The European tour gives Kurtley Beale a chance to cement the No.10 jersey for the Wallabies.
Photo: Getty Images
You just have to visit the UK, Ireland or France come November to realise the excitement around the European autumn internationals. Despite the odd grumble from Australians over the wisdom of a long-haul trip to play bruising opposition at the end of a long, arduous season.
And this tour keenly matters for Robbie Deans' Wallabies, for two integral reasons. Firstly of course, this clutch of matches that sees all the major nations involved counts towards seedings for the 2015 World Cup, announced in December. Anything outside the top four invites the prospect of taking on the likes of New Zealand, South Africa, or perhaps France or England in the group stage.
Secondly, the matches against England and Wales will see Australia take on a host of players likely to make the trip out next year on the British & Irish Lions tour. An early indication of how they might handle the likes of Manu Tuilagi and more familiar foes, Wales' Alex Cuthbert and George North, is invaluable, as is the opportunity to face off against mobile, steely and technically excellent packs that will give a good taste of what will be a formidable Lions eight next year.
But those two aspects of the tour aside, what are other issues surrounding the Wallabies' time in Europe?
Can the returning stars make an impact?
Australia will still be far from full-strength, with James Horwill, James O'Connor, Scott Higginbotham and Will Genia unavailable. However, back in comes David Pocock and Stephen Moore, as well as Digby Ioane and Drew Mitchell. Mitchell may struggle to make the side, though Moore offers a reliable alternative to the occasionally errant Tatafu Polota-Nau, who nearly cost Australia the match in the 18-all draw against New Zealand on several occasions.
Pocock's return is of course the biggest deal of all. Needless to say, he has been missed and Australia's chances of returning home undefeated are hugely increased with him on board. But something interesting has happened in his absence. Michael Hooper's rise in the No.7 shirt has meant Pocock has had to think about his place in the side for the first time since the days of George Smith. This element of competition can't help but have a knock-on effect for the morale of the rest of the squad.
After a Rugby Championship that seemed at one point like they would have to look to subbies rugby for personnel, all of a sudden Australia's best player is under (granted, fairly mild) pressure for his place in the team.
Can they get over the line?
Robbie Deans made a valid point recently when criticised for the attritional, tryless encounter with the All Blacks: if you think that's bad, just wait until we head north.
And it's true, what with the suffocating packs of France, England and Italy, coupled with the possibility of bad weather, scoring tries could be a problem for Australia.
Australia did well in smashing past the gain-line against New Zealand, and will need to do so again to make inroads now. A sustained intensity, which Australia have not shown so far this year, is what is required to see off these opponents. It is also now that the rare skills of James O'Connor and perhaps even Quade Cooper, will be most keenly missed.
Will inexperience be a factor?
There are a number of players in the Australia squad for whom playing at Twickenham, Stade de France or the Millennium Stadium may come as something of a shock. Such venues are a different sort of intensity to that of Eden Park, Dunedin or Pretoria, and have been a graveyard for young Wallabies in the past.
In the backs, Nick Phipps, Mike Harris, Nick Cummins and Ben Tapuai have not really been exposed much in this way. In the pack, while Sitaleki Timani, Michael Hooper, Kane Douglas and Dave Dennis have all acquitted themselves well this year, the traditional cockerel that prowls the touchline in Paris and the utter disdain Twickenham holds for Australia may throw them initially, even if ultimately it will be a hugely helpful experience.
Will Kurtley Beale keep the No.10 shirt?
After a couple of horrendous displays early in the Rugby Championship, Kurtley Beale has turned his year around admirably, showing that he could hold the five-eighth spot for a while after fine games against Argentina and New Zealand.
Unlike Berrick Barnes, he has the pace and flair to attack the line and create doubt in defences, and unlike Cooper, he is developing a feel for game-management. This tour represents the opportunity for someone to finally nail the position, if Beale can stay fit. He need not set the world alight, but simply provide a steady hand and remain on call to take opportunities when they arise. Look for him to have a blinder against the attack-minded, open style of the Welsh.
The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of BigPond Sport.
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