Dave Rennie says he has a plan, now we’re about to find out if it will work – and it is high stakes.
The Wallabies coach has set a cat amongst the pigeons by handing Tate McDermott the No.9 jersey for the first time since Quade Cooper’s memorable comeback against the Springboks on the Gold Coast more than 12 months ago.
McDermott has not played in the past three losses yet has leapfrogged Nic White and Jake Gordon to start for just the sixth time in 19 Tests.
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The Reds livewire is one of five changes to his starting side to take on Scotland on Sunday (AEDT), with Michael Hooper to play his first Test since July after being recalled at openside flanker.
He is one of two changes to the forward pack, with rising Brumbies lock Nick Frost called in to solve the second-row crisis.
Elsewhere Tom Banks returns at fullback for the first time since going down from a kick restart against England in Perth and breaking his arm.
His return sees Andrew Kellaway shift to the right-wing while Hunter Paisami has also been selected ahead of Lalakai Foketi.
Understated Reds fullback Jock Campbell is also in line to make his debut off the bench, with Rennie opting for a traditional five forwards, three backs split on the bench.
But it is McDermott’s return that headlines the changes to the side.
The exceptionally talented halfback, who forces opposition packs to look at him rather than his playmaker because of his deadly sniping ability, had been conspicuously looked over for the past three Tests.
Now, despite not playing a minute in the best part of two months and not taken on the Australia A tour of Japan, he finds himself the crucial role – arguably the most important on a rugby field – of halfback, on what shapes as a wet track on the eve of winter, in a match that the Wallabies must win.
It is a bet big strategy, which defies recent logic given he has not started a Test this year, but it is one where Rennie hopes he will find gold after his latest digging exercise.
“We’ve talked a lot about the detail and our performance as opposed to whether we win or whether we lose,” Rennie said.
“For us to be consistent. We need to be really good in the collision area.
“Scotland have got an enormous amount of threats over the ball and are very good at choking you and holding you up, so the quality of our carry and our ability to win races will be really important, and they’re going to kick a lot so dealing with the ball in the air is going to be important.
“We’ve had a few teams that have done that so we can focus on detail and hopefully the win looks after itself.”
McDermott is a marvellous attacking threat but given his lack of game time, his first-time combination with playmaker Bernard Foley and the wet track his selection is a curious one.
Perhaps it is the case Rennie has decided that he wanted one experienced member of the halves to help close out the match, with Noah Lolesio included on the bench, but McDermott’s strengths are exposing players on the edge of the ruck and with a wet day forecast it is a surprise not see him come off the bench.
“We’re confident with him,” Rennie said.
“We didn’t really look at the conditions – we were keen to give Tate a crack.
“Edinburgh this time of year is probably going to be gloomy and cold and damp but we think he can bring a real point of difference and he’s in a good place also. We’re happy with that.”
Rennie said he will rotate his halfbacks throughout the tour, with the Wallabies coaching group expected to give opportunities for the opening three Tests before trying to settle on a preferred team for the final two Tests of the tour against Ireland and Wales.
Props Taniela Tupou and Matt Gibbon return via the bench while Jed Holloway shifts from the second-row to the back-row and will call the lineout.
The Waratahs tight-five forward will be joined by Hooper in the back-row, with the Wallabies’ most capped captain making his return from a three-month absence.
“We reckon he’s ready to go,” Rennie said.
“We had a good chat with Hoops in Sydney and we were going to leave the decision with him if he felt he wasn’t quite ready, but he’s jumping out of his skin.
“There’s been a lot of indications over the last couple of weeks, and even when we were playing he was constantly texting and watching a lot of footy which means he’s pretty engaged.
“He’s in a really good space, trained well this week and excited to get back into it.”
The selections of playmaker Lolesio and fullback Campbell are curious, with the two specialists in their roles.
While Rennie said he was excited for the duo, particularly Campbell who was hardly a schoolboy sensation but has floated under the radar for years, whether either get on will be an interesting test of the coach’s confidence.
The Wallabies have won just three of their past 12 matches and if the game is in the balance, Rennie will have to decide whether to back the next generation.
WALLABIES TEAM to face Scotland
1. James Slipper (c) (123 Tests)
2. David Porecki (7 Tests)
3. Allan Alaalatoa (60 Tests)
4. Nick Frost (5 Tests)
5. Cadeyrn Neville (3 Tests)
6. Jed Holloway (6 Tests)
7. Michael Hooper (121 Tests)
8. Rob Valetini (27 Tests)
9. Tate McDermott (18 Tests)
10. Bernard Foley (73 Tests)
11. Tom Wright (18 Tests)
12. Hunter Paisami (20 Tests)
13. Len Ikitau (21 Tests)
14. Andrew Kellaway (18 Tests)
15. Tom Banks (20 Tests)
16. Folau Fainga’a (33 Tests)
17. Matt Gibbon (2 Tests)
18. Taniela Tupou (43 Tests)
19. Ned Hanigan (25 Tests)
20. Pete Samu (28 Tests)
21. Nic White (56 Tests)
22. Noah Lolesio (14 Tests)
23. Jock Campbell*