.
Restarts and lineouts killed Scotland against Argentina but with lock Matt Philip injured on tour-eve and Rennie without Darcy Swain (suspension) and Will Skelton until the second Test against France, the agile Goliath Nick Frost enters the frame. Despite flopping in the 40-14 rout at Eden Park, Bernard Foley will steer the ship at fly-half with Reds dynamo Tate McDermott firming for big minutes as his halfback.
The Wallabies have spent this week in Saint Etienne, their 2023 World Cup base. Once a mining and manufacturing mecca, it’s now a hub for cafes and museums. But Rennie’s men must look further afield for their inspiration. In the mountains are dormant volcanoes and potato fields. Fire and starch. That’s what Johnnie Wallace wanted back in 1927 and it’s what Australia must bring to Murrayfield this weekend.