Wallabies coach Dave Rennie was in Melbourne on Monday talking up Australia’s competitiveness and the importance of depth. As he was doing so, the news came through that his biggest trump card was down for the count.
In a crushing blow for the Queensland Reds’ hopes of securing a home Super Rugby semi-final, Taniela Tupou – Australia’s most dominant figure in the competition – is expected to miss the rest of the domestic season following a calf strain.
Tupou did not feature in the second half against the Chiefs, as he cut a forlorn figure on the sidelines with ice trapped to his tree-trunk left calf and right foot and was forced to watch his side go down 25-27 in Brisbane.
A QRU statement confirmed his injury on Monday, with the Reds “seeking further medical advice” around his injury.
With Test playmaker James O’Connor and talented outside backs Jordan Petaia and Suliasi Vunivalu already on the sidelines, it was a sight few in Queensland, indeed across Australia, wanted to see.
Without O’Connor pulling the strings, whose direction and decision-making has been dearly missed, the Reds have lost back to back matches for the first time this year and risk losing touch with the top four.
Tupou’s loss is just as significant.
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The 25-year-old tight-head’s power can’t be matched and his scrummaging and ability to get over the gain line is second to none in Australia.
For a side struggling for direction and structure without their general O’Connor, Tupou’s loss could be season-defining.
Yet, according to departing Test teammate Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, his absence could help the Wallabies later in the year.
“It’s pretty unfortunate for Nel, he’s been going really well for us,” the Northampton-bound forward said.
“He hasn’t had an injury like this in such a long time, if any injury, so tough for him but at the same time he’s got a lot of stuff going on off the field, he’s got a little boy on the way, and a lot of stuff, so in hindsight it’s a good thing for him to get away and that mental break before finals and a big season ahead of him.
“Whilst it’s a bad thing from a rugby point of view, mentally and off the field, it’s probably a good thing to get that freshen up he needs.”
Nonetheless, Salakaia-Loto admitted it would be hard to “replace” the “once-in-a-generation” Tupou.
Rennie, who was speaking at Marvel Stadium after the announcement that this year’s Bledisloe will be played in Melbourne, said success against their trans-Tasman neighbours was vital because it gave his players “confidence”.
But without tempting fate, Rennie astutely pointed out the ongoing challenge for Australian rugby was keeping its players fit and healthy because of the disparity in depth between the two nations.
“It’s important we do well against the Kiwi sides,” he said.
“It gives us confidence, gives our players confidence to know that playing against some of the best players in the world and they can stand up.
“A big challenge for our Super sides is developing enough depth to be consistently competitive. We’d be confident we can pick a really strong 23 that the bench coming into the game could add value. That’s crucial against the All Blacks because they’ve got so much depth.”
Probed around the burgeoning depth in the second-row, Rennie highlighted two players: injuries Brumbies lock Nick Frost and versatile Waratahs forward Jed Holloway.
Interestingly, too, Rennie mentioned the conjecture the hooker position had caused, with the crucial set-piece position the most open in Australian rugby, as well as fly-half where a number of talented youngsters are starting to come into the conversation.
“We’ve talked a lot about hooker and a lot about lock and 10,” the third-year Test coach said.
“Certainly guys like Frosty, who’s injured at the moment, he’s made big strides since last year.
“We’ve picked a big crew – whether Jed Holloway is a lock or a loosie we think he can play both – there’s a fair bit of competition for places which is important.”
One person who could yet come back into the conversation is Tolu Latu, who funnily enough is still the incumbent Wallabies hooker.
While few in Australia will welcome the news, the 29-year-old confirmed he was leaving his Paris-based club Stade Francais with a ”heavy heart” and returning home to start the next “chapter” of his career.
Just where remains to be seen, with the Rebels the franchise perhaps most in need of a hooker, but given his family remains in Sydney he could yet return to the Waratahs even though Dave Porecki has re-signed.
Either way, a decision need not be immediate because he still has two months on the sidelines to be served after his most recent suspension, where he recklessly made contact with a player in the air.
Meanwhile, Australia’s women’s sevens side had a 21-17 victory to remember over New Zealand to win gold in the World Series in Canada.
A stunning try from Lily Dick saw Australia come from behind to snap their drought against the Kiwis and claim the series, having won four of five tournaments.
The victory continued the 2016 gold medallists resurgence under Tim Walsh, who returned to coach the women late last year.
The coaching switch, with John Manenti taking over the men, is yet the latest success story for Rugby Australia.
“It was so great to have New Zealand back; we’ve been looking forward to playing them for such a long time after not matching up in Tokyo (where New Zealand won Olympic gold),” Charlotte Caslick said.
“It would have been bittersweet if we didn’t come away with a tournament win, so we’ll be celebrating pretty hard tonight.”