When Robbie Deans was shown the door after the British and Irish Lions series in 2013, Ewen McKenzie had two weeks with the Wallabies squad to introduce his style of game before the first Bledisloe Cup match.
The style he wanted them to play was significantly different to what Deans had been using and it took some time for the players to adapt.
In fact it took the first five matches of that year’s Rugby Championship before we started to see the McKenzie game plan being implemented.
How long will it take for Michael Cheika to get the Wallabies playing his style of game, and what will that style be?
Many are expecting to see the Wallabies playing a very similar game plan to that we’ve seen from the Waratahs since Cheika took over. That would be a very similar style to what we saw the Wallabies use when they ‘clicked’ under McKenzie.
The final Bledisloe Cup match in Brisbane two weeks ago showed what McKenzie was trying to get the Wallabies to do – play up-tempo, attacking rugby. That sort of game plan isn’t about spinning the ball wide at every opportunity – it relies on both the forwards and backs playing their role. Most importantly the forwards must generate front-foot ball before the backs can use the ball.
The first key element in the McKenzie game plan was that quick, clean ball from the ruck had to be achieved so the next wave of attackers were going up against a defence that wasn’t quite set.
That led to the second key element – when the forwards attacked they had to be in motion because static runners waiting for the ball before starting to run at the line makes it too easy for the defence to realign. When a defence is organised they can slow down the delivery speed from the ruck.
Given the high-tempo nature required under that sort of game plan, the third key element of the McKenzie game plan was having two playmakers in the team so that there wasn’t too much reliance on a single playmaker who may not be able to get into position fast enough to allow ‘continuous’ play.
Obviously the first playmaker is the fly-half. The options for the second playmaker are either the fullback (as the All Blacks do with Israel Dagg and the Springboks are doing with Willie le Roux) or the inside centre.
Israel Folau at fullback isn’t really an option as a playmaker. It’s not that he couldn’t handle it, you just wouldn’t want to waste one of your best strike weapons in attack by making them a distributor for others. So McKenzie went with either Matt Toomua or Christian Lealiifano at inside centre as the second playmaker.
The fourth key element of the McKenzie game plan was Tevita Kuridrani at outside centre, who was used to get the ball over the gain line in a slightly wider channel where the opposition backrow find it harder to get to and slow down the ball at the ruck, which completes the circle back to the first key element – quick, clean ball from the ruck.
It’s pretty simple – a game plan used by many club and school teams.
That shouldn’t surprise you – just because teams are playing at a higher level doesn’t mean things get more and more complicated. In fact, keeping it simple works just as well at any level, but you do expect players to execute the game plan better the higher the level they play. And of course, the better the players can execute, the more you can add ‘extra’ elements of the game plan.
At times the Wallabies failed to implement the attacking elements of the game plan under McKenzie. The forwards often weren’t in motion and failed to turn up physically, Bernard Foley and Toomua often seemed to be swapping the role of first receiver too much, which hindered continuity, and the game plan didn’t work as well without Kuridrani at outside centre.
What differences might we expect Cheika to introduce? I don’t think there will be many.
There won’t be any change to the two playmaker system. The first reason for that is that it’s the same system the Waratahs used with Foley and Kurtley Beale and it worked well for Cheika.
The second reason is that Cheika obviously sees Folau as a fullback – if he didn’t he would have played Folau on the wing for the Waratahs with Beale at fullback.
The third reason is that Cheika is too smart to move the Wallabies’ best player at the moment in Kuridrani from the outside centre spot where he has been playing so well. Those calling for Kuridrani to be moved in one spot are going to continue to be disappointed.
The only question will be whether it’s Christian Lealiifano or Matt Toomua starting as the second playmaker in the first Test.
The first match of the tour against the Barbarians will give Cheika some scope to experiment with players, but he may also use that match to get the majority of the Test team practicing playing under his game plan.
With Folau locked in at fullback, a second playmaker at inside centre and Kuridrani at outside centre we’ll see very much the same backline that played against the All Blacks in Brisbane run out for the first Test on the current tour. The only possible change I see is Henry Speight joining Adam Ashley-Cooper on the wings.
We’ll see Will Genia replace Nic White on the bench because White’s kick-first game doesn’t suit Cheika’s game plan.
In the forwards I also see very few changes. The starting backrow in the first Test will be Michael Hooper, Ben McCalman and Scott Higginbotham. Sean McMahon may get a chance to show what he can do in the match against the Barbarians but I doubt he’ll displace Matt Hodgson from the bench for the first Test.
The starting locks will be Sam Carter and Rob Simmons, with the only possible change I see being Luke Jones replacing James Horwill on the bench if he can really step up in the match against the Barbarians.
Will Skelton is unlikely to play in the first Test – he’s shown that he’s not up to the pace of Test rugby and even Cheika usually started him on the bench at Super Rugby level. Cheika will look to the experience of Horwill or the pace of Jones on the bench as opposed to Skelton.
There won’t be a change to the front row either – there really aren’t any options who are seriously challenging for a starting spot at the moment. There may be changes to the bench with Tetera Faulkner a possibility to replace Benn Alexander and I’m not sure Cheika will want to continue with a player nearing the end of his career in Josh Mann-Rea.
What about changes to the game plan?
In response to questions as to whether the Waratahs game plan would be used with the Wallabies, Nathan Grey said this week, “We’re a collective representation of Australia. Our game is going to reflect that.
“There’s lots of great things that each of the provinces are doing and if we can pull those positives and the really great things that they are doing into a collective then it’s going to make the national side very strong and very dangerous.”
That’s what you’d expect the new coaches to say, but the game plan the Wallabies were using under McKenzie was very, very similar to that the Waratahs have been using under Cheika so I don’t think we’ll see much of a change. That will also make it much easier for Cheika than it was for McKenzie when he first took over the squad and started introducing significant change.
We’ll probably see more kicking from the Wallabies than Cheika would like, particularly on the European tour, simply because Test rugby isn’t Super Rugby and well executed kicking is more important at Test level.
We’ll see an improvement in the Wallabies defence. One of the few positives to come out of the last two weeks for the Wallabies is the inclusion of a coach, in Grey, who has been specialising in defence before taking on this role.
I also expect Cheika will get the forward pack working a lot harder than they have recently.
The lack of a dedicated attack coach in the current setup suggests that either Grey or Cheika himself will also take on that role. That’s not ideal but given that I expect few changes in the attacking style it shouldn’t cause too many issues.
The Wallabies will need a dedicated attack coach next season and I hope they also employ a kicking coach because that will be a very important element of any game plan in Europe next year for the Rugby World Cup.