What’s your Wallabies selection bias?

Timbo (L) Roar Guru

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    After a couple of controversial, polarising articles about Wallabies selection, it might pay for all of us to take a break and understand why it is such an emotive topic.


    At this point, I leave my own West Coast ‘Royal Blue’ bias at the door and attempt to explain everyone else’s various vested interests.

    At our DNA’s core, we are tribal animals. To misquote the Quran: first my brother, then my cousin, then my village. Religious overtones aside, this is recognition of obvious human nature.

    In rugby speak – my local club, my Super Rugby franchise, my country, my hemisphere. If my Super Rugby team doesn’t make the finals, I will support the next one closest to me or my heart – but never the Waratahs.

    SANZAAR have tapped into this and I believe that this is the thinking behind home finals for conference winners. It keeps us watching, even if it is just for one more game. They have sacrificed a small amount of competition fairness for the sake some extra viewer cash late in the season – after all, this is a business.

    Last year, this tribal debate spilt into our Giteau law ex-pats. It didn’t seem to matter how good the players were or weren’t, there was a rising tide of dissent. Not only were they not from my franchise, they weren’t currently from any of my allied franchises. Older fans remembered them from ‘the good old days’ when they used to play for their franchise and gave them a free pass.

    One-eyed fans will only watch their team. Part timers watch two to three games depending on broadcast time or the perceived level of competition. True patriots will watch every Australian game.

    Die-hards watch every game, wearing a buttock-shaped grove into their couch each weekend, frothy beverage or fruit of the vine in hand salivating at the opportunity to watch one more gladiatorial battle between two teams playing the world’s greatest game.

    They will have an Australian favourite, a Kiwi and a South African franchise that they follow and probably a soft spot for the MoonDogs or Los Catos. They may even be plugged into the Six Nations and European competitions.

    It’s clear that knowledge is power. The more games you see, the better qualified you are to make a rational suggestion. The die-hards will have genuine insight into the Giteau law players and will be able to compare Wallabies selections against their opposite numbers and also predict the style of game the opposition will play in the Rugby Championship.

    If you watch your team only, other than ‘my player is great’, perhaps keep your selection suggestions to yourself.

    Highlights packages can skew opinion, producing more bias, because they tend to show only the glory boys scoring and neglect a lot of the hard work done in the engine room. Red and yellow cards usually get air time.

    Israel Folau Wallabies Australian Rugby Union 2017 tall

    (AAP Image/Joe Castro)

    Many commentators are former players and have allegiances and biases of their own. Their position gives them the power to mould public opinion. There are several that tend to talk up their own favourite players, ignoring their flaws and deficiencies but highlighting their accolades. There is dead air when the opposition do something good by making their favourites look bad.

    ‘Bah, humbug,’ you say. Keep this in mind the next time you watch a game: look for the good and bad performances that get no lip service. You will be surprised.

    Lies, damn lies and statistics
    Many Roarers and others fans love their statistics and cherry pick players’ statistics to put forward an argument as to why their player is better than another.

    Those statistics rarely tell the full story. A coast-to-coast try gives a 98-metre run stat to an outside back, but ten five-metre runs from a lock or loose forward into contact gives half that. Both are great performances but the numbers should be used only in the context of the player’s role when considering them for a position.

    I am also distrusting of stats. I went looking for some after a game and found one missed tackle for certain a player. I saw two undisputable, costly misses in the four-minute highlights package. How many others were missed?

    In the corporate world, key performance indicators (KPIs) are used to determine pay rises and promotions. Many employees only perform duties relating to these KPIs in order to further their careers.

    My inner cynic believes that there is a similar trend in sport, with some players performing only the duties that will gain them positive stats. With statistics in isolation, a failed tackle is a black mark against a player; it is better not to attempt difficult tackles to avoid the negative stats.

    (Image: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

    Bias is fine if you’re a passionate keyboard warrior – hey, it helps keep this website running – but what about the selectors of an international side? There is no room for bias; their responsibility is to pick a team that will not only win the next match but the next 20.

    The selectors’ job isn’t an easy one. They need to find a balance between picking a team of winners and at the same time nurturing depth for inevitable injuries while developing the players of tomorrow.

    What about the ARU’s policy of coach/selector? Opinions vary.

    Here are Timbo’s cold, calculated, emotion-free selection criteria:

    1. Be match fit
    All players need to have demonstrated their current form in recent games and prove that they can last the expected game time at the elite level. There is no room for players still recovering from injury.

    2. Be best for the position
    I choose my words carefully here. In many cases, especially in the backs, players are proficient in multiple positions and for the greater good may be playing out of position for their side or may be the second-best in their position but still better in a companion position. There can be some allowance for shuffling in the 10-12-15, 12-13, 11-13, 14-15 and 6,7,8 positions.

    3. Have composure, discipline and leadership both on and off the field
    Penalties and referee perception is very important at international level. This is especially important for the captain and vice captains. Wallabies players will be visible in the media for some time and will become role models for junior players. They need to be outstanding citizens in the community as well as being elite athletes.

    4. Perform all the roles associated with the position
    Players must not be asymmetric. They can’t be great at some duties but rely on other players to pick up the slack for the ones they are poor at. Different positions have different criteria – for example, the halves require agility and tend to require smaller, less physical players that may not be able to bring down a charging wildebeest like a lock or an outside centre can.

    There is no room for on-the-job training. That is what club, NRC and Super Rugby are for.

    (Image: AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    Utility considerations
    Many positions, in particular the bench, need to be able to cover multiple roles in case of injury and fatigue. It should be noted that four out of the eight subs are position specialists. A common example is that the six, eight and usually 19 can perform both back row and locking duties.

    The backs and two reserves should be able to perform at least two or three roles, being mindful that the team needs to have a sniper and a cannon on the field at all times to perform the primary kicking duties.

    Captains and other leaders are also considered to be desirable.

    Multiple options
    What many of us forget is that for many positions there are multiple players who are rated equally but bring different proportions of each required skill to the table. Postponing the debate on the Wallaby back row, I use Sam Cane, Matt Todd and Ardie Savea as a case study.

    In my opinion, all are high-quality players worthy of All Blacks selection. Each varies in playing style. I prefer Savea because in Super Rugby games you are guaranteed excitement – but spectator excitement doesn’t win games.

    Cane is better in the grind of a northern hemisphere international, and Todd is somewhere in the middle. I respect all three players but I also recognise that one may be more suitable. Thongs, joggers, work boots – all are great footwear options but not always right for the environment. The same applies to most positions in Australian rugby.

    Our Roaring debates would run better if, collectively, we could appreciate all the players’ talents and discuss strengths and weaknesses rather than whether we think a player is rubbish or not.

    Do you agree with my selection criteria? Do Cheika’s choices make sense? Let the debate begin.