To tweak or not to tweak? That is the question

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    The Wallabies form a huddle before the start of the Bledisloe Cup. Photo: Paul Barkley/LookProPhoto: Paul Barkley/LookPro

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    As they say, a week is a long time in sport. This time last week, Ewen McKenzie was the reason why a many a Wallabies supporter was excited about the start of a new era.

    New coach, new players, new ideas, new success. Or so we thought.

    And I say ‘we’ deliberately, because I don’t mind admitting that I shared a lot of that excitement.

    I wouldn’t say I expected McKenzie to cure all ills with a simple wave of the hand and a puff of dramatic smoke, but I did like the fact that the side he picked for his first Test was based more on actual and current form, than on reputation or potential.

    A new coach brings a new perspective, and a new message. Perhaps ‘we’ took more from his message than was served up, but it still felt as though a new era for the Wallabies was dawning.

    Iain Payten used a beautiful line in yesterday’s News Ltd press, to describe the harsh reality of Bledisloe I:

    “The All Blacks have a habit of flossing their teeth with Australian optimism and so it proved again on Saturday night.”

    The parallels with the Australian cricket team were predictably made over the weekend, too, but even after the loss in Sydney, I think the Wallabies are still the team more likely to beat New Zealand first.

    So where does Ewen McKenzie go from here? And what can he do to turn things around for Wellington on Saturday night? Does he get out the broom, or does he ‘pick and stick’?

    For mine, there is little point swinging the broom. I’ve never been a big fan of wholesale changes after a loss for any team in any sport. I’ll point you back to our cricket team as proof of what can happen to revolving door teams.

    McKenzie even having just another week with his team, and being able to analyse something he put together rather than collating the work of four other Super Rugby coaches plus his own, will make a difference in the preparations for Bledisloe II.

    It mightn’t make for pleasant viewing, but the McKenzie Wallabies now have a benchmark to work from.

    The breakdown certainly needs to be the first point addressed. While Michael Hooper was very, very good – and I’ll happily stand corrected, having suggested Liam Gill start last week – he does still have trouble holding his ground in the face of the All Blacks clean-out.

    Whether that means he requires more support from his backrow colleagues – and he does, based on what we saw in Sydney – or whether that means he needs to alter his body position, is something for Hooper and the Wallabies coaches to work out.

    What doesn’t really require much debate is that we need to see more from numbers six and eight than what we saw from Hugh McMeniman and Ben Mowen. Both got in and did the unglamorous work that is so easy to miss, but they have both also shown a greater breakdown presence in Super Rugby this season.

    Maybe it was a case of nerves of the occasion – Mowen was making his Bledisloe debut, and iPhones were not long out the last time McMeniman faced the Haka – but whatever it was, they both need to inject themselves into the game more than they did.

    If there is a tweak to make here, perhaps you might start Scott Fardy for McMeniman, but it’s that close a thing the impact might be negligible.

    Flyhalf will be another point of debate, with Matt Toomua finding out the hard way that the best defensive sides have very little problems with the ‘shovel-ball’ game he played in the first half.

    Toomua is capable of well more than he showed in his debut outing, and he needs to trust those instincts and the hard work he’s done to win selection in the first place.

    His vision and playmaking was a major reason why the Brumbies played on the last weekend of Super Rugby, and there’s no reason not to show that at Test level.

    He did show more in the second half, as Scott Allen has highlighted in his analysis video today. After halftime, Toomua was more noticeably tracking forward before passing, rather than laterally or not at all in the first half.

    The question for McKenzie then becomes one of whether Quade Cooper showed more in his 19 minutes than Toomua did in the 21 before being replaced. Cooper certainly ran more to the line again than Toomua did after the break, and even looked to ask more questions of the New Zealand defenders.

    Cooper also combined a lot better with James O’Connor, who by that stage was playing at fullback after Jesse Mogg had been hooked following Conrad Smith’s try in the 51st minute, and this leads us to the next conundrum.

    It’s already been mentioned that Israel Folau is being considered as a fullback option, but if that was truly the case, then surely he – and not O’Connor – should have gone to the back when Mogg was replaced.

    It seems to me that if a change is going to be made in the 15 jersey, then it makes more sense to leave O’Connor there, even more so if Cooper does indeed regain the no.10.

    However, moving O’Connor or Folau raises even more questions again.

    Is it a case of a straight swap with one of the wingers? Does O’Connor’s kicking game and footwork in traffic trump the potential of Folau as a counter-attacking runner?

    Does Mogg drop back to the bench and Tevita Kuridrani start? Would Kuridrani go straight into Adam Ashley-Cooper’s outside centre spot, or should the best 13 in Australia stay in the same position he’s played very well in all season?

    If Mogg is left out completely, does Nick Cummins – a player I tried very hard last week to include in the starting backline – come in, or does McKenzie go with the only specialist left-winger in his squad in Joe Tomane?

    And this just highlights how difficult a task McKenzie now has. Even with the All Blacks’ playmakers under injury clouds, with cover being brought in, the Wallabies remain up against it. To win the Bledisloe they must do something they’ve not done since 1986: win twice in New Zealand in the same year.

    Are there benefits to be gained with some subtle tweaks to the side that played in Sydney, or would it only amount to change for change’s sake?

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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    The Crowd Says (158)

    • Roar Guru

      August 20th 2013 @ 3:19am
      biltongbek said | August 20th 2013 @ 3:19am | ! Report

      Brett, I don’t think McKenzie must change too much.

      Perhaps Mogg out, Folau to fullback.

      Honeybadger to wing.

      I don’t think McMenaman and Simmons were physical enough.

      Otherwise I don’t think too many more personnel changes.

      Tactics wise the Aussies went too wide too early and never really allowed their forwards to build momentum.

      • August 20th 2013 @ 3:44am
        Fin said | August 20th 2013 @ 3:44am | ! Report

        Simmons is never physical enough, it’s not really what he is there for. It’s Horwill, Mowen and MMM that need to up their ball carry work to take the sting out of the AB defence. Slipper was solid but Moore and Alexander could have made more of an impact at the advantage line. We probably don’t appreciate what sort of an impact guys like Higgers, Cliffy and Taf have on zapping the energy of the opposition forwards. But who do we have that’s fit that would do the job any better?

        Agree we went wide without earning the right first, not surprising that when we got there the ABs had no problems diffusing the situation.

        • August 20th 2013 @ 6:52am
          Justin3 said | August 20th 2013 @ 6:52am | ! Report

          Simmons was actual quite physical, he put on a couple of massive hits early when we were under the pump.

        • August 20th 2013 @ 10:18am
          Rugby is Life said | August 20th 2013 @ 10:18am | ! Report

          Get some mongrel at 8. Schatz or Mccalman mowen to 6.

          Oconnor to FB. Honey Badger. Need some toughness. And if Folau doesn’t work harder put mogg on the wing. Mogg has genuine pace.

          Folau has to think too much nothing is coming naturally yet. You can almost see his mind ticking over.

      • August 20th 2013 @ 7:06am
        Red Kev said | August 20th 2013 @ 7:06am | ! Report

        Simmons was the best of the tight five last weekend

      • Roar Guru

        August 20th 2013 @ 7:33am
        biltongbek said | August 20th 2013 @ 7:33am | ! Report

        Yeah, if you read Scott Allens analysis it shows my perception of Simmons couldn’t be more wrong.

      • August 20th 2013 @ 8:23am
        kizza said | August 20th 2013 @ 8:23am | ! Report

        Cummins to wing and foloau to fullback seems to be what everyone is screaming for.

      • Columnist

        August 20th 2013 @ 9:35am
        Brett McKay said | August 20th 2013 @ 9:35am | ! Report

        Biltong, Simmons was very good, better than I expected actually, so I wouldn’t be dropping him at all. I’d like to see if McMeniman might be better or the run, but we need to see mre from him at the breakdown. Mowen’s the same in fact..

      • August 20th 2013 @ 7:33pm
        Raa said | August 20th 2013 @ 7:33pm | ! Report

        I agree Honeybadger to wing Mogg has got to go he makes too many mistakes. Falou to fullback where he can counter attack with hard straight running (he also never kicks possession away which Aussies did too much of on the weekend) Have to go forward before going wide. AAC has to stay at 13 he was the only stand out back who runs forward and is the best we have in that position.

    • August 20th 2013 @ 3:24am
      ibika said | August 20th 2013 @ 3:24am | ! Report

      Cooper to 10 for the rest of the championship
      Leave AAC where he is
      Cummins in and starting
      Mogg out, either JOC or Folau to take over. Pick one for the long term and play them there for the rest of RC
      Mowen to 6.

      • August 20th 2013 @ 6:53am
        Justin3 said | August 20th 2013 @ 6:53am | ! Report

        My gut feel says you are correct with all of that but i am happy to give these guys another crack outside Mogg who isn’t up to it, yet.

      • Columnist

        August 20th 2013 @ 9:37am
        Brett McKay said | August 20th 2013 @ 9:37am | ! Report

        Who are you playnig at 8, Ibika?

      • Roar Guru

        August 20th 2013 @ 11:22am
        Cattledog said | August 20th 2013 @ 11:22am | ! Report

        Agree, but leave Mowen at 8 (first time facing the ABs) so will be better for that hit out and bring Gill to 6. I don’t see a problem with two fetchers. MMM to bench.

      • August 20th 2013 @ 12:37pm
        Stin said | August 20th 2013 @ 12:37pm | ! Report

        Mowen is a much better 6 than 8 IMO. But there’s no obvious 8 in the squad (no Mccalman is not the guy). I was extremely worried about our backrow going in and nothing’s changed.

    • August 20th 2013 @ 3:42am
      Johnno said | August 20th 2013 @ 3:42am | ! Report

      twink.

    • August 20th 2013 @ 3:51am
      Ben.S said | August 20th 2013 @ 3:51am | ! Report

      I thought that the Wallabies were looking to play the right sort of rugby. You don’t beat NZ by sitting back and being defensive. The execution was poor, however, and NZ hurt them for that. Given they want to offload and attack I think Toomua is the wrong sort of 10. He reminds me of Nathan Grey playing 10. Shovel ball is an apt description.

      Regarding selection I’d drop Toomua and Mogg. Mogg has been very poor in consecutive games now. His kicking has been woeful, and he offers no threat from deep. Who replaces him is another question. Cooper sparked the attack, an although he fluffed a restart, he went short and prior to that the Australian restarts had generally been horrible, so at least the idea was right.

      I wasn’t impressed with Hugh MMM either, but with Kimlin and Higginbotham injured I think he’s worth another shot – but he definitely isn’t the “mongrel” footballer the Australian media like to portray him as. In the front row I thought that Slipper was industrious, but Alexander needs to up his game ASAP.

      As usual the All Blacks remain the benchmark.

      • August 20th 2013 @ 8:49am
        Paul said | August 20th 2013 @ 8:49am | ! Report

        “You don’t beat NZ by sitting back and being defensive”

        Actually, you kind of do. John E made an obsevation of the win ratio when All Blacks score over 20 points in a match the other day. Win ratio over 20 points is massive by comparison to their ratio under. Last time we played the blacks was a Deans inspired defensive effort that resulted in 18-18. Not pretty, but compared to trying to beat the all blacks at the open game on Saturday when they were schooled.

        If you lock the game down you frustrate the All Blacks, keep it open they thrive.

        • August 20th 2013 @ 9:32am
          rl said | August 20th 2013 @ 9:32am | ! Report

          which is exactly what NZ did to us (yet again). Keep your defensive alignment, don’t over-commit to the breakdown, wait for the mistakes, and punish them.

        • August 20th 2013 @ 7:17pm
          Ben.S said | August 20th 2013 @ 7:17pm | ! Report

          Ok, let me rephrase: actually looking to play, but being defensively sound. NZ will generally always score tries, so if you sit back and don’t look to attack then you’re going to lose. Deans tried to beat NZ with defensive selections on a number of occasions, and it only worked once, and that 18-18 game was a bit of an irregularity.

      • Columnist

        August 20th 2013 @ 9:40am
        Brett McKay said | August 20th 2013 @ 9:40am | ! Report

        Ben, I’d certainly like to know if Toomua was playing on instruction, before concluding whether he’s the right or wrong flyhalf. He flattened things up in the second half, and looked a lot better, but the horse was halfway out the gate by that stage.

        Agree on most other points though. Slipper and Simmons really impressed me on the second viewing..

        • August 20th 2013 @ 1:29pm
          Blackheart said | August 20th 2013 @ 1:29pm | ! Report

          Brett, in the after game interview with an AU player he admitted the game play was not as was instructed.
          Whilst I’m not the type to say I told you so… But…. Dingo had the same ornery resistance from the players to follow coaches instruction. If link lets them run down the same path he will make a rod for his own back, the game plan formulated through the week using the tech, coaches, tacticals and with agreement of the core leaders should be sufficient.

        • August 20th 2013 @ 4:38pm
          ThelmaWrites said | August 20th 2013 @ 4:38pm | ! Report

          I’ve watched Toomua since he was flyhalf at the Junior RWC in 2010. It’s the same fly-half-ship. I would prefer that Lealiifano be the regular flyhalf for the Brumbies, then the Wallabies, but the Brumbies stint is not going to happen, given Jack White’s preferences. I’m almost at the point where I think McKenzie should risk it and play Lealiifano at flyhalf for the rest of the Rugby Championship/4N.

          • August 21st 2013 @ 9:06pm
            bennalong said | August 21st 2013 @ 9:06pm | ! Report

            Wholeheartedly agree

            It’s his favoured position. Give him a go(but perhaps in Europe)

            QC needs sorting right now. EM touted him, he has to back him

      • Roar Guru

        August 20th 2013 @ 11:28am
        Cattledog said | August 20th 2013 @ 11:28am | ! Report

        Pretty close I think Ben. I wouldn’t drop Toomua entirely, just to the bench. I think we need a genuine 10 as a backup. I would also drop MMM to the bench and bring Gill into 6 to start. If Gill and Hooper swap from time to time it would also cause different problems.

    • August 20th 2013 @ 4:00am
      Silver_Sovereign said | August 20th 2013 @ 4:00am | ! Report

      Kuridriani has to start. He looked more dangerous most of the aussie backs in his short time out there. Is he a centre specialist or could he take the vacant wing spot that Israel or O’Connor playing fullback will create? I was really impressed with Kuridrani, having never seen him play before. Ashley Cooper should maybe go to wing as he never looks to pass at all. Cooper suits the coming off the bench role I think, Toomua will be better in the next game, just has to take on the line more. Folau hardly got the ball and has to go looking for as Wendell did in the past.
      9 Genia 10 Toomua 11 Ashley Cooper 12 Lelifiano 13 Kuridrani 14 O’Connor/Folau 15 Folau/O’Connor

      • August 20th 2013 @ 7:35am
        nickoldschool said | August 20th 2013 @ 7:35am | ! Report

        As much as it would hurt to drop AAC, I have to admit I am with you regarding Kuridrani silver. He would bring so much more attacking options at outside centre and involve the back three.

        I think one of the Fox commentators suggested bringing Kuridrani at 13 and maybe move AAC to 15. It’s an option. I find it very hard to have an opinion about who should play or not this w-e and only a bloke like Ewen who is going to spend the week with them can make this call. He has to have a good honest chat with every single player. And for once someone as to point out players negatives rather then praise the 1 or 2 good stuff they do. That’s his role to do so. JOC, AAC, Folau, Mogg, they all have to be told they didn’t perform as they should have. Personally I am more an adept of the Cheika style, tell it like it is, raise your voice, confront the bloke. But I hope Ewen finds the right words with the guys.

        • August 20th 2013 @ 8:57am
          Paul said | August 20th 2013 @ 8:57am | ! Report

          You both must have had brumbie blinkers on. Kuridrani didn’t assert himself and coughed up a try with poor ball control after being tackled. AAC was stellar at 13 as he has been all year, best back on the field. But was caught out in defense on the wing from being rusty. AAC should stay at 13. Put Kuridrani outside him on the wing and O’Conner to bench at most. Kuridrani is the future at 13, but he needs to learn the craft beside the best in Australia for a while first. I initially wanted a lot of changes, but I think we need to pick and stick

          • August 20th 2013 @ 9:38am
            Harry said | August 20th 2013 @ 9:38am | ! Report

            Spot on Paul. I’m also a massive fan long term of Kuridrani at 13 but, taking the blinkers off, he had a bit of a nightmare debut – turned the ball over on his first touch after getting a hospital pass, and then again in Ben Smith’s last try, and dropped some other pill. It happens against NZ.
            Honey Badger to the wing, JOC to the bench, Kuridrani out for this match. Everyone is paying out on Mogg but I’d keep him at 15. I like his play under the high ball, and just needs a bit more composure with his kicking and when on attack – he has speed and the ability to make breaks.

        • August 20th 2013 @ 9:02am
          Elisha Pearce said | August 20th 2013 @ 9:02am | ! Report

          I’d be happy to put Kuridrani on the wing.
          AAC has been the best 13 all year and was very good on Sat night.

          And many a good centre has started their career on the wing to get the feel of Test level (think Mortlock and AAC himself, or even Ben Smith in the ABs. He won’t be a wing forever.)

          • August 20th 2013 @ 8:40pm
            rugby_phile said | August 20th 2013 @ 8:40pm | ! Report

            And don’t forget Tana Umaga Elisha.

      • Columnist

        August 20th 2013 @ 9:43am
        Brett McKay said | August 20th 2013 @ 9:43am | ! Report

        Funnily enough Silver, having seen a fair bit of Kuridrani this year, that wasn’t one of his best games. Ashley-Cooper’s still the best 13 in the country for mine, I don’t think that’s the area I’d be tweaking..

    • Roar Pro

      August 20th 2013 @ 4:50am
      Moreton Bait said | August 20th 2013 @ 4:50am | ! Report

      Where are Topo Rodriguez and Toutai Kefu when you need them? That was a bit of a disaster of an intro for Link. W’s need to boss and manage the tackle contest / breakdown much much better. This means committing at least 1 or 2 additional players. Lower body heights, more physicality both when defending our own ball at the tackle & when driving through & disrupting AB ball.

      ABs still driving through and beyond the tackle area and / or lying on Ws side of the ruck, or retreating slowly, but far enough away to not induce penalties from the ref, but still disturb or slow down quick ball. Genia has to manage that better.

      Ws have missed a dominant #8 and TH for several years; something like the old-school physicality those 2 legends routinely brought to the scrum, ruck and ball advancement. To win consistently, good teams need dominance in these areas.

      If the breakdown is improved a lot, then the faster, better ball from that, + the OK ball from set-pieces, should allow the backs to do something better with it. Passing, support play, off-loads, communication, leg drive in the tackle all need to improve. Geez guys!

      • August 20th 2013 @ 9:26am
        Aljay said | August 20th 2013 @ 9:26am | ! Report

        Our 10-year+ tighthead has his career ended in the 2003 WC semi. Everyone seems to forget that. The scrum problems of Bill Young and Al Baxter from 2004-8 wouldn’t have existed had Ben Darwin still been able to play.

      • Columnist

        August 20th 2013 @ 9:44am
        Brett McKay said | August 20th 2013 @ 9:44am | ! Report

        Moreton, Scott’s video analysis of the backrow involvement certainly agrees with you..

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