Is there a way out of the Quade-less quandary at flyhalf?

Nicholas Bishop Columnist

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    The worst can happen. The All Blacks won their first World Cup in 24 years when forced to promote their fifth-choice outside half in the second half of the final. Dan Carter, Colin Slade, Aaron Cruden and emergency number ten Piri Weepu had all gone down injured and Stephen Donald was all that was left.

    Sir Graham Henry memorably made his phone call to ‘Beaver’ while he was white-baiting on the Waikato River, and the rest is history. Donald duly remembered his past as an All Black and came on to the field in time to kick the winning goal in the World Cup final against France.

    It was a brutal lesson about the necessity of squad depth, and the need to expose players who aren’t necessarily considered starting choices, to the rigours of international rugby before a major tournament. One day, your fifth-choice outside-half may be asked to kick the winning goal at a World Cup. It is a good idea to have known that pressure, or something like it, before the event ever happens.

    The situation facing Michael Cheika at number ten now is a long-term version of the same quandary. One part of the riddle is a set of economic circumstances in rugby well beyond his control, another part is of his own making.

    At the beginning of the 2017 season, with Christian Lealiifano rehabilitating from leukaemia, most Australian rugby commentators would have considered the Waratahs’ Bernard Foley, Queensland’s Quade Cooper and Jono Lance from the Western Force as the top three flyhalves in the country.

    For reasons which are difficult to fathom for the outsider looking in, Cooper has fallen out of favour completely after performing with notable maturity for the Wallabies in 2016.

    At the very least, with 70 caps to his name, you would have thought Cooper would make a dependable back-up to Cheika’s first choice, Bernard Foley. Nevertheless, despite having taken much of the pressure off Foley’s back after three losses to England and a rout by the All Blacks in Sydney to begin the 2016 Rugby Championship, Quade has been progressively marginalised to the point where he did not even make the squad for the end-of-year tour of Europe which begins this weekend in Cardiff.

    Meanwhile, the political circumstances which resulted in the Western Force’s disappearance from Super Rugby have led Lance to the English Premiership’s Worcester Warriors on a short-term deal.

    While Lance has been linked to Dave Wessels’ new-look Rebels squad, a move to the Premiership can be a dangerous thing. Like the National Health Service in the UK, it operates on the principle of “once we have you, we never let you go”, and a player of Lance’s quality will probably be offered considerable incentives to stay.

    With others like Jake McIntyre and Jack Debreczeni also now plying their trade abroad, this presents a problem for Michael Cheika and the Wallabies. Exactly one calendar year ago, Cheika had this to say about Lance:

    “Over the last 12 months [I’ve watched] some of the quality he’s brought since he’s been running the show at the Western Force.

    “He’s a different player to the one that I coached at the Tahs and he’s come on and I don’t think he got his cap tonight but he’s now in the system with us and we’ll keep working with him… I’d say it won’t be long before he gets that [Wallaby] cap.”

    That comment implies a serious amount of succession planning, but the linear progression from Super Rugby to national level has now been interrupted or even broken.

    Michael Cheika Australia Rugby Union Wallabies 2017

    (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

    The qualities Cheika admires were in evidence only last week, in an EPL game between Worcester and Harlequins.

    Although Warriors eventually lost the match 41-35, they did score six tries away from home and Lance had a significant hand in four of them. From the draw-and-pass for the first score at 0:33 (reel time) to the visionary cross-kick to the far wing at 0:55, the quick hands at 1:21 and long cut-out pass at 3:40, Lance looked to have a full range of attacking tools in his outside half’s box. He also made one shuddering defensive stop on Jamie Roberts midway through the first half which halted the big man in his tracks.

    With Lance’s background in winning cultures – he was with the Reds in 2011 and at the Waratahs in 2014 – and extensive experience at fullback, you would think he has exactly what Cheika needs to provide depth in the halves.

    But it has not worked out that way, at least on this year’s Spring Tour. Instead, the Wallaby coaches have had to make a choice between Kurtley Beale (who last started a game for Australia at number ten way back in 2012) and Reece Hodge (who has played all of his Super rugby from number 12 outwards) for the key decision-making role against Japan.

    They chose Hodge and the results were mixed. Hodge had a very solid game as a back-line player while understandably failing to convince that he has the specific skillset required of a number ten.

    He kicked all of his goals – a huge bonus for Australia – took on the responsibility for the drop-outs, and made the penalty kicks to touch. It was, however, Beale who did most of playmaking and exit kicking from first receiver.

    Let’s see how Hodge’s role developed throughout the game. On the defensive side of the ball, Nathan Grey rejigged the Wallaby formation from the set piece yet again. From lineouts, Hodge started on the blindside wing with Beale as the fullback defending wide, beyond Hooper and the three Ks (Samu Kerevi, Tevita Kuridrani and Marika Koroibete) in midfield:

    Hodge was paired with Beale in the Australian backfield as ‘Israel Folau’ in most situations, moving from the front-line defensive role he has occupied successfully for most of the Rugby Championship.

    In attack, there were some promising glimpses – the in-pass to Henry Speight at 10:10 (game time) for the second Wallaby try and the quick hands on the fourth at 32:39.

    But the highlights do not present a typical picture of a game in which Kurtley Beale undertook the bulk of the playmaking at first receiver. One of the jobs of a first receiver in the modern game is to ‘overcall’ for the ball from the forward pod if he feels there is an opportunity to move the point of attack wider. Hodge generally stood at least five metres back and was hesitant to overrule his forwards:

    In the first example (which led to the first Wallaby try for Samu Kerevi), Hodge leaves the playmaking to Beale on the second play, rather than demanding the ball himself on either of the two phases.

    This was a theme that continued throughout the match:

    With his willingness to play flat on the advantage line, it is Beale who puts the ball out in front of Tatafu Polota-Nau to coax him through the hole outside the Japanese defence in the first frame, then reappears at first receiver to chip the ball through for Koroibete to collect on the next phase.

    In both instances, Hodge is watching the play develop from the inside.

    There are also some concerns about Hodge’s ability to pass consistently well off his left hand. I counted four significant errors he made on plays going out towards the right wing of the Australian attack, one of which can be seen on the highlight reel at 50:20 (although the Wallabies scored anyway!).

    An interception on another left-to-right passing move occurred at 20:35:

    The Japanese defender is already in between Hodge and the Wallaby outside him (Kuridrani) as he goes to make the pass, which is high and behind Kuridrani in any case.

    Hodge does not roll his hands over the ball in these situations but tends to pass end-over-end, which tends to make the flight of the ball more unpredictable over longer distances.

    Summary
    The space behind Bernard Foley at number ten resembles something of a black hole given that Quade Cooper now appears to be out of the picture and other potential replacements (especially Jono Lance) have moved abroad, at least for the time being.

    As with the starting selections of Ned Hanigan at blindside flanker and Allan Alaalatoa at tighthead prop this season, there still seems to be a strong desire to pick a player ‘from nowhere’ in terms of a strong and palpable record of success in Super Rugby. The linear and progressive planning in the All Blacks’ line of succession is lacking.

    Reece Hodge enjoyed a better-than-average outing as a backline player in an unfamiliar position against Japan, but without ever suggesting that he would have succeeded specifically as a number ten against one of the sterner opponents to come – Wales, England and Scotland.

    Hodge’s immaculate goal-kicking was by far the biggest single win to come out of his performance, but neither the fundamentals of character at number ten (passing equally well off both hands, demand for the ball from forwards) nor the synergy of the flyhalf/inside centre connection were strong enough to worry one of the top-tier ‘big guns’.

    Bernard Foley had better stay fit and healthy on the approach road to Christmas!

    Nicholas Bishop
    Nicholas Bishop

    Nick Bishop has worked as a rugby analyst and advisor to Graham Henry (1999-2003), Mike Ruddock (2004-2005) and most recently Stuart Lancaster (2011-2015). He also worked on the 2001 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia and produced his first rugby book with Graham Henry at the end of the tour. Three more rugby books have followed, all of which of have either been nominated for or won national sports book awards. Nick’s latest is a biography of Phil Larder, the first top Rugby League coach to successfully transfer over to Union, entitled “The Iron Curtain”.