There is something a little different about the Wallabies squad who have bowled into London for this week. It’s not the names on the team sheet. The spine of the team – James Slipper, Michael Hooper, Nic White, James O’Connor, Kurtley Beale – is all familiar, and even the only uncapped player in the squad, Ollie Hoskins, who has won an emergency call-up to the bench, has spent the last five years playing for London Irish. No, it’s the way they’re talking about the game. Dave Rennie’s side don’t bristle the way Michael Cheika’s used to. There’s no needle. Maybe they’re saving it for Saturday.
Rennie isn’t too bothered about the “200 years” of rivalry between the two countries. The Wallabies are coming off the back of three Tests against France, three against the All Blacks, two against South Africa, as well as one-off matches against Japan and Scotland.
He doesn’t see this as being a bigger Test than most of those. “Some of the guys who have been in the mix for a long time have talked about it, but we’re not getting caught up in history,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for us, we’re going to play a really, really strong England side at Twickenham and we’re going to throw everything at them.”
If they’re quiet, it may be because they have plenty to worry about already. They were already missing a handful of key players and, after their defeat against Scotland, they’ve lost a handful more, including both their tighthead props, Allan Alaalatoa and Taniela Tupou, who are both recovering from head injuries. It was already shaping to be a long afternoon for the Australian pack, given England have six forwards on the bench, and now they’ve had to move Slipper across from his usual position at loosehead, and bring Hoskins, who has only been with the squad for two days, straight in on the bench.
“We’re not looking for excuses,” Rennie said, “we’re a couple down, but we’ve got a good squad on the park and those guys are going to have to do the job.” Slipper started his career as a tighthead, and has done the job for the Brumbies this year too, but he hasn’t started a Test there since 2012. “He’s taken on the challenge,” said Rennie, “he’s the best equipped for it, he’s such a good player, he’ll give us plenty around the park and in the scrum”.
As for Hoskins, the Wallabies’ scrum coach Petrus du Plessis knew him from his time working at London Irish. “Real credit to Ollie,” Rennie says, “he’s very diligent, got his head around our structures very quickly.”
They’ve also lost Jordan Petaia, which is why Beale is back starting at full-back for the first time since they lost to England 40-16 in the World Cup quarter-finals in 2019. That was the last, and worst, in a run of seven consecutive losses to England that stretches right back to the group stages of the 2015 tournament.
Understandably enough, Rennie wasn’t too keen to dwell on that, either. “It’s hard to reflect on the past, I didn’t watch the Australian team in great detail in those days.” It’s no surprise he said, playing underdog again. “It’s a massive game in this country, huge playing numbers, huge financial resources, and a club system where you’ve got a hell of a lot of players. So they should be a power in world rugby.”
As for this England team, he wasn’t too bothered by Eddie Jones’ surprise decision to put Manu Tuilagi on the wing: “You can almost ignore the numbers on their backs, because they’ll mix things up, I’m sure Manu will end up defending in midfield. I certainly don’t think it weakens them, they’ve found a way to get all their best players on the park.” Australia don’t have that luxury.