Michael Cheika needs Christian Lealiifano at 10 or 12

Fionn Roar Guru

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    On very few occasions since Stephen Larkham’s retirement after the 2007 Rugby World Cup has the Wallaby backline looked fluid and professional in both attack and defence. Since 2007 Australia has been searching for a world class flyhalf to take Larkham’s place.

    There were periods when the backline has looked great in attack. The best example of this was in 2010 from the tour of South Africa onwards. However, the team’s defence was too weak when running a backline with Quade Cooper at 10, Matt Giteau at 12, James O’Connor at 14 and Kurtley Beale at 15.

    There were periods such as 2011 when the backline was rock solid in defence, but the team lacked a powerful attack at this point.

    During the entire period the Wallabies have lacked a consistent goal-kicker, and have lost many games over the years through an inability kick its goals.

    Aside form a brief interlude during the 2013 End of Year Tour, Australian fans have suffered through watching many talented backs squandered in medicore backlines.

    I have been saying for the better part of a year that the criticisms about Larkham as attack coach have been unfair and overstated. The team’s attack has functioned well over most of 2016 and 2017. I believe the Wallabies’ results in attack have finally started to sway public opinion on this.

    However, Cheika’s Wallabies still suffer from three major problems in the backline: defence, goal-kicking and tactical kicking.

    At first glance Bernard Foley’s kicking statistics are not too bad, at around 75 per cent. Unforatuntely, however, Foley is a very streaky kicker. There are times – often when the team is too far behind for it to matter – when he will kick over 90 per cent of his goals, a good example of this is Bledisloe 1 2017.

    There are other times, however, in which he misses a huge number of straightforward kicks. The world cup match against Scotland, the first match in the England series last year and of course Bledisloe 2 2017 are examples of this. In addition to this, Foley has a limited range and so will not attempt more difficult penalties that other kickers would, thereby boosting his percentage.

    Foley is simply a too-inconsistent kicker for the Wallabies to hope to be able to win the world cup or to beat New Zealand, England or Ireland consistently with him kicking.

    Foley and Kurtley Beale are both poor defenders. Foley had a heroic effort in defence in the Dunedin Bledisloe Test, but since then has fallen back into the old habit of slipping off easy tackles.

    His miss in the first ten minutes of the Argentine Test was very poor and was lucky not to concede a try. Beale also suffers with defence. As a result he has returned to often being hidden in the backline since Dunedin.

    A 10-12 axis of Foley-Beale is simply too much of a liability to be successful consistently.

    Tactical kicking has been the Achilles heel of Cheika’s Wallabies since Giteau departed the team. Foley has a poor clearance kick, often failing to get sufficient distance or accuracy. He often misses touch when kicking penalties.

    Beale is a better clearance kicker than Foley, but does not seem to be as accurate or powerful off the boot as he was in 2010.

    Reece Hodge has a huge boot that is useful for touch-finding. He takes a long time to get ball to boot, which lessens his value in terms of exits and tactical kicking. He is also fairly inaccurate at times off the boot.

    I believe all of these issues can be rectified with coaching, but it simply has not happened yet.

    This brings us to Christian Lealiifano. The Brumbies flyhalf’s comeback is going very successfully with Ulster, continuing the positive form he showed in his cameo for the Brumbies in the quarter-final and club rugby. Assuming his current form continues he simply must be in Cheika’s 23 from next year.

    Lealiifano’s running game is not as dangerous as Foley’s and his passing and playmaking is not as good as Quade Cooper’s. But on the other hand, Lealiifano is by far the most accurate Australian player off the tee, has the best tactical kicking game of any Australian flyhalf and is by far the best defending Australian 10 (perhaps as a result of playing most of his early career at 12, which he is very adept at).

    He is also blessed with a good pass off of both sides and, while he will not set the world on fire like Cooper, decent playmaking skills.

    Lealiifano’s presence will not return as to the days of Larkham, he is simply nowhere near that good. However, in order to shore up the Wallabies’ issues of defence, tactical kicking and tee kicking Michael Cheika simply must consider Lealiifano at either 10 or 12 in 2018.

    Replacing Foley at ten would likely relegate Foley to the bench, while replacing Beale at 12 would relegate Beale to the backfield.

    That would result in the Australian backline likely resembling one of the following two:

    9. Genia, 10. Lealiifano, 11. Naivalu, 12. Beale, 13. Kuridrani/Kerevi, 14. Hodge, 15. Folau, 21. Louwrens, 22. Hunt, 23. Foley

    9. Genia, 10. Foley, 11. Naivalu, 12. Lealiifano, 13. Kuridrani, 14. Beale, 15. Folau, 21. Louwrens, 22. Kerevi, 23. Hunt.

    Neither of these would by my first-choice backlines, but I believe both fix a lot of the issues currently displayed by Cheika’s Wallabies in 2017. Failing this Lealiifano must at the very least be on the bench in 2018.

    Given the quality of the backs that Cheika currently has available, plus Larkham’s coaching, I believe that if he uses Lealiifano correctly that Cheika can get the backline functioning at its best since at least 2013.