Johnson under pressure as Skelton returns: A spring tour with spice

This will be a spring tour with spice. On the one hand, it heralds the return of a singular player to Australian rugby and on the other it could be the end of the road for the man at the top of the tree.

Far from the relaxed European jaunt of years gone by, with the time zone lending the Wallabies a degree of protection from the hyper-critical gaze of their fan base, this year’s tour will be compulsory viewing. Scotland, England, Wales. No easy Tests.

Scott Johnson was charged with keeping an eye on Michael Cheika. Is he still needed? Credit:Rugby AU Media/Stuart Walmsley

But it’s the personalities that will add sizzle to the dreary UK conditions. Will Skelton, the wrecking ball second-rower who left Australia before he’d scratched the surface of his talent, will rejoin the fold ahead of the Scotland Test.

Rarely has a reunion been this anticipated. Nicknamed the ‘Eclipse’ in his debut professional season, the 18-Test 29-year-old has been honing his craft in the northern hemisphere.

His return to the Wallabies fold has the power to put Dave Rennie’s first tour back on track after the messy exits of offshore Wallabies Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi and Sean McMahon.

For another key figure, Rugby Australia’s director of rugby Scott Johnson, the next three weeks could amount to a farewell tour.

Will Skelton’s return could help settle the nerves after a controversial week for Australia.Credit:Getty

Johnson’s position is under scrutiny, with a massive shake-up of RA’s high-performance unit imminent. His contract expires at the end of the year and there is growing doubt over whether he will be retrained.

An appointment of former RA boss Raelene Castle, Johnson said earlier this year he didn’t feel the job was finished after a two-and-a-half year go at it. Last week’s drama did him no favours. As the man in charge of the Wallabies program the buck stops with Johnson.

It has been his declared strategy to sideline agents in the negotiation process between players and RA or their Super Rugby clubs. That backfired last week and has cost the Wallabies, with Rennie losing his first choice No.10/12 partnership. Skelton has X-factor up to his eyeballs and will give Australia the gain-line penetration lost with Kerevi’s withdrawal, but he’s not the whole answer.

Player agents, easily and sometimes correctly maligned, are here to stay. Pretending otherwise is reckless. Johnson backed the wrong horse.

Noah Lolesio struggled against the All Blacks. He has a second chance in Europe. Credit:Getty

Of course, critics can say what they like. But McLennan’s concession that RA placed “unreasonable expectations” on the trio is the biggest mea culpa a chairman has ever made and should send Johnson’s blood cold.

Whether the director of rugby role is retained in a streamlined high-performance structure is yet to be decided. It is a popular model in professional rugby and was designed to give RA oversight when former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika’s tenure was heading south.

It is also a hard job to occupy, vulnerable to accusations of invisibility and redundancy whether a rugby program is functioning or not. His judgment on key issues aside, there is no questioning Johnson’s commitment. He loves the job and, after a long stint abroad, cherished the opportunity to give back at home.

The next three weeks will be telling. They will test the mettle of Rennie, who has had his plans blown up a few times now. He was disciplined in his comments around the exits of his high-profile trio last week but his displeasure was obvious.

Dave Rennie, Noah Lolesio, Scott Johnson and Will Skelton.Credit:Getty/RA Media

Skelton and Kurtley Beale, who responded to Rennie’s emergency call-up a few days ago, will arrive in Edinburgh on Monday, with Rory Arnold and Tolu Latu also joining the reunion of offshore Wallabies.

Hopping off a plane will be Noah Lolesio, the baby playmaker left at home by Rennie in favour of Cooper and told to bulk up and work on his acceleration. It will be fascinating to watch how Lolesio handles the recent rollercoaster of selection and rejection and oops – our bad – selection, again.

The Brumbies No.10 is just 21 years old. At that age, Skelton was sitting in the back of the Waratahs’ mini van, a baby-faced plus-one on the Michael Cheika’s side’s 2013 tour of Pretoria and Port Elizabeth.

The Westfield Sports High graduate made his Super Rugby debut a week later, back home in Sydney against the Stormers at Allianz Stadium and a Test debut came the following year. But while Skelton’s ball-carrying skills and physical prowess were never questioned, his lack of lineout jumping skills left his selection open to questioning.

His departure for Europe, first at English club Saracens and more recently in France with La Rochelle, appears to have been his making. He’s dropped 15 kilograms and learned forward play in attritional northern hemisphere conditions.

If this spring tour is remembered for its embarrassing and chaotic build-up, it would not be a waste if it also facilitated a couple of quiet chats between a young Lolesio and a matured Skelton in the buffet line in Edinburgh.

Watch every match of the Wallabies, All Blacks & Springboks Spring Tours on the home of rugby, Stan Sport.

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