Despite the heavy defeat the Wallabies just got from New Zealand, when it comes to backline talent, I believe the 14 or so contingent Michael Cheika selects for Australia will be the most talented in the tournament. The Wallaby backs have huge talent, and wherever you look in the lineup from 9 to 15 there are threats.
Take a look at Tevita Kuridrani. The Brumbies outside-centre may not be the biggest name in the Wallaby backline, but he is one of the most important. He has size and speed, and Kuridrani’s ability to run hard up the middle, as well as threaten out wide, gives Australia multiple options.
If you put him together with Israel Folau then those two alone have enough really powerful attacking artillery to give the opposition a pounding.
Cheika has a great mixture, because alongside those two match-winners he can call on gifted mavericks like Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale, and hard-headed tacticians like Matt Toomua and Bernard Foley. The Aussie coach can also tap into the experience and class of Adam Ashley-Cooper out wide, and Matt Giteau as a playmaker – and, with both of them playing in their last World Cup, they will want to be part of a team that fulfils its potential.
However, where Ashley-Cooper’s quality as a finisher means he remains a first-choice selection, Cooper’s inconsistency at fly-half means that he is no longer the first 10 on Cheika’s team sheet. Even so, the coach picked him to start in yesterday’s return fixture against New Zealand at Eden Park to see whether he can get back on the horse.
Cooper is a game-changer, and if he can feed off Toomua outside him, and listen to what he says – and lead the team in a way that is authoritative – then he has a chance of getting ahead of Foley.
The issue Cooper has to address is that he is not a consistent kicker, either tactically or at goal, or tackler. So, if you want to close out a game, he’s not a safe bet – but if you need to chase a game and are looking for a mercurial playmaker who can see things a second before the rest, Cooper’s your man. However, yesterday he was exposed by the All Blacks when they kicked to him while he was hiding in defence on the wing, and his tackling cost him a yellow and his team 21 points.
What makes Toomua so impressive is his choice of the right option at the right time. When he comes on you really notice him because of the way he flies into tackles and runs hard into contact. He’s a tough cookie, and a good finisher, but his also got a smart tactical head.
Toomua is in competition with Giteau for the inside-centre shirt, and if you look at all-round skill set, the veteran has more touch and feel, whereas Toomua is less subtle, more direct, and physically more powerful. Both are destructive, but Giteau more as a playmaker and Toomua as a carrier who challenges defences.
Australia are also well-equipped at scrum-half, where, despite Nic White’s heroics in the win over New Zealand in Sydney, I still believe that Will Genia is first-choice for the World Cup. The injury was a setback, but if Genia is back fit in the next two weeks he’s the one Cheika will go to first, because White is not really an Australian style scrum-half.
He’s been pretty methodical and conservative for the Brumbies, and although he did brilliantly against NZ off the bench when he replaced the struggling Nick Phipps, at his best Genia gives Australia their attacking tempo.
Genia has the complete scrum-half skill set – apart, perhaps, from his box-kicking – and he fits the profile of the general who has to have his wits around him in every area. He has to know the lineout calls and the rest of the forward strategy, while also having an encyclopaedic knowledge of all the back moves – in other words, he has to be in command of everything.
There are, however, not many certainties in Aussie rugby. I’m never surprised by what Australia produce on the pitch, or selection-wise. Whichever coach is in charge they always seem prepared to mix-and-match, and they have a tendency to develop their team in the four-year span between World Cups more than any other side.
There doesn’t seem to be a ‘we must win every game’ mentality with the Wallabies, and that may be because they are not always settled as a side. They are always seen as the lesser cousins of New Zealand, who, despite Australia topping the table this time, have dominated the Rugby Championship since it started. They are also seen as the poor relations of South Africa, even though they are often the third-ranked side in the world.
We have to remember that Rugby Union is the fourth or fifth sport in Australia, and struggles to get airtime and publicity alongside Aussie Rules, Rugby League, cricket and football. Life gets tougher if Australia are not successful on the world stage, and that was the case when they went into the 2011 World Cup with great optimism and didn’t produce the goods.
Cheika has shown since he took over a year ago that he is prepared to switch his selections about very quickly in order to find a winning formula. Cheika’s rugby brain has been marinated in the Randwick culture because he both played for, and coached, what is Australia’s most influential club side.
Randwick have a reputation historically for playing attractive, entertaining rugby – but it is based on forwards who can do the hard yards before the elusive backline runners and quality support play come into their own.
There are some good signs on the Wallaby pack with Scott Fardy emerging as a good, grafting blindside to complement Michael Hooper and David Pocock. Playing those two opensides together is a real challenge for the opposition, as New Zealand discovered in Sydney. Your clearing has to be perfect because while you can cover one guy at the breakdown, covering two is very difficult.
There are also encouraging signs with Dean Mumm returning from Exeter invigorated and inspired, and Stephen Moore leading from the front as only a bloke who has been around the block can. My reservation is still the scrum, and I’m holding off saying that the Wallabies have reached the turning point despite holding up against South Africa and doing well against New Zealand. They do not have much front-row depth, and could be one injury away from it all falling apart again.
However, Cheika does seem to have been successful in fostering a sense of identity and pride in this Australia squad. The different structures put in place under Robbie Deans, and the internal disruption during the Ewen McKenzie era, led to many indifferent Wallaby displays. Cheika appears to have put a stop to that, and has brought a dose of reality to the Australian camp by telling the players: “If you want it, you’ve got to go out and get it.”
He is also fortunate that his coaching tenure has coincided with many of the mavericks having matured and understood if they want to be treated like men they have to act like it, and play like it.
Cheika seems to have created a culture that players want to be part of – and if they don’t, they’ve got a screw loose.
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