It was a little like Little Red Riding Hood but without the big bad wolf. The Wallabies were 45 minutes late for their press conference in the centre of Edinburgh yesterday evening and, when it finally kicked off, it did so without head coach Michael Cheika, who was awaiting the decision of a disciplinary panel who were investigating allegations of potty mouth during the England game last weekend.
Cheika eventually got off with nothing worse that a slap on the wrist but his place in the press conference had already been filled by Wallaby skipper Michael Hooper and Mick “the kick” Byrne, one time skills coach with Scotland and New Zealand, now helping his native Australians kick and catch the ball with aplomb. If full-back Israel Folau is anything to go by then Byrne is doing a stand-up job.
Once the inevitable questions about Cheika had been batted straight back to the various questioners the talk turned to tomorrow’s match and the visitors’ preparation has been less than ideal even before that rap on their coach’s knuckles. They were kicked off a waterlogged pitch at Edinburgh University’s Peffermill ground earlier in the week so yesterday they had to train on Murrayfield’s back pitches complete with fences protecting their privacy from any Scottish spies.
“It’s been a fantastic week,” Hooper claimed with, more or less, a straight face. “We’ve really enjoyed ourselves here. It’s been everything that we have expected; it’s wet, it’s dry, it’s sunny, then it’s raining!
“Look, it hasn’t been without its little mini challenges but that is every week when you are an away team, even when you are in Australia. It’s nothing new for us. It was a really good deck to train on today [at Murrayfield], challenging on Tuesday but we’ve made a bit of enjoyment out of it.”
As for the team itself Hooper’s immediate predecessor as Wallaby captain Stephen Moore is one of two changes from the starting XV that England beat by a record margin last weekend. Moore will lead the team out in what will be his last-ever game. The only other change to the run-on side is at blindside flank where Ben McCalman takes the place of the injured Ned Hanigan.
Almost inevitably much of the attention was focused on the replacements’ bench where the sizeable frame of Tongan-born prop forward Taniela “the Tongan Thor” Tupou was parked. The 21 stone, 21-year-old only qualified for Australia on Wednesday and the late addition to Cheika’s touring squad admitted that the moment he heard he was in tomorrow’s match-day squad was an emotional one.
“I am lost for words, I don’t know what to say,” he managed to say. “I just heard I was playing in the team meeting and I was in tears actually. The first thing that comes to my mind was my family. Growing up in Tonga as a young kid the only thing I wanted to do was play for Australia one day and now I could do it this weekend… I can’t wait.”
When Tupou was picked up on the apparent anomaly of a Tongan whose only ambition is to sport the green and gold of Australia he could only offer this explanation.
“Growing up in Tonga I always watched the Wallabies play the All Blacks and watch guys like Squeak [Stephen Moore], Tafs [Tatafu Polota-Nau] and Sekope Kepu and some of the other guys and I always wanted to play for Australia. I went to New Zealand, I was lucky enough to get in there, but that didn’t change me. It didn’t change me wanting to play for Australia and now that I am here I am just grateful and I can’t wait to get out there.”
Scotland will be happy if the young man’s debut can wait for another day since, whatever his shortcomings in the set scrum, he is a handful with the ball in hand.
Recent matches between these two teams have been nip and tuck, almost inevitably ending in a photo finish. The Wallabies won by one point 12 months ago at Murrayfield, Scotland beat them in Sydney by one score and everyone seems to expect another nail biter tomorrow.
“I coached Gregor [Townsend] and I know who is he is,” Byrne, pictured, replied when asked about Scotland. “They are playing good rugby and they aren’t going to die wondering as a rugby team, which is great. We are expecting them to come out and play a lot of rugby against us.”
“Both teams have players who fight to the end,” Hooper interjected. “And in all games, regardless of who is in front, both teams are throwing punches right to the end.”