Michael Cheika’s selection conundrum at halfback

Nicholas Bishop Columnist

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    Suddenly, the summer is nearly here (at least in the UK). The Six Nations has breezed by, the announcement of the British and Irish Lions squad for the tour of New Zealand is due in two days, and there are only another six full rounds of Super Rugby before the international break.

    Time seems to have passed very quickly indeed.

    The political in-fighting over trimming Super Rugby from 18 to 15 teams has obscured Michael Cheika’s selection headaches before the Wallabies’ block of internationals kick off – symbolically enough, with a match against Fiji on June 10 at AAMI Park in Melbourne; the eye of the SANZAAR maelstrom.

    One of Cheika’s most notable off-field successes has been his persuasiveness in tilting the balance of Kurtley Beale’s choice between staying at English club Wasps for another two years and returning home to Australia.

    Beale’s decision helped show that a movement against the prevailing tide of Southern Hemisphere player emigration to the rich clubs in England and France is still possible, even if it is the rugby equivalent of an arduous ‘salmon run’ upstream.

    I strongly suspect Will Genia will follow the same route after his domestic season with Stade Francais is over, so Beale may not be alone.

    The axis of Cheika’s 2017 Wallabies side, from number 9 out to numbers 10 and 12, is one of the areas of greatest interest in selection.

    Number ten will be a straightforward choice between Bernard Foley and Quade Cooper, with Foley the clear favourite. Foley has always been the player Cheika trusts the most and Cooper’s challenge for the job has been hobbled by his three-match Super Rugby suspension. There simply is no-one else anywhere near contention.

    With Fiji, an under-strength Scotland and Italy on the June menu, there is ample room to experiment at both 9 and 12. The systems preferred by both Cheika and his defence coach, Nathan Grey, are likely to rule out the inclusion of both Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani in the centres, which means that the choice at 12 could boil down to one of Beale, Karmichael Hunt and the incumbent from last year’s Spring Tour, Reece Hodge.

    Hunt has been one of the few shining lights in a series of underwhelming off- and on-field performances by the Reds, and you sense Cheika is itching to find out what he can do on an international field, and in better-quality company.

    Karmichael Hunt Tall

    Beale, like Foley, will probably have the inside track on account of his long-standing relationship with Cheika at the Waratahs. Foley and Beale have a proven track record and worked well as a combination at Super Rugby level at 10 and 12.

    The deal-breaker may well occur on defence. Grey will not want Beale defending in the front line at 12, which means that there is a glaring hole outside Michael Hooper in the defensive 10 channel if all the other backline pieces remain the same as they did in late 2016. Rob Horne used to fill that gap from the left wing, but he is off to Northampton. Hunt is a more-than-decent defender, so it will give him a priceless advantage over Beale in that area.

    Both may get starts somewhere in the June calendar.

    At halfback, there are miles of clear daylight between Genia and everyone else. Nick Phipps has fallen out of favour with Daryl Gibson at the Tahs, and Nick Frisby has fallen out of form and cannot even command a starting spot at the under-achieving Reds.

    That leaves a group of promising youngsters that includes Ryan Louwrens at the Force, the Brumbies’ Joe Powell, Jake Gordon in Sydney and Nick Stirzaker at the Rebels.

    Powell and Stirzaker fought out a head-to-head duel at AAMI Park on Saturday, which gave some strong hints about which way the selection compass is likely to swing in June.

    Stirzaker is a scrum-half in the Phipps mould, and it is probably no surprise Tony McGahan has appointed him club captain on account of his leadership qualities.

    Outside of the positives he brings within the team culture, just like Phipps, Stirzaker has some noticeable deficiencies in basic technique around the base of the breakdown.

    Presence at the base of the breakdown
    The most basic requirement for a halfback is that he is present to clear the ball from the base of the breakdown. In the kind of game Cheika espouses with the Wallabies, involving high-tempo breakdown-to-breakdown and frequently attacking off the second or third pass, this is especially true.

    It is the halfback’s speed to the base, decision-making at it and fast delivery away from it which enables this style to be effective – witness the passing technique and speed-endurance from base-to-base of TJ Perenara in my article a couple of weeks ago.

    In the Rebels-Brumbies match, Powell arrived at the base of all 71 of the rucks the Brumbies built in the course of the game for a perfect 100 per cent ‘presence at the base’ ratio. In contrast, Stirzaker was absent at 17 of the Rebels’ 96 breakdowns, with an 82 per cent ratio.

    The negative impacts of halfback absence are a lack of continuity, proper co-ordination and decision-making. In the long reel sequence beginning at 38:26, Stirzaker’s hesitation at the third breakdown (38:39) means he has to take the ball into contact on unfavourable terms himself. This, in turn, requires Reece Hodge to step in at the base, and produces a lack of co-ordination at the next breakdown, which could easily have resulted in a winning Brumby counter-ruck at 38:55.

    At 47:09, Stirzaker is caught at the base by Sam Carter, which in turn means that Jack Debreczeni has to step in at 9 on the following phase. Hodge’s exit kick shortens up to only 30 metres on the back of his delivery from the base, giving the Brumbies a prime attacking lineout platform.

    At one point in the second period, Stirzaker was absent at the base for four consecutive attacking phases, and it is hard to envisage Cheika accepting the loss of tempo and continuity that implies for the Wallabies.

    Passing technique from the base
    While not necessarily fatal to a scrum-half’s core role, the tendency to ‘lift’ the ball off the ground does not energise the passing game unless the halfback is an effective runner who can engage the attention of defenders on the fringes.

    Against the Brumbies, Stirzaker only ran on three occasions, without threatening a clean break on any of them. The most effective run from the base was (ironically) made by centre Mitch Inman, arcing off at the first defender in Stirzaker’s place and creating space for Sefa Naivalu to score at 13:45 – see the beginning of the Joe Powell reel below.

    Stirzaker will either tend to run a few steps laterally with his shoulders turned towards the receiver (2:33 with turnover penalty at least 15 metres behind the advantage line after the second pass is made; 7:06 and 22:35), or he ‘rehearses the pass’ by pulling the ball into his chest before getting into his delivery routine (7:05, 22:35, 47:09, 51:23, 56:41).

    All of these scenarios resulted either in turnovers or positions where the defence has obviously won the battle by making contact with the ball-carrier anywhere up to 20 metres behind the advantage line.

    There is a 15-metre tackle-for-loss on the second pass at 2:33, at 56:48 number 8 Amanaki Mafi receives the ball on the Brumbies’ 40-metre line in a sequence beginning at their 22!

    Joe Powell is in many ways the polar opposite to Stirzaker in his approach to the position.

    Compared to Stirzaker, Powell gets a lot lower to the ground and his ‘lift’ is far shorter and quicker, to the point where it appears to the naked eye that he is passing directly off the deck (16:35, 17:30 and 49:27). This applies whether he is delivering the ball right-to-left or left-to-right (19:40).

    When he does take steps away from the base, his shoulders tend to stay square upfield or ‘north-south’ (16:30, 19:51, 43:29 and 49:32) and he performs something much closer to a chassé step, rather turning his body towards the receiver and leading up the defensive line.

    This is most obvious in the score from a five-metre Brumbies’ scrum at 43:32. The simple ‘good basics’ of keeping his shoulders square upfield enable Powell to engage the eyes of the last defender, Marika Koroibete, and prevent him from sliding off prematurely on to Henry Speight.

    Those fractions of a second make all the difference between a score and a fail that close to the goal-line. The combination of Powell’s greater urgency to the base, his north-south body position as he runs away from it, and his quicker and lower delivery may seem like marginal gains, but taken together they have an impact out of all proportion to the individual micro-improvements.

    The average time between the completion of consecutive phases with Powell at the base is just over 4.7 seconds, while with Stirzaker there it is roughly two seconds longer. Defensive line-speed is also influenced for the better with Powell in the ‘boot’.

    The Rebels do not have enough time to reset on defence, let alone get off the line and drive upfield, either in a simple same-way pattern (17:33 and 17:41, 49:27 and 49:32) or when the second pass is made (19:43 and 19:49).

    Both Stirzaker and Powell have some work to do in cover defence – see Powell’s miss on Sefa Naivalu at 13:52 and Stirzaker’s on Henry Speight at 46:11 – but in terms of effectiveness at the base, there is currently only one winner.

    There is plenty of improvement left in both players, though Powell (who is three years younger than Stirzaker) must be in pole position to get a start in June, especially if Will Genia is unavailable due to his club commitments in France.

    The Wallaby selectors will be using New Zealand standards of selection in the halfback position from now on, with the likes of Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara as models, and this will help Powell’s case.

    With the high tempo, big ball-in-hand offence Michael Cheika likes to run, it is easy to see what he likes about Powell. In the June international series at least, the choice may be between Joe Powell and Jake Gordon at halfback, with either Kurtley Beale or Karmichael Hunt potentially in line for starts at 12 outside Bernard Foley.

    It is indeed a brave new world for Australian rugby, on and off the field.

    Nicholas Bishop
    Nicholas Bishop

    Nick Bishop has worked as a rugby analyst and advisor to Graham Henry (1999-2003), Mike Ruddock (2004-2005) and most recently Stuart Lancaster (2011-2015). He also worked on the 2001 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia and produced his first rugby book with Graham Henry at the end of the tour. Three more rugby books have followed, all of which of have either been nominated for or won national sports book awards. Nick’s latest is a biography of Phil Larder, the first top Rugby League coach to successfully transfer over to Union, entitled “The Iron Curtain”.