The Wallabies may have escaped with a three-point victory over Alan Jones’ Barbarians but there was some brutal news for Michael Cheika to digest at fulltime.
Just a week after starring in the Bledisloe Cup win over the All Blacks, rising back-rower Jack Dempsey suffered what is thought to be a serious hamstring injury – agonisingly just four minutes short of fulltime – which Cheika later confirmed would end the back-rower’s season.
Dempsey’s injury compounded the earlier loss of lock Lukhan Tui, who also played a significant role off the bench against the All Blacks, the towering Queensland Reds lock a first-half casualty also because of a hamstring injury.
The misfortune of both Dempsey and Tui could however open the spring tour door for Ben McCalman, the Western Force back-rower enjoying a fine afternoon as a Wallabies replacement.
“Ben McCalman put his hand up pretty strong for a guy who hasn’t played a lot of footy and he’s so reliable,” Cheika said. “And he had limited time to get to know what was going on and he looked pretty accomplished when he was out there. That was pleasing given the back-row situation there.”
While few other fringe Wallabies took the opportunity to impress, a few Barbarians players issued reminders for Cheika, none more-so than two-Test winger Taqele Naiyaravoro. The rampaging Waratahs winger was at his tackle-busting best in Sydney, scoring two tries and laying on another for Brumbies youngster Tom Banks.
“I think it’s obvious what I think of Taqele because I’ve capped him, he’s played at the Tahs with me, I signed him from reserve grade from the Tigers I think at the time,” Cheika said.
“He’s just got so much talent and he knows what he needs to do around the fitness side of the game but he’s got an ability and obviously, after today in particularly, I think he’ll be considered [for the spring tour] because he’s got the ability to change the game on his own; there’s no doubt about that.
“We can work on some defensive issues in the past, I think he’s worked on those as well; so he’s making some good reads. So we’ll discuss that tonight but he can be a real weapon, as was Eto [Nabuli] in their team. I always knew they had some x-factor and I think in the backs those guys, and in the forwards [Isi] Naisarani. I think they showed that today.”
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Cheika take Banks to Japan and Europe for the spring tour either, after the 23-year-old back combined superbly with Naiyaravoro throughout the 80 minutes, on one occasion running onto an absolute peach of a cross-kick from Quade Cooper.
As for Cooper, the veteran fly-half certainly had his moments at the helm of the Barbarians before he was issued a yellow card for a high tackle on Israel Folau, just minutes after Naiyaravoro had blotted his own copybook with the same colour of card, albeit for a dubious deliberate knock-down ruling from referee Brendon Pickerill.
While ineligible for the Wallabies given his contract with French club Bordeaux, former Melbourne Rebels lock Luke Jones also impressed back in his home town. Jones carried with authority through the middle of the park, shedding a number of tackles in a performance that far outshone Wallabies hopeful and Barbarians teammate Sam Carter.
Away from possible spring tour selections, which Cheika will confirm on Sunday, the match itself presented sparing patches of open play but was dominated by a lot of dropped ball as both sides struggled for continuity. A Wallabies side featuring just two of the players who started against the All Blacks, Dempsey and Folau, never really found its stride and relied on defensive lapses from the Barbarians for a large majority of their points.
The Barbarians had their moments yet the week-long experience did little to impress Jones, who hit out at the Australian Rugby Union, now Rugby Australia, over a lack of assistance in driving promotion for the game. Jones also reserved special mention for referee Pickerill.
“Well firstly I’m really proud of my people, when they were given the chance to play rugby they played rugby,” Jones said. “But if that’s the way you grow the game, it’s most probably a good thing I’m not in it. I just found the whole thing astonishing, that it’s a Barbarians game and you’re playing with 13 men and the bloke kept blowing the whistle; I think it was 16 penalties to four or something. So we’re four times more [undisciplined] than the other side?
“The bloke was clearly out of his depth, thank God I’m out of the game but if Michael Cheika’s got to deal with this sort of stuff all the time it’s a wonder he isn’t at The Gap.”
The only thing more savage than Jones’ post-match summation is the rotten luck of Dempsey and, potentially, Tui. Just seven days ago, Australian rugby fans were given a glimpse at two rising forwards who could well prove a cornerstone of the Wallabies pack for many years to come. As it stands, Dempsey won’t be heading north to Japan in a few days’ time while Tui also looks likely to be denied a plane ticket.