Great timing Mr Palu. The day after he re-signs with the ARU he gets injured and is out for the year. If he’d held off his discussions until after this game, the bye week, his negotiating ability, and thus bargaining power, with some of those overseas clubs might not have been as considerable.
Bigger picture, it won’t be such a bad thing in the lead up to next year’s World Cup in New Zealand. We know the story. Each of Timmy Horan, Matty Burke, Steve Larkham, Owen Finegan and John Eales spent prolonged periods out of the game in the lead up to various World Cups, and it didn’t impact their games. And it shouldn’t Palu’s. In fact it may freshen him up.
But putting that behind us. What are we going to do now!? Palu was one of those forwards that is almost irreplaceable in the Wallaby pack. Not so much because he dominates the game of rugby or because a lack of backrow talent, but because what he brings to the Wallaby team is so unique.
Palu is such a unique case in Australian rugby. He is a metres gainer; line breaker; off-loader; big hitter and has got himself into such shape that his work rate is excellent. Now sure, we have other forwards, and indeed backrowers who have high work rates, or can pull off the big hit, or can break the line. But none have the package that is Palu and thus he provided us with a beautifully balance in the backrow. Take out the now retired George Smith as an alternative and it reduces the options for a ‘like with like’ type of replacement even further.
Which brings us back to the question at hand? What the farque do we do now?
Well, fortunately, we do have options. So let’s look at those and try and work out our best way forward.
First, let’s look at the specialist Number 8s.
Leroy Houston – Leroy is the forward who, at least physically, has the potential to most closely match Palu’s impact on the field. However, despite fighting hard to regain a starting spot in the Reds team after a pre-season injury, Houston’s form seems a long way short of Wallaby standard. His passing is probably more deft than Palu’s, but the work rate – an area Wycliff has worked hard on in recent years, just doesn’t match.
Jake Schatz – the 19 year old boom Reds backrower has somewhat come from the clouds this year. Debuting in round 2 against the upset win over the mighty Crusaders, Schatz has been in and out of the starting team, and rotated between all backrow positions. He doesn’t have the doesn’t have the presence with the ball as Palu, but is aggressive and works hard around the park.
Ben Mowen – Mowen looks to be the man most likely to replace Palu in the Waratah’s pack, which puts him high up on the list of contenders for the Wallaby spot. What Mowen brings to the game is lineout prowess. He gives the Tahs one of the most dangerous lienouts in the comp, particularly off opposition ball. This will have appeal to the Wallaby selectors as the lineout was a comparative failure of the national team in 2009. His work rate is acceptable while his option taking has improved this year.
Stephen Hoiles – the Brumbies captain doesn’t seem to get mentioned in Wallaby discussions too much these days. Unless its Brumby or Randwick fans doing the discussing. It’s probably unfair and seems to stem from his comparative size (or lack of) and excellent skills. He is in fact one of the most involved Brumby forwards at the ruck, both in possession and in defence, and has forced a number of turnovers this year. He partners well with Rocky Elsom and George Smith (when fit) at provincial level so what not at test level (with Pocock obviously in for Smith).
Richard Brown – Brown has been the most used alternative to Palu in test footy since his debut late in 2008. His is a different game to Palu’s as he lacks the bulk and power of the big Waratah. Brown carries the ball less and focuses more on work off the ball, a carryover from his days as an openside flanker. His discipline and poor decision making has let him down at the international level previously but he will be up in contention, possibly the favourite, to be wearing the Wallaby Number 8 jersey come June.
Ok, now let’s look at some of the alternatives which require positional switches.
Scott Higginbotham – Higgers started the season for the Reds at the back of the scrum with big James Horwill surprisingly (and yet successfully) selected at blindside flanker. Higgers definitely has the size reminding many Queenslanders of the legendary Mark Loane. Having reverted back to his traditional blindside flanker position, it would be a bit of a risk to select Higginbotham for the Wallaby Number 8 spot. What he brings is a very strong running game, possibly a little too loose for test rugby. His defence has improved and his off loading is a strength, but his effectiveness in tight is an area to work on.
Rocky Elsom – the Wallaby captain has played Number 8 numerous times previously. For his school, the Wallabies and for Leinster, amongst others. He would seem another of the leading candidates for the roll based on his superior handling skills and damaging running game. It would mean finding another option for blindside, of which we have some very decent options at the moment, including Higginbotham, Dean Mumm and Matty Hodgson.
Tatafu Polata-Nau – now this one is a little from left field but has been discussed widely on our FORUM. It is well know that Taf spend a lot of his schoolboys and youth rugby playing in the backrow. He played it the same as he plays now – destructively, both in defence and attack. It has merit in that we already have the seasoned Stephen Moore and hooker and possibly the improving Saia Faingaa or Damian Fitzpatrick as back up. But to me it stinks a bit of ‘weakening a strength to strengthen a weakness’. Highly unlikely, if not highly intriguing.
Matt Hodgson – arguably (or definitely if you speak to our correspondent Lance Free) the form forward of the Super 14 comp, Hogson will definitely be in the Wallaby squad somewhere. Palu’s injury may well have secured him a starting role. Hodgson has played Number 8 (and every backrow position) for the Force and played equally superbly in all of them. The opportunity may come, however, on the side of the scrum if Rocky is chosen to wear 8.
My choice? Pfft. No idea. Thankfully there’s still a hell of a lot of rugby left this season, and some very tough games to be played. It is now up to these guys to stick their hand up and demand the Wallaby 8 jersey.