Will Skelton admits he never thought he’d be back in a Wallabies environment and says it was an easy decision to rejoin the squad after a five-year hiatus.
The comeback Australian rugby fans have craved for years could come as early as this weekend against Scotland, with Skelton poised to add to the 18 Tests he chalked up from 2014 to 2016.
The former NSW Waratahs second-rower, who won a Super Rugby title under Michael Cheika in 2014, hasn’t featured for the Wallabies since 2016 against France on the team’s end-of-year tour.
His defection to UK club Saracens in 2017 was a mighty blow for Australian rugby, particularly given he transformed himself into one of Europe’s premier second-rowers as a result of losing more than 20 kilograms.
“It’s good to see the boys again,” Skelton said in Edinburgh. “An international environment is something very special. I’m happy to be back.
“[Everyone] has been very welcoming. You can see the camaraderie in the group. Everyone cares about each other. There was a bit of banter on the first day too which is nice. The Aussie accent … I don’t know if I miss that.”
Will Skelton trains with the Wallabies in Edinburgh on Tuesday. Credit:Andrew Phan/Wallabies Media
Australia’s eligibility rules prevented Skelton from representing the Wallabies, given he hadn’t played the required 60 Tests. Attempts were made to bring him back to Australian rugby ahead of the 2019 World Cup but did not come to fruition.
However, a relaxation of eligibility rules has paved the way for Skelton and other Europe-based players and 2019 World Cup squad members, such as Rory Arnold and Tolu Latu, to bring extra experience into Australia’s tight five.
“I spoke to [director of rugby] Scotty Johnson last year [before] the Rugby Championship but it was a shortened version of it,” Skelton said. “It was a massive bubble they did for like 12 weeks. He asked me to come then and it didn’t work out. My wife was pregnant and I didn’t really want to leave her.
“I thought the door was closed and then Rens [coach Dave Rennie] gave me a phone call in the middle of the year and said ‘if you’d like to be involved we’ll be looking at you’. He just said ‘keep playing good footy and you might be involved with the team’. I put my head down.
Skelton gets to work in the gym. Credit:Andrew Phan/Wallabies Media
“Playing week in, week out against northern hemisphere boys, you take a bit from them. I’ve played a lot with the England boys. You see what their standards are like, how they operate.
“You see how well the boys have been going and looking in from afar, a lot of the boys would say it; you want to be involved. You want to see what’s happening with the group. A new coach, new staff, new boys coming through. It’s exciting and it’s been a lot of fun since I’ve been here.”
Asked what he missed most during his time away from the Wallabies, Skelton replied: “Playing with the boys I grew up with. I played a lot of club rugby with guys like Hoops [Michael Hooper]. Most of them have left now. You build relationships with them at the start of your career and then to be able to play with them for your country is the ultimate. It’s something very special and something you never take for granted. To be involved with the group again is something that I didn’t think was coming. Grateful to be here.”
Antoine Dupont of Toulouse is tackled by La Rochelle’s Will Skelton.Credit:Getty
The sight of Skelton and Arnold back in Wallabies gold will warm the hearts of supporters and give Australia a major boost for their upcoming three Tests against Scotland, England and Wales.
However, Rennie will now have to decide if the pair – as well as hooker Latu and playmaker Kurtley Beale – can be expected to perform on just one week of preparation with the group.
Asked if playing the Scotland game on Sunday (Monday morning AEDT) might be a little ambitious, Skelton left the decision in Rennie’s hands but said he and other returning players weren’t there for training experience.
“We went through a bit of detail last night,” Skelton said. “The shape is quite simple and something as a rugby player you’ve got to get used to quick. I’m not too sure, we’ll see what Rens is thinking, but we’ll definitely be putting our hand up.
“All the boys … we’re not here to sit back and train for the three weeks. We want to try and be involved and put our hand up for selection. We’ll be trying to get our head around it for Sunday on a seven-day turnaround.”
The Wallabies are looking to secure their sixth straight win – a run the team has not achieved since a seven-game streak across 2013 and 2014.
Kurtley Beale has been welcomed back into the Wallabies environment. Credit:Andrew Phan/Wallabied Media
“You can see how well they’ve been playing,” Skelton said. “They’re on a winning streak and you want to come in and add value. You don’t want to be pulling them back. You always want to be involved. Guys like Rory and myself, Duncan [Paia’aua] and Colby [Fainga’a] who have joined [the squad], we’re excited to be here and help out and help take this squad where it wants to be.”
Wallabies prop Taniela Tupou, who debuted against Scotland at Murrayfield four years ago, said Skelton’s inclusion would make his life easier as a tight-head prop at scrum-time.
“Having him behind me or any of the tight-heads, as a prop, that is a dream,” Tupou said. “You don’t have to do much. You just have to be in good shape and Will will do the rest. Looking forward to it.”
Australia suffered a record 53-24 defeat against Scotland the last time the sides played in Edinburgh.
“I haven’t watched the game. Not the best game. Hopefully we change that around this weekend,” Tupou said.
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