'You can't spar against nothing': The big Wallabies-England talking points for Perth

After weeks of anticipation kick-off is almost here, with the Wallabies to host England in Perth in the first of three Tests to be played this July.

Dave Rennie and Eddie Jones announced their 23-man squads on Thursday, with their selections indicating that Saturday night's series opener will be hotly contested up front.

Read on as we look at some of the big talking points for what looms as a vital series for both sides en route to next year's Rugby World Cup in France.


Such is the modern rugby world, or at least the ecosystem in which it exists Down Under, that if a player doesn't earn a Test debut by the age of 25 they often pack their lives up and head overseas.

And how can you blame them when the financial incentives on offer both in Europe and Japan are so attractive? The desire to set up not only yourself, but potentially one's family, is hard to resist if Test rugby an unlikely accomplishment.

But that is not the case with Wallabies duo Cadeyrn Neville and Dave Porecki, who will make their international debuts at 33 and 29 years of age respectively. Neville will be the third-oldest Wallabies debutant since World War II.

It is a measure of the duo's persistence and determination that they have at last achieved the feat, each man taking a roundabout path to their international bows, shaking off injuries along the way.

"I think he got called into a Wallabies squad when Michael Hooper made his debut, so that tells you something doesn't it?" Rennie said of Neville on Thursday. "Hoops has had 120 Tests since then.

"He's an ex-rower, that's why he's got such a big engine. He played a bit of league at one stage, and you would have noticed him out there. And he's had injuries and he's spent a bit of time overseas, but he's come back for a final dig.

"And we brought him into the squad a couple of years ago when we had a couple of injuries, and then unfortunately he got injured last year, which denied him the chance to push for a spot a year earlier. He's a big man, a good athlete, and it's a good story for guys out there who may have thought that the dream had passed them."

While Neville's selection in the starting side was somewhat unexpected, Porecki had been tipped for higher honours since he first returned from an overseas stint with Saracens and then London Irish.

His accurate line-out throwing and control at the back of the maul saw him edge out Folau Fainga'a for the starting role.

"As a hooker or a front-rower you pride yourself on your set-piece, so first and foremost you need to nail your set-piece, especially against England," Porecki said. "In terms of combinations [with lineout jumpers], it's been awesome, it's been my first with Dan [McKellar, Wallabies assistant coach], it's been my first taste really with a lot of these boys.

"Just having those small conversations through the week and testing; you don't hold back in training, when you get reps you push them [jumpers] to the limit to see where the limit is so that when it comes on the weekend, you can perform and hit your mark. But there has been lots of discussion and the training's been good, and as a forward pack we're in a good spot."


A poor Six Nations, where England beat only Wales and Italy, put Jones' position firmly in the spotlight.

He was the target of scathing columns from both former England No. 10 Stuart Barnes and veteran Times scribe Stephen Jones, before the Rugby Football Union conducted an internal review and then reinforced its support of the coach.

For his part, Jones is probably enjoying the fact that the focus is squarely on him and not the team, given they appeared to be a group caught in the "transition" the Australian was trying to impart.

At least Jones was at his best with the media on Thursday.

"Well I think every international coach is under pressure," Jones said. "I'm under pressure because we haven't had results good enough. Our expectations are high, the media's expectations are high, everyone's expectations are high and that's OK.

"You've just got to look across the ditch, there's a body of water to a team that had won at 90% and now they're down to 80% and the coach is under pressure as well. You look at the Australian situation; the chairman comes out says I'm promising you results. So when the chairman comes out and says I'm promising you results where does the pressure go? It goes on the coach.

"Every international coach is under pressure, Dave's under pressure, across the ditch they're under pressure, I'm under pressure, but that's part of the job that we like and enjoy and accept the responsibilities of that pressure."

Rennie certainly wasn't being drawn into anything on England, insisting the Wallabies wouldn't be reading too much into the Six Nations nor the loss to a 14-man Barbarians outfit just a fortnight ago.

"I wouldn't read too much into the Baa-Baas game, probably the squad that we'll face this weekend were playing for Leicester and Saracens and it will be a completely different approach being a Test match.

"What we know with Six Nations is that it's a competitive competition, France have been outstanding and the depth they've created is amazing, Ireland are a good side. So we know how tough that is and we're not going to read too much into it.

"We've put a lot of focus on us and getting our game right, and that's going to be crucial for us on the weekend."


While the expectation is that the opening Test could be a largely cagey affair, with both teams keen to play territory and back their set-piece from close range, the head-to-head battle in the midfield pits two of the world's great players against one another.

The Wallabies will be hoping Samu Kerevi can reprise his sensational form from the Rugby Championship last year that later saw him nominated for World Rugby Player of Year on the back of just five Tests, while the tourists have veteran Owen Farrell returning after he missed the Six Nations.

It is a meeting of contrasting styles, with Kerevi's ball-carrying and offload among the best in the world, while Farrell is an astute tactical player and abrasive defender, albeit one who sometimes pushes the limits of the game's laws.

And you get the feeling that whomever has the better game out of these two players at No. 12 will likely come out on the winning side.

Jones has also made the decision to not return Farrell to the England captaincy, with Courtney Lawes instead preferred.

"I explained to him that he wasn't going to be captain and he wasn't very happy, which I expect to be," Jones explained. "I didn't expect him to be happy, I expected him to be unhappy and it was exactly the reaction that I wanted, because that's the sort of player he is.

"The thing is he's got less responsibility and therefore he can focus more on his play, which I think this time for Owen and the team is important."

Could Jones' gamble serve to motivate Farrell, or perhaps bring on further aggression that sees him push the aforementioned defensive boundaries?

Whatever the case, Kerevi has almost flown under the radar this week. The only problem there is that Jones knows the powerhouse centre all too well from his director of rugby role at Japanese club Suntory.


Back in 2016, fresh off a Six Nations Grand Slam, Eddie Jones had a field day when it came to the pre-match ribbing between himself and Wallabies coach Michael Cheika. Jones won that battle and England won the series, and you couldn't wipe the smile from the England coach's face.

But six years on, it hasn't been so easy. Despite an opening shot at the "aggressive" Australian media and "abusive" local crowds, Jones has had little coming back the other way.

Asked why he hadn't engaged with Jones, Rennie kept his response short on Thursday.

"He's probably got the same mindset as me, it's not about us, it's about the players and we'll let them do the talking."

Not quite, Dave. Eddie doesn't share the same mindset as you; but the Kiwi likely knows that, too.

"I think 2016 we had Cheika there, there was a bit of niggle, it was good Australian sport, this time it feels like ... I don't know," Jones told reporters in Perth on Thursday.

"I prefer it like that, definitely, but you can't spar against nothing, mate. If that's the way it is, that's alright.

"As I said, you spar in a corner by yourself, it's not much fun."

Rennie has got it in him, as we've seen from what has become a tense rivalry with New Zealand Rugby after the All Blacks no-show - at least for a week - in the West Australian capital last year.

But he is smart not to engage: How can you when your team is staring down an 0-8 run against the opposition?


The truth is that since England left Australian shores in 2016, the now defunct Cook Cup safe in their keeping following a 3-0 series triumph, the Wallabies really haven't got near them since.

The average margin in five Tests since that series, four on English soil and one in the 2019 quarterfinal in Japan, is in fact 20 points.

So the scope of the challenge facing the Wallabies, albeit this time on home soil, is huge.

And England will take great confidence from that, Gloucester lock Ed Slater told the ESPN Scrum Reset podcast this week.

"No doubt it definitely gives you confidence, the last time when they were down there in 2016 when they got the 3-0 win, there are still a lot of players who played in that series that are in the squad now.

"So I think they will bring a confidence into the other players."

Do the men in white jerseys have some mental hold over the Wallabies? It's not beyond the pale, and what makes this first Test so important for Australia.

The Wallabies won't want to be staring down an "Imperfect 10" in Brisbane next weekend.