Michael Cheika has promised the Wallabies will have “a few new tricks” up their sleeve for the World Cup in Japan and, intriguingly, said they would “look a little different to what most people may expect”. But what exactly can be expected from a Cheika-coached Australia team?
Since taking over as Wallabies coach at the end of 2014 Cheika has relied heavily on members of the NSW Waratahs team he guided to the Super Rugby title in 2014. Players such as Michael Hooper, Kurtley Beale, Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Sekope Kepu and Bernard Foley have been mainstays when available. And you expect to see them in any of Cheika’s sides.
But Cheika’s selections and tactics have not worked for the last three years. Dual international Michael O’Connor made a revealing comment when he was appointed independent selector last month, saying Brumbies back-rower David Pocock should be considered in his natural openside flanker position rather than at No 8, where he has played for the last four years to accommodate Hooper.
A Wallabies selector in 2006 and 2007, O’Connor pointed out that Australia had two outstanding opensides in that era, George Smith and Phil Waugh, but they did not play together in the same back row. Importantly, Cheika now has what he has not had for the last three years: a natural No 8, in Fiji-born Isi Naisarani, who will be eligible to play for the Wallabies this year.
This would mean demoting Hooper, the incumbent Wallabies captain, to the bench, a seemingly unimaginable thing for Cheika to do. But the coach can be ruthless when he needs to be.
One thing the Wallabies desperately need is impact off the bench or what Cheika used to describe as “finishers”. When Hooper first played for the Wallabies in 2012 he would come off the bench and play alongside Pocock for the last 20 to 30 minutes, lifting the tempo of the game with his speed and energy. It would be a big call, but it would make some sense.
Similarly, Beale played an important role as a finisher, or super-sub, when the Wallabies reached the final of the 2015 World Cup. Is Cheika looking for Beale to reprise that role in Japan? While Beale is an instinctive ball-player at inside-centre, Samu Kerevi or Karmichael Hunt would get the Wallabies over the advantage line more effectively.
The return of Hunt and Quade Cooper to Super Rugby this season has given Cheika options he has not had recently. If Beale played fullback and Hunt inside-centre, with Folau on the wing, they could interchange to give the Wallabies more variety in attack.
But to get the Wallabies outside men moving, Cheika has to solve the crisis at five-eighth. Foley has been under enormous pressure to hold onto the gold No 10 jersey. Last year Cheika dropped Foley to experiment with Beale and Matt Toomua as chief playmaker, but without any notable success.
Significantly, Foley was hooked by the Waratahs with five minutes to go in their 19-13 loss to the Brumbies in Canberra last Friday night, replacing him with rookie Mack Mason at a time when they needed to pull the game out of the fire.
If Foley is out of favour, will Cheika recall the mercurial Cooper? When asked about Cooper, O’Connor said he would be considered if he fixed some “problematic” parts of his game such as throwing high-risk passes. Cooper has played well for the Melbourne Rebels this season outside his old halves partner Will Genia. He has taken the ball to the line and under-played his game.
In the first-half against the Lions in Johannesburg last Saturday Cooper was on song, but when the tide turned against the Rebels in the second-half some of his bad old habits resurfaced. His selection would certainly give the Wallabies some new tricks, but is Cheika prepared to risk him in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the World Cup?
Whoever plays five-eighth, he will have a much better chance of performing well if the forwards provide front-foot ball. Cheika needs to build a world class forward pack if the Wallabies are to compete with the best in Japan. Is this where we will see a different look, especially in the tight-five? New, fresh faces?
It was telling when O’Connor said there was no need to rush to appoint a new attack coach to replace Stephen Larkham, suggesting Cheika could even do the job himself and indicating he already has a clear idea of who he wants in the team and how he wants them to play.
Whatever new tricks Cheika has up his sleeve, they will need to be the rugby equivalent of Australia II’s winged keel to lift the Wallabies from sixth in the world to World Cup champions.