Wallabies rediscover their character before stepping into Brisbane cauldron

Before every Test former Australian captain John Eales used to lock eyes with a supporter in the crowd and proudly sing the national anthem with them as a reminder of a Wallaby’s responsibility to fans. On Saturday Michael Hooper’s side will seek the eyes of Phillipa McDermott, daughter of Uncle Lloyd McDermott, the first Wallabies player to identify as a First Nations man.

Wearing jerseys designed by Kamilaroi-Gamilaraay man Dennis Golding to depict the dreaming of the 14 Indigenous Wallabies so far, they will then sing the national anthem in Yugambeh language. And if the moment is anywhere near as spine-tingling as in 2020 when the Wallabies performed the anthem in Eora at Parramatta Stadium with soloist Olivia Fox, the fuse will light on a very special night indeed.

For coach Dave Rennie such moments are mana – part of a spiritual life force he seeks for his teams. “We put a lot of time into understanding who we play for and who we represent,” Rennie said this week. “The privilege to play for Australia isn’t lost on us.” And yet, until last weekend, it was hard to pinpoint what a Rennie-coached Wallabies side looked like or played like, let alone what it stood for.

When the Kiwi schoolteacher and one-time owner of the Lonely Goatherd pub in Upper Hutt took charge of the Wallabies in November 2019 we were told he was “hard-nosed, doesn’t tolerate fools, is astute, with a deep rugby intelligence”. Australia then won eight, drew three and lost nine of 20 Tests. Sure, he was building a squad with a core age of 25 for the 2023 World Cup. But fans need wins too.

The mana of Rennie’s Australians burst into the light last weekend, and must do again this Saturday. After the chaos of losing their playmaker in the warm-up, and then a starting fullback, prop and second rower within the first half, Rennie asked his side for three things: “Brutality. Optimism. Work ethic.” His 14-man side then calmly and courageously outfoxed, outworked and outmuscled England to win.

In camp Rennie will pass around a guitar and ask his players to sing. As songs from Fiji, Tonga, Cook Islands, Māori, Indigenous and South Pacific culture emerge, the circle tightens and mana deepens. Such a circle emerged to triumph in Perth. Roles reshuffled, strategies recalibrated on the run and understudies were called in to play starring roles. In chaos, the Wallabies rediscovered their character.

Such is the depth Rennie has built into his squad over the past two years, the 23-man matchday side for this Saturday’s second Test is even stronger than last week’s. “Thor” returns up front, a “freak” fulfils his destiny at the back, and a prodigal son debuts in a seven-man reshuffle that rewards first Test heroes and gives weary Wallabies fans a glimpse at their 2023 Rugby World Cup contenders.

Allan Ala’alatoa’s concussion paves the way for the return of Taniela Tupou, widely considered the best tighthead prop in the world, from his calf injury. Tupou weighs 135kg (and bench-presses 200kg) and will partner boy wonder Angus Bell and rake Dave Porecki in a reinforced front row that has already shocked England with their bludgeoning force and craftiness at the scrum.

The two-week suspension to lock Darcy Swain means first Test understudy Matt Philip will start in the second row and Nick Frost, the 2.05-metre hard-carrying, lineout-dominator, comes onto the bench. Frost signed with New Zealand’s Crusaders as a development player in 2017 despite his father being Rugby Australia’s retention manager, but his red-hot form for the Brumbies has proven compelling.

In the backline, Tom Banks’s broken elbow gives Reds excitement machine Jordan Petaia the chance he’s craved to start in the No 15 jersey. The 22-year-old talent had a brilliant 60 minutes off the bench last week, matching Freddie Steward in the air, barging over three England players to score the match-turning try and putting a decisive shoulder into a rolling maul that notched another.

Rennie made two unexpected changes, with centre Len Ikitau and winger Andrew Kellaway injured. Hunter Paisami will play outside last week’s man-of-the-match Samu Kerevi, a golden chance for the pocket rocket to unleash his arsenal of grubbers, deviating charges and bone-rattling tackles. Suliasi Vunivalu was backed to nab the vacant wing spot but another NRL convert Tom Wright has won it.

Of course the Cinderella story of the first Test and fresh face of Rennie’s Wallabies was Noah Lolesio. With 10 minutes notice, the baby-faced assassin took his chance with both hands… and one right foot. By potting six from six and showing calm vision and a stout heart as fill-in fly-half, the 22-year-old has earned the starting No 10 on Saturday, a fast tracking of his touted ascension at the 2023 World Cup.

In the first Test, stars fell only for new ones to align and guide the men in gold to a famous victory. Now Australia are one-nil up and entering a Meanjin cauldron where they have won their last 10 matches – two over New Zealand and France, and three against South Africa. With Yugambeh on their lips and Dave Rennie strumming the tune, the Wallabies and their fans may finally be singing as one.