Deans backs front-row for French test
Australia's front row has long been much maligned for being the team's outstanding weak point, some international rugby pundits claiming their exciting outside backs are hampered by a blunt forward edge.
But coach Robbie Deans believes that the "in-game experience" of the current crop of props and hookers was working in the Wallabies' favour, notably at decisive match-breaking moments.
"There's no doubt our scrum has been making steady progress," Deans said ahead of an opening autumn series test against France at the Stade de France on Saturday.
He highlighted his pack's performance in last month's drawn Bledisloe Cup match against New Zealand that halted the All Blacks' 16-test winning run as proof of that advancement.
"The scrum was part of that game (against New Zealand) that was essential. It was an arm wrestle right up to the 60th minute.
"On that basis, those moments, those key contests particularly around position become important."
Deans added that the increasingly mature performances of his pack had weighed heavily on a swing towards more sympathetic refereeing at the set-piece.
"There's a greater respect now for our scrum," the Kiwi coach said. "We've stood up against the best and had good moments against the best.
"With that awareness you get a more consistent interpretation, if you like.
"If your scrum becomes more than competitive with the bests scrums in the world, then they tend to judge what they see rather than an idea they have.
"You want to use assets you've got. We've got a lot of experience up there. A lot of caps under their belts. Those combinations and in-game experience is key at test level."
Despite all the talk of experience, Waratahs prop Sekope Kepu will make his starting debut when the Wallabies bid to continue their formidable record against France.
On the bench will be Stephen Moore, the hooker coming back from injury and on track to break Jeremy Paul's record as the most capped Australian No 2 (72 caps).
"It's just good to be back on the field, to get the opportunity again," Moore said, adding: "I haven't given the record any thought."
Moore and prop teammate Ben Robinson admitted that the competition for places had upped the squad's levels.
"It's healthy for the group," Moore said. "There's plenty of guys ready to step in and that's what you need when you're playing as much rugby as we do."
Robinson, who has featured in four of the last five wins Australia have notched up over France, added: "This pack, we've been together for a while now, and our front row combinations, we've been working together a while.
"There's some younger players coming through. We really have to challenge ourselves in training, and that's been a trend for us a while now. The boys have to go out there and put in their best performance week in week out.
"We have a very experienced pack for this weekend."
Deans picked only two backs among his seven replacements, but said it was less in mind of a crunch forward battle than nursing injuries ahead of next weekend's test against England at Twickenham.
"There's a good versatility in the backs and they've played across the board. The call was made partly due to the circumstances over injuries," he said, adding that he would have a fully fit squad for that game.
Winger Digby Ioane (knee), flanker David Pocock (knee), prop Ben Alexander (wrist) and lock Timani (lower back) have all been fully involved in contact training.
"It's a strange feeling. I haven't had to make these choices very often," laughed Deans.