Australia did not get the same impact from their French foreign legion as their Japan-based teammates in their defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield, but the Wallabies should persevere with overseas selections.
With Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi and Sean McMahon “defecting”, in coach Dave Rennie’s language, to rejoin their Japanese clubs, France-based second-rowers Rory Arnold and Will Skelton and utility back Kurtley Beale were included for the three-Test tour of Britain.
Cooper and Kerevi, in particular, were influential in the Wallabies’ success against South Africa and Argentina in the Rugby Championship, but Arnold, Skelton and Beale could not help Australia avoid a third-straight loss to the Scots, which snapped Australia’s five-game winning streak.
Arnold, who started the match, was a commanding presence in the lineout, which had been an area of concern for the Wallabies, but he was relatively quiet in general play, although he was more involved as the game progressed.
Skelton replaced Arnold in the 50th minute with the Wallabies leading 10-7 after trailing 7-3 at half-time. While Skelton made a few strong ball carries and was busy around the ruck and maul, he did not deliver any of his trademark offloads, which could have sparked the Wallabies’ attack.
But Skelton did make his considerable presence felt in one crucial area – the scrum. By the time Skelton entered the game, the Wallabies had conceded four scrum penalties to one, their set-piece badly disrupted by the loss of their two tight-head props Allan Alaalatoa (sin bin) and Taniela Tupou (head bin).
They were forced to play veteran loose-head prop James Slipper at tight-head and rookie Angus Bell at loose-head until Alaalatoa returned to the field, but they were under pressure on both sides of the scrum.
Trailing by three points midway through the second-half, Scotland passed up two potentially equalising shots at penalty goals to opt for five metre scrums, leading to replacement hooker Ewan Ashman’s acrobatic try in the left corner in the 58th minute.
But with the 140kg Skelton pushing in the second-row the Wallabies forced Scotland’s scrum to collapse in the 74th minute and received a penalty.
With the strong-scrummaging Tupou in doubt for the Wallabies’ Test against England on Sunday morning (Australian time), Rennie must seriously consider starting Skelton to prevent Australia’s scrum from being smashed.
Beale came on at fullback in the 66th minute with Andrew Kellaway moving to the wing to replace the substituted Tom Wright. The Wallabies led 13-12. With his first touch Beale took a high ball and beat two defenders, looking like the “excitement machine” of old.
But he committed two errors which marred his game – when he was held up in a tackle by the Scottish backrow in the 72nd minute, giving Scotland a scrum feed and then when he kicked the ball out on the full in the 78th minute to gift the Scots a lineout 23 metres from the Australian line, enabling them to close out the game.
The Wallabies should have had the game completely under control well before Skelton and Beale came onto the field, but undermined themselves with ill-discipline and lack of accuracy.
While the Australians were frustrated by some of French referee Romain Poite’s interpretations, they only had themselves to blame for the loss.
In the opening minute outside-centre Len Ikitau needlessly flicked a reverse pass in Scotland’s 22 which ended up in Scottish hands, setting the tone for a looseness in the Wallabies’ play.
It was just one of a number of missed opportunities. Inside-centre Hunter Paisami was penalised for an extra roll after being tackled just short in the Scottish line; Wright was over the try-line, but called back after Paisami was penalised for an illegal clean-out; and Alaalatoa was yellow-carded for clumsily connecting with Scotland number eight Matt Fagerson’s head in a clean-out just metres from the try-line.
The Wallabies should have had more than 20 points on the scoreboard at half-time, but left them on the field.
Both teams attempted to play an expansive, up tempo game, but without Cooper and Kerevi, the Wallabies’ attack lacked cohesion and penetration and they struggled to utilise the width of the field in attack. Winger Jordan Petaia did not receive his first touch of the ball until the 38th minute and then went off after being injured in the tackle.
As was the case earlier in the international season, the Wallabies seemed betwixt between when to run the ball and when to kick it. A perfect, or perhaps imperfect, example was when the Wallabies were in possession just outside their 22 midway through the first-half.
Under instructions to play for field position, five-eighth James O’Connor kicked down field seemingly unaware that the Wallabies had seven attacking players on two defenders on his right hand side. It is important to execute the game-plan, but it is equally vital to see and take opportunities when they arise.
It was the Wallabies’ seventh straight loss against British and Irish opposition. The Australians will need to improve markedly when they play England or Eddie Jones’s men will make sure they have an unsuccessful tour.