Cheika’s fine line of selection

Brett McKay Columnist

By , Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    Anyone that’s been involved in the selection of sporting teams at any level knows that it’s a rare event to go from one game to the next with an unchanged line-up.

    The further down the pyramid you go, the harder the job gets; players go up and down grades, players’ availability changes, injuries take longer to get over, jobs happen.

    As you go up the pyramid the job doesn’t necessarily get any easier, and there may even be some common curve balls too, but the impact on the individuals significantly increases. Drop a player in a professional setup, and you’re potentially affecting his livelihood.

    At the highest level, all the factors above apply, but then you add scrutiny, debate, rumours and politicking of selection at its zenith.

    Any possible selection decision will be debated in the lead-up, and dissected and rationalised and debated even more in the aftermath.

    This is where we find Michael Cheika this week, as he mulls over his side to face South Africa on Saturday night in Brisbane.

    Since the twin Bledisloe Cup losses last month, armchair selectors have recommended anywhere between a bare minimum of changes and ‘drop the lot of them, they’re all bloody hopeless’.

    And that’s just the posts that aren’t calling for Cheika’s head first and foremost.

    A common rationale for change is that to keep doing that same thing and expecting a different result is the very definition of insanity. But the thing here is that chopping and changing has done nothing for the Wallabies in 2016. (Click to Tweet)

    In fact, the ‘same thing’ the Wallabies have been doing in 2016 is chopping and changing at the selection table.

    Cheika made five changes between the first and second Tests against England in June, and another five between the second and third Tests.

    Much was then made of the fact that the team for the first Bledisloe Test included 13 of the starting XV from the Rugby World Cup final. But that first Bledisloe team included seven changes in the starting XV alone from the third Test against England, plus whole new bench. The point being made was supposed to be about stability, but it overlooked 15 changes from the previous game!

    Another five starting-side changes were made for the second Bledisloe Test in Wellington.

    We decry the lack of cohesion in the Wallabies attack, and lament that ‘it looked like they’d just introduced themselves to each other in the change room’. Of course they hadn’t, but there really hasn’t been much in the way of combination developing in 2016. Israel Folau, perhaps, has been the only constant.

    And so here we head into another Test week, and it’s time to debate changes again. Injury has played a role in changes made this season already, and may yet play a role this week. But even if everyone was fit and ‘training the house down’ how many would we want retained to face the Boks?

    Cheika is on a hiding to nothing this week. Make a string of changes and he’s just shuffling the deckchairs, make no changes and he’s a selection dunce without a clue.

    So what does he do?

    In the hotly debated areas of midfield and backrow, he has to back his combinations wherever possible, while treading that inevitably fine line between too many and not enough tweaks.

    If Quade Cooper stays at 10 with Will Genia at scrumhalf, and Bernard Foley stays at 12, then why not play Folau at 13 properly and run him at Damien de Allende?

    If the ‘Pooper’ combination is to be abandoned – not before time, I hear plenty of you saying – then bringing in someone like Sean McMahon doesn’t make the side stronger than with Michael Hooper and David Pocock in tandem. If it’s not a strong, ball-carrying No.8 coming in, then Cheika may as well stick with Hooper-Pocock-Scott Fardy in the backrow and have them carry on doing bits of each others’ job.

    The risk of making too many changes is that that lack cohesion continues for another Test. And given the Wallabies’ record in 2016, a nod toward pragmatism perhaps isn’t such a silly idea this week.

    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.