The final Test of the year is packed full of subplots after a week where both coaches have been breathing fire on a daily basis.
1) “Your scrum is worse than my scrum”
Eddie Jones had barely settled into his seat after the win over Argentina before he was addressing the Wallabies and highlighting how much we wanted to have a sit down with the officials to discuss Australia’s scrum.
Both he and Cheika have seemed eager to impress on Jaco Peyper who has the dominant pack and you can bet we will come out of Saturday with at least two contentious calls – not because of Peyper himself, but because someone will feel aggrieved given so much rides on that area. Sure, Peyper gets paid to make those calls, but we don’t envy him.
Cheika’s claim that Jones has made plenty of noise this week to distract from Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole’s technique doesn’t seem radical. Those aerial shots of Cole failing to stay square have become favourites of those eager to point out England aren’t fighting fair. Australia’s front row though didn’t look too hot either in Paris against France, coughing up multiple penalties. Over to you Jaco.
2) Kuridrani’s Grand Slam
The Wallabies centre is on the verge of becoming the first player to score in every match of a Wallabies’ tour since Mark Ella back in 1984; which is some achievement even for a player as established at Test level as Kuridrani. Maybe it’s being part of a backline headlined by Israel Folau, Bernard Foley and occasionally Quade Cooper, but Kuridrani at 25 is creeping up on 50 Test caps and doesn’t get the attention he deserves.
To match Ella’s record he needs to get the better of Jonathan Joseph, whose drift defence has been outstanding this month, most of all with England down a wing following Elliot Daly’s red card against Argentina.
Joseph has the speed to cover any outside breaks Kuridrani might make but the Wallaby’s powerful leg drive can equally neutralise that threat. Give him an inch, as we saw against France, and Kuridrani also has the impossible finish in his locker.
3) Filling Billy’s boots
Nathan Hughes certainly has the measurables to replace Billy Vunipola – 196cm to 188cms, 125kg to 126kg – but Saturday will be his first Test start and third cap overall for his country, and comfortably against his toughest opponent.
Vunipola’s consistency off the base of the scrum making metres is well-known but the England vice-captain is also a nuisance around the ruck for opponents, protecting his scrum-half and taking away the threat of say, a David Pocock or Michael Hooper, by imposing himself on the breakdown.
Hughes has more than earned a real crack at Test level after successive strong seasons for Wasps since his arrival at the club, to replace Vunipola in fact. This is some task though, with Hughes needing to provide England with metres over the gain line and also ball security against two of the world’s top poachers.
4) Time for Yarde to deliver
Eddie Jones watched from the stands last Sunday as Harlequins took on Bath, or as it was otherwise billed, Marland Yarde versus Semesa Rokoduguni. The Bath wing never enjoyed as much possession as Yarde yet still managed to produce one spectacular long-range break, where as Yarde was industrious, off his wing regularly looking for the ball and more often than not beating the first man in his way as Harlequins finished with the win.
Yarde was dropped after South Africa, Rokoduguni after having been Man of the Match against Fiji, the pair’s defensive frailties costing them on each occasion. But Jones’ faith in Yarde is something he has documented frequently, emphasising the wing’s potential.
“He had a bit of an attitude on him, so I sorted that out” Jones said on Thursday about Yarde, not for the first time. Something special needs to come from Yarde in this game to keep Jack Nowell or Anthony Watson, even Elliot Daly, out of the side when all are available again by the time the Six Nations rolls around.
5) Pocock’s (temporary) farewell
Back when Pocock announced his plans to take a sabbatical at the start of this year the move sounded sensible – not a bad adjective to describe the 28-year-old openside, who makes a big impact off the field with his work as an activist as well as being one of the world’s premier flankers. He has racked up quite the list of injuries; two knee reconstructions cutting his Super Rugby seasons short in the past before a broken eye socket and hand in 2016.
However, Pocock’s form in November has been outstanding, and although his sabbatical will only last six months, starting in February 2017, he will certainly miss the Wallabies’ June Test matches against Fiji, Scotland and Italy, and possibly next year’s Rugby Championship as well when he takes up a contract in Japan.
Saturday’s Test therefore will give Pocock extra incentive to depart on a high, as it will his team-mates to send him off with a big win. Over the last few weeks he has been back to his best and Australia will be hoping nothing has changed by the next time he wears gold again.