Is Wallabies coach Michael Cheika still trying to sort out his best match day squad? If he is, his All Blacks counterpart Steve Hansen certainly isn’t.
The 23-man squad named by Hansen for tomorrow night’s Sydney Test has a distinct ring of naming his best possible team from those available about it. That’s amply reflected by a bench oozing quality, energy and game-breaking ability. But more on that later.
If Cheika is still experimenting ahead of the World Cup, he is perfectly entitled to. After all, by comparison to Hansen he has only been in the job five minutes, with some of that time taken up moonlighting at another job.
He is also faced with blending players into his squad who are not from the local Super Rugby environment. And most of all, he is still trying to determine which players can cut it at elite Test level and who can’t – which is exactly what you’d expect working with the world’s fifth ranked team.
To that end, this Wallabies side, matched on paper against the All Blacks, suffers by comparison. It compares less favourably on experience, speed, combination, forward muscle and bench depth.
But one thing everybody knows about Michael Cheika is that he is no fool, and that he understands as well as anybody how games are not won on paper. He will see no reason why his side can’t score enough points to trouble the All Blacks, then tackle their hearts out in defence to secure a win.
The Wallabies certainly have enough individual talent to cause problems. Cheika also has a game plan to Test any team, All Blacks included. I’m talking specifically here of a return to fast ball movement from the breakdown, quick recycling allowing the backline to operate on the front foot, and to force offside penalties if no line breaks are forthcoming.
For this plan to be effective, the Wallabies will rely on the continued good form of halfback Nick Phipps, who has been a revelation in these Rugby Championships now that he has accepted that his primary role is to provide crisp and accurate service.
While running at Sonny Bill Williams is nobody’s idea of fun, the Wallabies will need Matt Giteau to straighten the attack far more decisively than he did against South Africa. And they will also look to the power running of Michael Hooper to punch holes in all areas of the field.
Most significantly, the Wallabies will need to confront the All Blacks’ forward pack. When individual matches in this recent, unprecedented run of Bledisloe Cup victories by New Zealand are analyzed, the common denominator is New Zealand winning the battle of forward attrition by somewhere around the 65-minute mark.
This is what the Wallabies must change if the result is to change.
They don’t necessarily need to dominate, but they do at least need parity. Lineout is probably easiest and the scrum is doable, not the least because the All Blacks do not seek to win the game through scrum domination alone, even if they could.
By playing David Pocock, even if he wears No. 8 on his back, the Wallabies can expect to be ultra competitive at the breakdown. The key area however, where I expect this match to be won or lost, is run metres by the forwards.
Michael Hooper aside, it is hard to see where Australia will win this particular battle. Coles versus Moore, Retallick versus Horwill, Read versus Pocock and so on. That all reads well for New Zealand, unless the try scored against Argentina last week was actually Dean Mumm’s new “unstoppable rampaging beast” persona, and not him simply wafting through some flimsy Puma defence.
Forward run metres are important because this is a cornerstone of the All Blacks’ ensemble game.
Cheika thus has two choices, either match the All Blacks’ forwards and their ability to create play or, if he can’t do this (and I don’t think he can), then simply shut it down via committed and accurate defence. The type of tackling which feeds on itself as players and fans become increasingly motivated and engaged with each successful hit.
All easier said than done of course, particularly when Hansen has such a line-up at his disposal. With Ma’a Nonu unavailable there are only two positions where a realistic case could be made for a different starter, and even then, there is absolute justification for the selections of Luke Romano and Nehe Milner-Skudder.
Romano had his best match as an All Black in Christchurch against Argentina, imposing himself physically, and there is a sense that Sam Whitelock will offer terrific value off the bench.
And while Charles Piutau was outstanding in South Africa, and is fully deserving of another start, he is preferred as a left winger, which is undeniably the property of the big bus, Julian Savea.
Besides, too many people are salivating at the prospect of seeing Milner-Skudder in Test rugby. Drew Mitchell will not have confronted anything like him in Europe, and despite the massive disparity in experience, it is Mitchell who has the harder task here.
There are also other plusses for New Zealand – this is their strongest front row, and most fans are delighted to see Ben Smith return to fullback, where he can be more involved.
Too often bench players are talked about in terms of offering fresh impetus, where the reality is more often that they are simply the next rung of players not quite good enough to make the run-on side. Australia’s replacements aren’t weak by any stretch, but this All Blacks bench is chock full of players who have already proven that they can genuinely change the course of a match.
New Zealand also has an edge in goal-kicking, and while Bernard Foley will no doubt have got plenty of quality practice in this week, there is a sense that Dan Carter’s long, slow re-entry to the top level is aligned with a return to some of his best place kicking.
What usually happens at this time of year is that Wallabies fans find reasons why their side can win. A bit like us long suffering supporters of Richmond in the AFL where, each February, with every PB set by a player on a run around “the Tan”, we inch closer to a flag – an event which invariably turns out to be a mirage.
So at the risk of appearing utterly predictable, here’s a prediction. The Wallabies have understandable reasons for optimism, and a victory is certainly possible. No one quite knows yet how the ‘Pooper’ gambit will play out, but because both are such outstanding players, Hansen will be just as if the infamous ‘Ballbricker’ from the movie Porky’s was holding him by his testicles, i.e. giving the matter his full attention.
The All Blacks do appear to have prepared well, they seem up for the game, and will not comprehend sending Richie McCaw out as a losing Bledisloe Cup captain in his last home Test, next week.
They have been together for longer, are more familiar in their combinations and game plans and, man for man, have the better players. That is too many positives to ignore, All Blacks by 10-12 points.