Aces and eights: the battle to be Wallabies No.8
March 6, 2014
The Wallabies endured an up-and-down year in 2013, with a decent end-of-season European tour going only some way to making up for a heart-breaking series defeat by the British & Irish Lions and a disappointing Rugby Championship campaign. But the improved showing in the northern hemisphere tour, and the form of some of their players at the beginning of this Super Rugby season, should give the fans of the Green and Gold hope as the 2015 Rugby World Cup draws nearer.
One welcome selection headache for coach Ewen McKenzie comes in a giant No.8 shape, with a number of players challenging Ben Mowen, who is currently playing in the No.6 jersey for the Brumbies, for his place in the Test side. Which is good news given that Mowen, the incumbent Wallabies captain, is heading overseas at season's end.
Arguably the leading contender is Wycliff Palu, the destructive Waratahs player who has already impressed in the national jumper. Also staking claims are Scott Higginbotham, Ben McCalman and Jake Schatz, while former Australia Under-20 player Jarrad Butler is showing why the Brumbies have preferred him to Mowen.
We have compared the performances of the six players over the past 12 months, with the tables showing Super Rugby data since the beginning of last season (above) as well as international form since the start of 2013 (below) where applicable. Play around with the tabs to enjoy the full experience.
Palu and Mowen have some similar traits when it comes to their attacking output, as they are both strong ball carriers; but it is perhaps the former who is more destructive when it comes to fending off tackles and breaking the line. Palu's handling skills can also be invaluable to any side when on the front foot, and he has averaged more than two successful offloads per game since the start of the 2013 Super Rugby season. But the Waratahs loose forward does need to brush up his defence, as his tackling success rate is a relatively modest 84% in Super Rugby; he has also missed tackles when pulling on the Wallabies jersey, while his ability turn the ball over is also lacking.
Ben McCalman, statistically, is the strongest defender of the featured players, and he has backed up his strong work at club level in his cameo appearances for the Wallabies.
The performances of the likes of Palu and McCalman over the past 12 months will make it hard for McKenzie to exclude them from future Test squads. As, we are certain, will the form of Higginbotham - who may well have started ahead of Mowen in the Lions series but for his season-ending shoulder injury. He was in career-best form, and he showed on his return to the Melbourne Rebels side, against the Rebels in Super Rugby round three, that he remains a dynamic and physical ball-carrying and try-scoring threat. The stats suggest, however, that he concedes far too many turnovers ad penalties against a relatively meagre number of turnovers won.
Mowen has come in for a degree of criticism since making his Test debut, and certainly since assuming the captaincy. But the stats don't lie. He is expert at forcing errors and competing for loose balls, and this in itself makes him hard to overlook at Test level; he is also a genuine option at the lineout, too. He might never be "flavour of the month" but the numbers show he has performed well at Test level; it might even be said that he deserves McKenzie's continued selection, even though he is going overseas.
McKenzie might consider a back-row reshuffle, but with Liam Gill and Michael Hooper competing for the No.7 jumper in the sad injury-enforced absence of David Pocock, and Scott Fardy firmly entrenched on the blindside, players ultimately will be left disappointed.
One thing is for certain: there is plenty of competition for places in Australia's back-row, and we can expect the battle for caps only to intensify as the season gets properly up and running, something that can only be beneficial to the overall success of the team.
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