Michael Cheika’s new Wallabies need a new captain: Adam Coleman

Spiro Zavos Columnist

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    Whether he jumped or was pushed, Stephen Moore has done the right thing for the Wallabies by stepping down from the captaincy immediately, and ending his splendid 12-year international career at the end of the 2017.

    It is not an easy thing to give up the honour and the extra income that comes with being the captain of the Wallabies. It is a measure of him as person and as a player dedicated to the cause of the Wallabies that, without drama or ego-massaging, he has stepped aside at the right time for the team and for himself.

    Moore deserves a last hurrah as a Wallaby in November. He has been one of the few players of his generation who has actually grown as a player and a leader throughout his career.

    The timing and details of his abdication will allow his steadying and dedicated influence to be available within the playing group and, most importantly, for the next captain.

    The sentiment in most of the rugby media is that this next captain should be Michael Hooper. I disagree.

    Michael Hooper Wallabies Australia Rugby Union 2017

    (AAP Image/David Moir)

    In the Australian, the doyen Wayne Smith insists on a Hooper ascension: “At 25, he could well become the Wallabies’ next skipper for the next decade … It’s fair to say that Hooper would have learnt some harsh lessons from his early days as skipper but the critical thing is he absorbed them into his captaincy style and now he looks the complete leader …

    “Yet it should not be seen that Hooper will win the captaincy in any way by default. He is the standout candidate.”

    But on the same page of the Australian, Mark Ella disputes this analysis: “I must say I’m not a big fan of Hooper’s captaincy. His influence and general impact went missing for the Waratahs this season, who were a sham and should be embarrassed by the way they played given their playing list and resources.”

    I must say I agree with Ella in his assessment.

    I can’t see how Michael Hooper showed any real leadership qualities with the Waratahs. The players took no notice of his instructions not to give away stupid penalties under pressure. They failed to respond to his repeated urging to lift their game.

    Some of his own decisions, notably when to take the points with easy penalties or go for the try option were wrong.

    His own play as well has far too much of the individual Lone Ranger about it, rather than the ensemble player like most good number sevens.

    This Lone Ranger mode is a strength of his game, allowing him to explode in brilliant one-off runs, for instance. But it is also a weakness, as his whole game is much less effective throughout the 80 minutes of play than it is in a handful of moments.

    Ella has summed this dilemma about his play rather neatly: “Hooper is still young and exuberant and does the work of two players but he has to decide whether he wants to play in the forwards or in the backs.”

    In other words, he is a fine player but he is not a fine number seven.

    Even Wayne Smith agrees with this assessment, as he acknowledges in his article: “(Michael Hooper) now looks the complete leader. In every respect but one: he doesn’t have a lock on the number seven jersey. Or maybe he does under Cheika, but perhaps he shouldn’t have. He plays like a blindside flanker, but without the height to be a genuine lineout jumper, which pretty much comes with the job description of a Test number six.”

    I would say that this is a fair analysis.

    michael-hooper-australia-wallabies-rugby-union-championship-2016

    (AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)

    Next year, the two best youngish Australian number sevens, Liam Gill (particularly) and Sean McMahon, will be playing out of Australia and will not be eligible for Wallabies selection.

    With Hooper as captain, there will be no incentive from Michael Cheika, you would think, to get Gill or McMahon back playing in Australia and into the Wallabies squad.

    There is also the David Pocock aspect to be considered, as well.

    The Pooper combination does not make a lot of sense from a rugby perspective. Pocock is a traditional number seven; brilliant over the ball at a time when the laws of rugby are being adjusted to take this skill, with its high risk of head injuries, out of the game.

    Like Hooper, Pocock has poor aerial skills. Neither of these number sevens has the rangy lineout abilities that a number six or eight absolutely needs.

    The next Wallabies captain, I would argue, must be for the long haul.

    There are too many question marks over Hooper’s captaincy skills and (particularly) his play around the field for his long term endorsement as the successor to Moore.

    I now come to another matter regarding the Wallabies, after Moore, that deserve consideration.

    From now on, Michael Cheika is in the position to create his own Wallabies side, Cheika’s Wallabies, going into the 2019 Rugby World Cup tournament, rather than a cut-and-paste edition of the McKenzie/Cheika Wallabies we have had for the last couple of years.

    I think Cheika intends to create his own team, the real Cheika Wallabies. The sign for me that this is the new policy is dropping Quade Cooper from the train-on squad. And, the influx of young players into the squad.

    If this is the policy, then Cheika must be applauded for starting to implement it. It looks like he is going to use Reece Hodge, for instance, as the back-up number ten rather than Cooper. Number ten is the position that Hodge played in most of his club rugby stint.

    I would hope, too, that Cheika combines Rory Arnold and Adam Coleman in the second row, to give the Wallabies size, power and some monster grunt that has been lacking in the Wallabies essentially since John Eales retired in 2003.

    Adam Coleman wins a lineout for the Wallabies

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    It was noticeable, to me at least, that when Arnold was taken off at the 61st minute of the Brumbies-Hurricanes quarter-final that the home side began their slide to oblivion.

    Michael Cheika needs to be quite ruthless with the players who were involved in the 2015 Rugby World Cup campaign. If their play hasn’t kicked on, he needs to replace them. Or, in the case of Israel Folau, switch him to a position, the wing, where his inadequate positional play and his general inability to read play is not exposed as it is at fullback.

    The harsh fact is that being a losing Rugby World Cup finalist, as the Wallabies were in 2015, is generally the sign that the side, if it is kept together, is bound for subsequent failure.

    Here are the beaten finalists in all the Rugby World Cup tournaments: 1987: France, 1991: England, 1995: New Zealand, 1999: France, 2003: Australia, 2007: England, 2011: France, 2015: Australia.

    And here are the winning finalists in all the Rugby World Cup tournaments: 1987: New Zealand, 1991: Australia, 1995: South Africa, 1999: Australia, 2003: England, 2007: South Africa, 2011: New Zealand, 2015: New Zealand.

    The interesting thing about these two lists is that there is very little correlation between being a losing finalist and a subsequent World Cup triumph within the next couple of tournaments.

    France has played in three losing finals and has never won one.

    It took England three more tournaments before it converted their losing 1991 final in a finals victory in 2003.

    It also took New Zealand four more tournaments before converting their 1995 finals loss to a finals victory in 2011.

    South Africa has won two Rugby World Cups and has never played in a losing final.

    Australia lost the 2003 final and has not won one since.

    Stephen Moore Wallabies Australia Rugby Union Test Rugby Bledisloe Cup 2016

    (AAP Image/David Moir)

    On the other hand, countries that have won a Rugby World Cup tournament, with the exception of England, have gone on to win another.

    Rugby writers have developed the idea of sides “peaking too early” for Rugby World Cup tournaments. I think we should be developing the “beaten finalist curse” as a more obvious and more accurate notion.

    A reason for the curse, I would suggest, is the mistaken belief that teams that get beaten in the final will somehow grow into being champions next time around.

    This mistaken belief tends to encourage coaches to keep the bulk of the losing team for the next tournament.

    The better plan is to rebuild the team with younger players, as the All Black coaches and selectors did in 2012 when they introduced nine new players and kept only the best of the veterans.

    Michael Cheika seems to be doing this very thing this year. Good.

    He needs to make one other dramatic change, I would argue. He needs to bring in a captain who was not part of the Rugby World Cup 2015 challenge.

    That captain should be Adam Coleman, the captain of the Western Force side that comprehensively defeated the Melbourne Rebels late in the 2017 Super Rugby season.

    Coleman is assured of his place in the Wallabies, unlike Hooper.

    He has presence on the field, something that Hooper, for all his zipping around and his high octane energy, does not have.

    Coleman, also, has a presence off the field, something the baby-faced Michael Hooper really doesn’t have.

    This presence, on and off the field, is possibly the most important attribute a rugby captain can have.

    I am reminded here of Ian McGeechan, coach of the 1997 British and Irish Lions, explaining why he picked Martin Johnson, a player without much captaincy experience, to lead the team through South Africa: “I wanted someone at the coin toss the Springboks could literally look up to.”

    Earlier this year, I suggested that Bernard Foley should be the Wallabies captain when Stephen Moore stood down. I feel now that the Wallabies would be best served with Foley being vice-captain and having the role of the on-field tactician, which the number ten does anyway, allowing Coleman to lead by example with his super aggressive play in the forwards.

    Wayne Smith in his article quoted earlier concedes that “as for a ‘Prince William’ selection (for Wallabies captain), there is only one possible contender lock Adam Coleman … But he has only captained the Western Force once, to a win over Melbourne Rebels, and it won’t hurt at all to allow him to spend some time working on his own game.”

    I can’t see why Coleman can’t develop as a player and as a captain at the same time.

    The importance of a forceful and tough-minded captain as the essential ingredient for a successful team has been spelt out in an interesting article in the Herald online written by Dylan Cleaver and headlined: “McCaw, Shelford reason for All Blacks dominance, claims new book.”

    The book is ‘The Captain Class: The Hidden force that creates the world’s greatest teams,’ written by the Wall Street Journal deputy-editor of enterprise Sam Walker.

    Walker identified the 16 greatest teams of all time, in his opinion. The All Blacks, in the Wayne Shelford era and the Richie McCaw era, were the only rugby team and the only team to make the list twice.

    All Blacks captain Richie McCaw

    (Photo: AFP)

    Dylan Cleaver makes this observation about Sam Walker’s research: “Expecting the common denominator between the Tier One teams to be the usual suspects of superstar players, enlightened coaching and administration, or financial muscle, Walker was shocked to learn this wasn’t always the case – in fact it usually wasn’t.”

    What Walker actually learnt was, as he explains in the book, this truth:

    “On a whim, I decided to make a list of the primary player-leaders of these 16 teams to see if any of their careers also served as bookends for their teams’ Tier One performances. The results of this exercise stopped me cold. (Every team’s dominant) performance corresponded in some way to the arrival and departure of one particular player. In fact, they all did. And with an eerie regularity that person was, or would eventually become, the captain.”

    As Cleaver points out, in the case of the two All Blacks teams the player/captains were Shelford and McCaw.

    Sam Walker identified seven traits that all 16 captains shared:

    • Extreme doggedness and focus in competition
    • Aggressive play that tests the limits of the rules
    • A willingness to do the thankless jobs in the shadows
    • A low-key, practical and democratic communication style
    • Motivates others with passionate non-verbal displays
    • Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart
    • Ironclad emotional control

    The only current Wallaby who goes close to sharing these traits is Adam Coleman.

    This leads me to the inevitable conclusion that the best decision from a coaching perspective Michael Cheika might make would be to appoint Coleman as the captain of the Wallabies going into the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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