You just knew during the Rugby World Cup 2019 draw that Japan is going to run a brilliant tournament.
It will be as efficiently run as their fast trains. There will be, too, authentic Japanese touches such as a fastidious attention to tradition in the running of the tournament, as befits a nation that sees itself as “the Britain of Asia.”
At the ceremony to find out who was going to play which other country in 2019, there was a touch of the theatricality of Noh drama as the Prime Minister, the Mayor of Tokyo, the All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and the chairman of World Rugby, Bill Beaumont, pulled out the white balls naming a country to be slotted into the draw, working from the bottom line of the draw upwards.
And there was an obvious enthusiasm and passion for the occasion.
The crowd and the officials from the 20 countries expressed their feeling with ‘oohs’ as it became obvious that Japan would be challenged by Ireland and Scotland for a place in the finals, for instance.
There were barely suppressed groans as the New Zealand ball was pulled out to match South Africa in their Pool B.
And real groans when it became obvious that England was going to be in another “pool of death” with France and Argentina in Pool C.
This was the first Rugby World Cup draw I had watched live. It happened because I was being an expert on a panel for a Roar TV video covering the event. I found the experience quite gripping. There was a lot of drama, it seemed to me, in an event that had never struck me as being that dramatic.
Our panel came to the obvious (it seems now but who knows?) conclusion that England seemed to be trapped in a second pool of death experience in successive Rugby World Cup tournaments.
We also agreed that Australia looked to have a perfect draw, with only Wales (a team the Wallabies invariably have defeated in recent years) as their only real opposition.
The Wallabies have never played Georgia, the other nominated side in their pool, and if their scrum holds up, this should be an easy victory for the Wallabies.
The other two teams in the pool are Oceania 1, possibly Fiji, and Americas 2, probably the USA.
Something that was not clear at the time of the video is that Australia’s perfect draw in the pool round seemed extends to the finals, if the Wallabies are unbeaten going into them.
The point here is that the winner of Pool D, hopefully Australia, plays the runner-up in Pool C (probably France or Argentina).
The winner of Pool D then plays the winner of the Pool A quarter-final, which is likely to be either Ireland or South Africa.
In other words, the Wallabies could go through to the 2019 Rugby World Cup grand final and not have to face the All Blacks until the last game of the tournament, if the All Blacks can defeat (presumably) Scotland or England in the finals.
To make these points more easily understood, this is how the New Zealand Herald envisages the way the knockout part of the tournament will proceed:
Quarter-final 1 – Pool B winner (All Blacks) v Pool A runner-up (Scotland)
Quarter-final 2 – Pool C winner (England) v Pool D runner-up (Wales)
Quarter-final 3 – Pool D winner (Australia) v Pool C runner-up (France)
Quarter-final 4 – Pool A winner (Ireland) v Pool B runner-up (South Africa)
Semi-final 1 – Winner of quarter-final 1 v winner of quarter-final 2.
Semi-final 2 – Winner of quarter-final 3 v winner of quarter-final 4.
The Stuff website follows this same predicted outcome, with an additional quizzical flourish: Final – New Zealand v Australia?
The question mark reflects comments made in a Stuff article that has the heading, ‘All Blacks could face Rugby World Cup final rematch with the Wallabies’:
“It seems odd that the second-seeded team in the world (England) would be on the same side of the draw as New Zealand but that’s the way it is set up.
“That leaves the way open for Australia, the third-seeded team, to make their way through the other side of the draw with the likely match-ups against France in the quarters and Ireland in the semi-finals.
“However, on current form, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has some work to do to get his side competitive after a woeful Super Rugby season for Australian sides.”
That appraisal is an under-statement, in my opinion. There is a very real problem with the overall lack of Test-quality players in the Australian Super Rugby teams. This raises the question: does Michael Cheika have the cattle to mount a viable Rugby World Cup challenge in 2019?
This is undoubtedly the worst season the Australian teams have experienced ever in the Super Rugby tournament.
After 12 rounds, the five Australian Conference teams have accumulated a total of 62 conference points, with 13 wins only, just over a win a round.
The four teams in South African Conference 1 have accumulated 42 conference points and 12 wins.
The four teams in South African Conference 2 have accumulated 122 conference points and 26 wins.
The five teams in the New Zealand Conference have accumulated 197 conference points and 43 wins.
The woeful nature of the performance of the Australian teams is highlighted by a comparison between the statistics of the Brumbies, the leading Australian side, and the Blues, the last-placed side in the New Zealand conference.
Brumbies: played ten, won three, lost seven, points for 200, points against 207, BP1 1, BP2 6, table points 19
Blues: played 11, won six, lost five, points for 332, points against 268, BP1 4, BP2 3, table points 31
Remember, the Brumbies with their minus seven points differential are the leading Australian side and the Blues with their plus 64 points differential are the bottom New Zealand side.
If the Brumbies maintain their Australian Conference lead, they will play a home final. But if they drop to second place in the Australian Conference, they won’t be playing in the finals.
Right now, the Blues are not in the top eight. The Brumbies and the Stormers (26 points) are leading their conferences and are in line for a home quarter-final.
This means that the bottom New Zealand team has more table points right now than two of the teams assured (so far) of home finals.
Such is the madness of the current Super Rugby system.
However, John Eales pointed out before the 1999 Rugby World Cup tournament, you only need 15 players on a rugby field at one time. You don’t necessarily have to have 100 Test standard players to have a champion side. You need only 15, with the effectiveness of “finishers” on the bench.
The question is, then, does Michael Cheika have access to 20 or so Test standard players who could win a Rugby World Cup tournament as Eales did in 1999?
The answer is that right now he does not.
This means Cheika needs to jettison the older players who, admittedly, did well for the Wallabies in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
I think he will do this. A week or so ago, he told rugby journalists: “We’ve been watching players individually in detail, not just established guys but the new ones and there is plenty to like.”
He went on to insist that he, Stephen Larkam and Nathan Grey were intent on “ushering in a new generation of new players who would be used in the June Tests against Fiji, Scotland and Italy.”
So far, so good.
But who should be these new generation players to be ushered in? And who should be ushered in?
Well, let’s start with the front row, called by the French ‘the orchestra pit’ because the rugby music is made there. It is time to move Stephen Moore on from the captaincy of the Wallabies. He might be retained as one of the back-up hookers.
But in reality, his time as a Test player is up. Michael Cheika should know from the experience of George Gregan, who stayed on three years too long with the Wallabies as captain, that skippers have a used-by date, as well as other players.
My choice of captain would be Bernard Foley. I know, I know that Michael Hooper is the Wallaby captain in waiting. But I have been unimpressed with his captaincy for the Wallabies in the past and for the Waratahs. He seems to often take the wrong option, particularly when it comes to turning down relatively easy kicks at goal in the hope of scoring a try from a rolling maul.
Tolu Latu, the Waratahs hooker, and Tetera Faulkner, the Force prop, are obvious choices for promotion to the Wallabies front row.
Latu plays like another loose forward and is particularly effective at turnovers. Faulkner is a terrific scrummager. When was the last time this could be said about an Australian (albeit New Zealand-born) prop?
A crucial element in the Western Force’s magnificent victory over the Jaguares at Buenos Aires was their strong scrummaging anchored by Faulkner.
In the second row, Cheika should go for the Arnold brothers, Rory and Richie, and Adam Coleman. Richie Arnold, the one uncapped player in this trio, virtually single-handedly repulsed the driving mauls of the Jaguares.
These three giants, who are all skilful and physical around the field, will provide the height to compensate for a back row of Michael Hooper, Sean McMahon and Scott Higginbotham.
A pack built around these players would be a much stronger and competitive entity than most of the packs fielded by the Wallabies in the last decade.
There is, obviously, a shortage of talented halfbacks in Australian rugby right now. The best and, most importantly, ones with the most potential to develop into fine Test players are Joe Powell (Brumbies) and Jake Gordon (Waratahs).
There is no obvious back-up for Bernard Foley as a playmaker and I am putting forward something that might be controversial but worth considering for all of that. Why not develop Reece Hodge as the alternative to Foley?
Hodge has nice passing skills, he is an adroit kicker of the ball, he has speed and good hands and he seems to play with plenty of time. He reminds me a lot of the young Stephen Larkham who fluctuated between halfback, fullback and centre before Rod Macqueen made the inspired switch and moved him to number 10.
We might never see another Larkham. I rate him with Mark Ella as the greatest of the Wallaby number 10s. But Hodge could be, in his own right, a star playmaker for the Wallabies with the slightly different skills he could bring to the position.
Early on in the season, Cheika suggested that the Force’s centre pairing of Curtis Rona and Bill Meakes had something going for it. I agree. They both played well, again, against the Jaguares over the weekend.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about Kyle Godwin. His performance for the Brumbies against the Lions was ordinary, despite the couple of breaks he made.
The Wallabies have a potential super star in Samu Kerevi, playing either at inside or outside centre. Kerevi was explosive once again for the Reds against the Rebels and scored the winning try, his second of the match, with yet another smashing run.
The days of Tevita Kuridrani as an outside centre for the Wallabies are numbered. He might be tried as block-busting type of winger, perhaps.
Henry Speight and Karmichael Hunt are two players who have pushed their chances forward this season. Speight has been the main attacking player for a Brumbies side that generally finds it difficult to score tries.
They have scored a three-tries-plus bonus point only once this season. The Lions, Crusaders, Chiefs and Hurricanes have each achieved six three-try bonus points results this season.
Hunt will be in his 30s by 2019 but right now he is better value for the Wallabies at fullback or centre than Israel Folau.
Folau comes off contract next year. Unless he picks up his play, especially in the big matches, there is no way the ARU can top up his salary to the superstar rating he currently enjoys and remain credible as an organisation that uses its diminishing resources in a smart and effective manner.
I remain convinced that the only position Folau can excel at in rugby is on the wing. He lacks the defensive and passing skills for the centre position. He is a poor kicker and lacks any understanding of positional play to be a devastating fullback.
For more discussion on these matters, I refer to an article, ‘Cheika to tackle generational change’ written by Mark Ella in The Australian some weeks ago where he nominated these players as the sort of new blood Michael Cheika must bring in to the Wallabies, starting with the June Tests: Richard Hardwick, Curtis Rona, Jake Gordon, Duncan Paia’aua, Tryel Lomax (before the All Blacks grab him!), Izaia Perese, Sef Faagase and Izack Rodda.
I will finish on one further observation. It is immaterial, in many ways, who the players are that might be brought in if the coaching is not up to standard.
And here I would argue that there is nothing in the coaching CVs of Nathan Grey or Stephen Larkham that guarantees them a job with the Wallabies.
Nicholas Bishop on The Roar has made a convincing case that there is something fundamentally wrong with the defensive patterns used by the Waratahs.
These patterns are devised by Grey. They proved to be fatal for the Wallabies in the final of Rugby World Cup 2015 and have been disastrous for the Waratahs this season.
Stephen Larkham is going to become the full-time attack coach for the Wallabies at the end of this Super Rugby season. Under his coaching, the Brumbies have become an ineffectual mauling machine.
With their defeat by the Lions at Canberra, the Brumbies have lost four games straight and have been kept tryless for the second game in a row. The last time this happened was ten years ago. What a fall from rugby greatness for the Brumbies!
If anyone is under the delusion that players, not coaches, champion sides they should look at the 2017 Crusaders. Scott Robertson has revitalised this famed franchise with extremely good coaching, an important facet of which is shrewd selecting.
The rebuilding of the Wallabies, therefore, begins with the rebuilding of the team’s coaching staff.
And, in all fairness, unless this is done effectively, it doesn’t matter who is brought into the Wallabies squad, whether they are new or well-established players.
The real question about the the chances of the Wallabies capitalising on their dream draw in Rugby World Cup 2019 may well be this: does Michael Cheika have the coaching cattle to win the tournament?