After the seemingly endless build of the Lions Tour last year and with a World Cup returning home to English soil in 2015, it would be fair to say that the build up for this season’s June test series has been underwhelming. The atmosphere, anticipation and general pomp of a Lions Tour can be attributed to the fact that it happens once every 12 years on our shores, resulting in sellout crowds and Rugby occupying prime space in the national media. The question for the ARU is, how the hell do we follow that?
The answer… A little of the French le flair
While it has no hope of matching the spectacle and excitement of the Lions Tour, this series against the French marks the beginning of Australia’s plan for the next 18 months. With the World Cup just over a year away the squad selected by Ewen Mckenzie largely represents where they think the team will be by September 2015. With the few notable exceptions of David Pocock, Quade Cooper and Kyle Godwin due to injury, and perhaps the return of the prodigal son in James O’Connor, it is hard to imagine too many changes to the makeup of this squad, and signifies the direction and style of play that McKenzie will demand from his players. By the end of this French series McKenzie will want to have his starting XV almost set in stone for the upcoming Rugby Championship. Expect to see some adjustments and players tested during this series, to determine who is up for the international game.
So if this is just a glorified trial series for the Wallabies, why should we watch?
I have three answers. First, test match rugby is awesome. The passion and intensity of the game is amplified by the privilege of representing your country.
The second reason you should watch is this Wallabies team might be pretty good. While it is far too early to start the proclamations that this is the year we finally win back the Bledisloe, Ewen McKenzie has shown to be an astute attacking coach who demands discipline (on and off the field) and who gets the most out of his players. Stephen Moore as captain perfectly represents this as a player and individual. This squad also has the right mix of experience, exciting young talent, and capable role players who won’t falter in the cauldron of test rugby. That last group was Australia’s Achilles heel in during the Robbie Deans era, where test level replacements weren’t available when inevitable injuries occurred (one would imagine Matt Giteau would have helped, but that’s another story). The performances of the Force, Waratahs and Brumbies this Super Rugby season, with the accelerated development of prospects like Luke Jones, Scott Sio, Will Skelton, Sam Carter and Nathan Charles, have provided McKenzie with the depth needed at the international game.
The final reason to watch this series… The French are just so darn fun to watch. Much has been made about Le Flair and the French style of play as an expression of their culture, history and personality. Expect no difference in this series. As with most national French teams, inconsistency is the only guarantee. On their day the French can beat any opponent (e.g. the 2011 World Cup final where they took an historically great New Zealand team to the brink, and probably should have won) while also having the threat of implosion at any second (e.g. in the group stage of the same 2011 World Cup when they lost to Tonga).
So what should we expect other than the unexpected?
… an Australian win. Probably quite a comfortable one as well.
For all their flair, attacking nous and unpredictability the French have a serious problem for the first match in Brisbane. They’re missing half a dozen of their best players including inspirational captain and former IRB player of the year Thierry Dusatoir. Throw in injuries to the Medard (the man with the best mutton chops in sport) a form drop from Lois Picamoles (one of their few genuine world class players) and the unavailability of all players from Toulon and Castres due to the Top 14 Final, and you have a drastically undermanned squad leading the French resistance. The fact that they’ve recalled the forever-balding Freddie Michalak to start at 10 suggests that their direction and backline play could be a bit of le catastrophe. Add that Michalak couldn’t even make the 23 man squad for his Toulon side and you can get the fact that the French are more undermanned than the Night’s Watch, although far more interesting.
Yes they will fancy themselves at the set piece, as Australia’s scrum in the last decade has shown the same amount of resistance to pressure as that of the Italian army, but there have been significant improvements in these areas under McKenzie that any advantage the French might have (also remember that their best two hookers will not play in Brisbane) will be negligible. They do have some class in the centres with Wesley Fofana, but his impact will be limited against the sound defence of Matt Toomua and Tevita Kuridrani in the midfield.
My prediction for the game. After a strong start by Les Bleus the Wallabies will settle nicely into their game plan. If the scrum can hold up expect Australia to win by 15+ with Michael Hooper running rampant without Dusatoir there to negate him. The weather in Brisbane is set for a dry and fast track, which will only make a potent Wallabies backline and mobile forward pack more dangerous. Expect plenty of meat.
But wait, there’s more rugby this week.
1st Test, New Zealand v England, Auckland
Like most international squads England will be looking to build momentum for next year’s World Cup with a strong performance against champions New Zealand in ‘The Land of the Long white Cloud’. While England have improved considerably since their debacle in the last World Cup, it is hard to see them mustering a win on Kiwi soil. New Zealand are just really, really good. Even without the likes of Dan Carter and Kieran Reid the Kiwi’s just have so much class across the park that it doesn’t matter.
Much like the French, for the first match England will be understrength as their squad members who played in the Aviva final will be unavailable. Look for them to get better as the series continues but the first match at Eden Park could be a bit of a massacre, even if New Zealand seems to be underestimating a talented team.
NZ to win by 20+
South Africa v World XV, Cape Town
Finally the most unusual match of the weekend, South Africa against a World XV. This game is unusual for a couple of reasons. The World XV is effectively a Barbarians team, meaning they are the best players who haven’t been picked for their home countries, yet they aren’t under the moniker. There are no less than five South Africans playing in the ‘World XV’ against their home country. The most unusual aspect of this game is the selections of the South African Team. This is no more than an exhibition game, and a perfect opportunity to blood some young talent with experience before the Rugby Championship and the World Cup, yet South Africa have pretty much selected their team from a previous World Cup… 2007 in France. South Africa are fielding no less than 9 players from that World Cup final, an incredible number given that it was hardly a young team at the time. Their starting lock pairing of Viktor Matfield (who came out of a three year coaching retirement this season to help the Pretoria Bulls) and Bakkies Botha will have a combined age of 74 by the 2015 World Cup final. Almost the entire Springbok team is on the wrong side of 30 and while they will always be a strong outfit, particularly at home, their coaching staff seem to be lacking the long term vision of their biggest rivals. Expect them to win comfortably against this rag tag group masquerading as a Barbarian team, but don’t expect it to be much more than a good way to teach your child their 3x multiplication table.
South Africa by 12+
That’s all for this week. I’ll be back to preview the run home of the Super Rugby season and to dissect the Wallabies-France series. Au Revoir.
 Ok, Freddy Michalak was balding when he burst onto the scene as a 21 year old at the 2003 World Cup…he obviously knows a guy in Toulon who does wonders.
 Obligatory Game of Thrones Reference.
 I considered making a French army joke here, but at least they showed some resistance. The word futile is generous in describing the Wallabies scrum under Deans.
 Having Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett as replacements helps