It has taken two Tests for Dave Rennie to reveal himself as a careful, perhaps even conservative, coach.
For all the hype about the “golden generation”, Rennie chose only two members of Australia’s world championship-winning under-20s team for the first Bledisloe Cup match in Wellington – back-rower Harry Wilson and reserve five-eighth Noah Lolesio.
His caution was seemingly justified when the Wallabies exceeded expectations by drawing 16-all with the All Blacks. Some of the younger players in the wider 44-man squad were probably not ready to face the Kiwis, particularly on their own soil.
But Rennie baulked at bringing Lolesio off the reserves bench because of the closeness of the game, thus missing an opportunity to introduce him to Test rugby.
Unlike starting playmakers James O’Connor and Matt Toomua, Lolesio is a natural No 10. It is almost certain the 20-year-old would instinctively have attempted a match-winning field goal towards the end of the Test.
Then, for the second Test in Auckland, Rennie omitted Lolesio from the Wallabies’ 23-man squad altogether to make way for returning centre Jordan Petaia, who needed to be there but not necessarily at Lolesio’s expense.
That decision backfired when Toomua went off with a groin injury, leaving O’Connor as the Wallabies’ sole playmaker. It is unlikely Lolesio would have prevented the All Blacks winning, but at least he would have been blooded.
It is time for Rennie to be a little more adventurous and start Lolesio at five-eighth in the third Test in Sydney on Saturday night.
All indications are O’Connor will remain at five-eighth with Irae Simone replacing the injured Toomua at inside-centre, but that will not scare the All Blacks.
O’Connor is a flat-out good footballer. Had he been allowed to develop at five-eighth throughout his career he may have become a great No 10 but, having filled every spot in the backline, he is more of a utility.
If Lolesio started at five-eighth O’Connor could play fullback, a position he played in several of his early Tests,it would give the Wallabies a second playmaker in attack.
Another option would be to start Lolesio and O’Connor in the inside backs and bring Dane Haylett-Petty – if fit – into the team at fullback. That would allow O’Connor and Haylett-Petty to interchange between attack and defence.
At the very least, Lolesio should be in the 23-man squad to offer genuine cover at five-eighth. But, really, it is time for him start. It is also time to recall No 8 Isi Naisarani, who was originally omitted from the Wallabies’ 44-man squad for apparent fitness reasons.
The Wallabies desperately need Naisarani’s physicality after being out-muscled in Auckland. Naisarani has been added to the Wallabies’ training squad, which indicates he will secure a position somewhere in the matchday 23, if not this week then next week in Brisbane.
The Wallabies must confront the All Blacks’ physicality from the opening whistle – not wait until the last 30 minutes. There has been talk of Allan Alaalatoa starting at tight-head prop ahead of Taniela Tupou, presumably to give the Wallabies impact off the bench at the back end of the game.
That makes some sense but once again, the Wallabies cannot allow themselves to be physically intimidated early on.
Rennie is certainly expected to make changes to the team that lost 27-7 in Auckland. The Wallabies missed 40 tackles in that match there has been speculation the coach would hope to improve his side’s defence, but there is no point in strengthening one area of the game at the expense of another.
Selections and tactics must be right this week, not only to give the Wallabies an optimum chance to spring an upset and keep the four-Test series alive, but also for the general good of the game in Australia.
An All Blacks victory in Sydney would just about kill any interest in a Brisbane dead rubber and the remainder of The Rugby Championship, which has already been dealt a massive setback with the withdrawal of world champions the Springboks.
If the Bledisloe Cup is decided on Saturday night, Australian rugby fans are unlikely to have much enthusiasm for the All Blacks and Wallabies playing an under-prepared Argentina side, something the financially strapped code in Australia could ill afford.
The next six weeks will be the Wallabies’ last opportunity this year to re-engage disillusioned fans and persuade broadcasters of the value of showing the sport, which will be necessary to keep the professional game afloat next year and beyond.
There is so much more at stake on Saturday night than just one Test match. It’s not time for the Wallabies to throw caution to the wind, but they might need to be just a little bit less cautious.