The fans’ problem with the Wallabies isn’t the Waratahs; it’s the underperforming players

Fionn Roar Guru

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    Michael Cheika finalised his 33-man Wallaby squad yesterday.

    Somewhat unsurprisingly, given the current nature of Australian rugby fandom, many comments were directed towards the fact that the Waratahs and Reds made up the majority of the squad despite finishing lower than the Brumbies and Western Force.

    To some it was an example of state-based bias in Australian rugby, particularly in favour of the NSW Waratahs.

    To others, however, it was an example of fans more interested in complaining about the Waratahs than the success of the Wallabies.

    What this second group do not seem to grasp is that the complaining about Waratahs is symptomatic of a deeper frustration: Cheika’s inability to recognise and rectify key problems in the Wallabies or his willingness to select his teams based on recently demonstrated form rather than form from years gone by.

    Indeed most Wallabies fans have four key frustrations with the team.

    1. Inconsistencies on overseas-bound Wallabies
    Prior to the June series Michael Cheika said overseas-bound players would be selected in the squad only if they were to be starters in the 15.

    Many fans would have said, however, that Scott Fardy was the form number 6 in Australia. Fair enough, though – Cheika sees it differently and wants to build some talent for 2019.

    He then went on to bring into the squad Rob Horne, despite his appalling 2017 Super Rugby form – and not as a starter first the second Test. He later dropped Tevita Kuridarni, one of Australia’s better-performing backs against Scotland, in favour of Horne for Italy.

    2. Inconsistencies on the importance of Super Rugby form
    Cheika explained he let Quade Cooper out of the extended Wallabies training squad due to his poor Super Rugby form, despite there being no backup flyhalf in the team.

    Meanwhile, locks Kane Douglas and Rob Simmons were brought into the squad despite not playing well enough to start for the Queensland Reds.

    Cheika justified Douglas’ selection as being about trying to get something out of him that he knew was inside.

    Well, what about what is inside Quade? We know he can be electric for the Wallabies and he was good in his limited time off the bench in June and, but while we have no other Australian flyhalf starting for a Super Rugby team, the Western Force have a number of good locks to cover Douglas.

    To say that Nick Phipps’ form in 2017 has been ordinary would be to put it mildly. He failed to nail down a consistent starting spot at the Waratahs with Jake Gordon in the time and was subsequently injured.

    Despite this and his horror international form in 2016, Phipps has been selected over better-performing halfbacks Gordon and Michael Ruru.

    Few would say that Tom Robertson has performed better than the other looseheads in Australia or that Ned Hanigan has been better than Ross Haylett-Petty or Scott Higginbotham.

    (Image: AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

    3. Exit options and kicking for touch
    It has been painfully clear since the England series that Bernard Foley does not have a long or accurate enough boot to be the primary exit or touch kicker. His exits routinely either do not go out or find only the 22. His kicking for touch is lucky to gain 20-30 metres.

    Reece Hodge and Dane Haylett-Petty both have howitzers, and in Haylett-Petty’s case his boot is very accurate as well.

    For a few matches last year Hodge took over the touch finding duty and immediately the Wallabies started gaining 40 to 50 metres off penalties. Soon afterwards, however, Foley was back to sole kicking duties.

    No single moment summed this up better than when Foley was yellow-carded in June against Scotland. Haylett-Petty kicked for touch and took the team from well within their own side of halfway to well inside Scotland’s 22.

    The flyhalf does not need to be the designated kicker. Foley can remain as flyhalf and give up the primary kicking duties. Why has Cheika not made this happen?

    4. Set-piece woes
    Cheika’s unwillingness to pick three primaries and one secondary jumper in the line-out has been a thorn in the side of the team since the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

    However, despite the obvious necessities of more loose-forward jumpers, Cheika overlooks noted jumpers in Higginbotham and Fardy and tall-man Haylett-Petty in favour of Adam Korczyk, Jack Dempsey and Sean McMahon, despite the latter heading overseas.

    Likewise Tom Roberton’s Super Rugby scrummaging should mean that he is not considered for the Wallabies until he has at least fixed this major flaw in his game.

    Unfortunately for those who do not like the complaints about Waratahs biases, Waratahs have been the ones who have primarily benefited by Cheika’s inconsistencies and downright flaws.

    I, and countless other Australian rugby fans, are Wallabies fans first and Super Rugby fans second, and we would happily see 23 Waratahs in the team if they were the best options.

    Our issue is not with the Waratahs; it is with the underperforming players in the squad and the team’s obvious weaknesses.

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