The French are on blue alert. Home ground, home crowd and eight Waratahs in the starting lineup. Over to you “Baby Will”. It is your time.
Anyone who questions the selection of 140kgs Wallaby debutant Will Skelton need only turn the clock back twelve months to the same venue to assess his potential and allay any reservations.
Waratahs’ coach Michael Cheika pitch-forked the youngster into battle at Allianz Stadium against the British and Irish Lions. The shy 21 y.o. soon found himself eye-balling greats like Irish skipper Paul O’Connell and Welshman Alun Wynn-Jones.
For the next sixty odd minutes our rookie lock thundered around the field, mixed it in the tight, pulled off some massive tackles and then burst through the Lions’ maul to offload for Tom Carter’s try. He even snared some lineouts at the front.
The Lions were impressed. Startled expressions semaphored their thoughts; “Where have they been hiding this bloke?” At times, Skelton wreaked havoc and he simply played himself to a standstill against high class opponents.
With a further year of nurturing and Super XV exposure under the knowing gaze of Cheika, this latest Wallaby colossus is ready to show the world he’s worthy of his Test jumper. Form indicates he will leave nothing in the tank.
In order to counter the close-knit French defence led by inspirational skipper Thierry Dusautoir, Wallaby coach Ewen McKenzie will look to Skelton and powerhouse no.8 Wycliff Palu to bend the line and offload in contact.
And pity help any Frenchman who finds himself on the receiving end of a double tag tackle by Willy and Cliffy. That combo translates to mass destruction. History tells us that such collisions change both team psyche and match dynamic.
There is a school of thought doing the rugby rounds that with the series now gone, the French will have one eye on their return plane trip after an arduous domestic and international campaign.
I can recall similar sentiments being expressed back in 1990 when the French last won a test against the Wallabies on Australian soil. Down 2-0, they arrived at the SFS and walked away 28-19 winners. Coach McKenzie was in the Aussie front row that day.
A more immediate pointer to French prospects however, is last year’s tour of New Zealand. After taking the first two Tests, a near full strength All Blacks’ lineup struggled to a 24-9 win in the third. Interestingly, over half of that French team start on Saturday.
This series has demonstrated the prowess of the Wallabies’ coaching staff under McKenzie. Attack coach Jim McKay had plenty to smile about after the seven try drubbing in Brisbane. After all, the Men in Gold scored only six tries in their six Tests on home soil last year.
Defence strategist Nick Scrivener has also upped the ante. Exclude the last ten minutes in Brisbane when the bench was unloaded, the Wallabies have not conceded a try in 150 minutes of Test rugby. Last year the side yielded over three tries per game in the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup.
Set piece coach Andrew Blades has also engineered significant progress. The World Cup winning prop was a master of his art at tight-head and his understanding of the nuances and subtleties are emphasized by the excellent scrummaging of James Slipper, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Sekope Kepu.
Nicholas Mas and Thomas Domingo arrived on our shores as two of the craftiest and most respected props in the international game. Three weeks later they have been relegated to no. 3 and 5 in the tourists’ pecking order. Only Mas survives on the substitutes ‘ bench.
Blades and McKenzie have also outsmarted the French in the lineouts. Rob Simmons was an unchallenged focal point in Brisbane.
A week later France had the majority of throws but got little change because they were restricted to the front of the lineout. When they tried to launch a driving maul Scott Fardy in particular was at his disruptive best. In tandem, Skelton can be even more destructive.
There is plenty of incentive for France to take something from this tour. Their fortunes and mode of play have stuttered on coach Philippe Saint –Andre’s watch but hopefully he will encourage his players to release the handbrake.
At times Les Bleus have threatened to break out with slick passing, offloading and support only to falter through inaccurate execution. However the players will take heart from Melbourne and with better finish they can again be a handful.
Selection drives controversy with French teams. One puzzling omission for this game is boom youngster Gael Fickou. His lone outing at centre in Brisbane showcased his flair and pace. A future world star, surely he was worth a place on the bench.
The Wallabies will be smarter and more urgent in attack despite best opposition efforts to slow down ball at the breakdown. With three French backrowers to enter from the bench, it is imperative Australia grabs momentum in the opening quarter and avoids another arm wrestle.
The blueprint? Hit hard early, no respite and free Willy!
Gordon Bray is TEN’S chief rugby caller and will be joined by Wallaby legends Matt Burke and Stirling Mortlock for the live telecast from 2.30pm Saturday AET.