I wanted to wait some time after the World Cup to let the disappointment subside before writing on the Wallabies in 2016, and for Brett McKay to do a write up on the stars of the NRC so I could shamelessly copy and paste it into my article (still waiting on that, Brett).
Before I launch into the Wallabies squad for the upcoming Test series against England, here are some observations that should influence selection.
The Wallabies scrum has improved immensely. Cheika needs to get the selection of the entire pack right so this can continue. On the other hand our once-vaunted lineout has fallen away, and it is a critical area that needs rectifying.
We also need more players who can consistently make turnovers and not leave it to just a few to do it. And while we do need two ‘playmakers’ in the backs, does one of them need to be at No.12?
Finally, the All Blacks have shown that they might not be the best at a certain aspect of the game, but they are the best at a lot of them and if not the best they are very competitive.
As we look forward to next year’s Tests we should be positive about the Wallabies’ chances of doing well. This all starts with the series against England in June.
Cheika, no longer faced with limited time to prepare for a major tournament, needs to find a balance between winning and developing. There should be no use of the ‘Giteau Law’ for the Tests against England.
Those who qualify for the 60-7 option should be sealed in glass with the sign ‘break glass only in time of a World Cup or Bledisloe’.
Having said that we shouldn’t be discarding all those experienced players still playing in Australia. The blooding of new players needs to be done at an appropriate pace, because we still need to be winning.
While there needs to be an eye on 2019, we can’t let the next World Cup become too much of a focus next year. So how does the Test series against England in 2016 look, position by position?
The Wallabies look pretty good for loosehead props, with Scott Sio and James Slipper (who may be short of a run before the England Tests). Toby Smith seems the next cab off the rank, and with all three still young the future looks good.
For hookers, while Stephen Moore is a good player he seemed below his best this year and most likely won’t be around for the next World Cup, and Tatafu Polota-Nau is unfortunately only one concussion away from retirement.
We need to give the next best No.2 some quality time against England and James Hanson appears to be that person.
Tighthead prop is a position that worries me for next year. Yes, Greg Holmes will still be around and did well off the bench this year but I don’t see him as a starter. It is very unlikely he will be around in 2019. If Laurie Weeks is fit and in form he is a chance, but I’d be looking at giving Tetera Faulkner or Ruan Smith a chance against England.
For locks, Rob Simmons and Kane Douglas are the frontrunners for the Tests next year, but the latter might be underdone. Will Skelton is a favourite of Cheika’s and brings certain strengths to the team, and deficiencies in other areas. If Cheika doesn’t see Sam Carter as a serious contender (and I have a feeling he doesn’t), then Rory Arnold, Adam Coleman or Cadeyrn Neville are good chances for a run.
Scott Fardy has done very well this year as a blindside flanker and as a lineout option. Dean Mumm has offered a similar skill set, though is less of a No.6 and more of a lock. Neither are likely to be at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Sean McMahon has shown good skills and abilities with limited opportunities, but unlike Fardy and Mumm isn’t a genuine lineout option. Luke Jones is somewhat in the mould of Fardy and Mumm and should be given a run if a ‘jumping six’ is what the team needs.
I round out the forwards with the ever contentious issue of the openside flanker! I will crudely divide the options here as the ‘David Pocock and Liam Gill’ style and the ‘Michael Hooper and McMahon’ style.
Yes, it’s an over-simplification but this is broadly the divide. Can you get away with one of each style in the starting side? Yes, of course, and it has been shown to work. Will it work all the time? No! Does it depend on the make up of the rest of the pack? Most definitely!
As mentioned, Cheika needs to continue to development of the Wallabies scrum while rectifying the drop off in our lineout. Central to both these issues are our locks.
When it comes to who to select as the locks it’s not so much the quality and quantity of the ones available, but the make up of the 4, 5, 6 and 8. I believe the Wallabies need three genuine lineout options.
While players like Skelton and Hooper can take a throw or two in a Test, they are not consistent and regular options. This doesn’t mean they can’t be in the team of course, but it does mean balancing the starting and bench forwards is a little tricky.
If one of the locks (let’s say Skelton) isn’t a genuine option, then 6 and 8 need to be. If the No.8 isn’t a genuine option, then 4, 5 and 6 need to be. This was the set-up with Simmons, Douglas and Fardy that allowed Pocock to play No.8 and Hooper at No.6, and what will be needed if someone like a Ita Vaea is selected.
Ben McCalman is a lineout option, and while he’s a good player I don’t see him as a run-on No.8 against the top teams. Perhaps Sitaleki Timani could be an option at No.8 if one of 4, 5, 6 is not a jumper.
Now that the easy part is done let’s move to the backs.
Nick Phipps is likely to start but his backup is probably a race between Nic Stirzaker and Nick Frisby. Stirzaker was very good in Super Rugby last year, and I feel Frisby will really show what he can do now he is out of Will Genia’s shadow.
I think if Ian Prior is given substantial time at the Force he could well come into consideration, and he is a good goal-kicker (more on that later).
I don’t see Cheika selecting Christian Lealiifano or Matt Toomua. Lealiifano has done well at Super level, but the fact that Cheika didn’t select him for the World Cup when neither of Bernard Foley or Quade Cooper were a lay down misere for the spot suggests to me he is not likely to get the job.
Foley will start, depending of course on how he is after a season in Japan and heading straight into the Super Rugby season. Jack Debreczeni (Super Rugby) and Jake McIntyre (NRC – yes, I realise it is third tier) have shown some skill and both are prospects, but it would be asking a lot for them to play major roles against England next year.
If Jono Lance gets substantial opportunity at the Force he may well come into contention. He has substantial Super Rugby experience in big matches, and did very well recently in the NRC. He has also done very well with his goal-kicking.
Hopefully next year we will see Cheika try a different approach at inside centre, someone who might be something different. Toomua has done a good job for the Wallabies, and he should be in the squad, but it might be the time to give someone like a Samu Kerevi a run. I honestly don’t see Kurtley Beale as a run on No. 12, or No.10 for that matter.
All things being equal Tevita Kuridrani will be at No.13 next year. His form this year was patchy but he did show what he is capable of at the highest level.
There was some talk this year about Israel Folau moving to the centres. I can see Folau at 13, competing for the ball when we kick-off, and taking it to the line as Kuridrani does, but with a better ability to offload to support on the inside or outside.
If he is to be picked there he needs substantial time there for the Waratahs next year. Rob Horne of course can cover 13, but we need to be looking at someone more likely to break the line.
Given our two starting wings are both playing overseas this is a real opportunity for someone to really take hold of the position. Horne has done well there and will certainly be in the mix, but neither Joe Tomane or Henry Speight have convinced me they should be in the starting side.
Luke Morahan and Dom Shipperley are two who I thought had big futures ahead of them. If either shows good form during the Super Rugby season I can easily see them in a 23-man squad.
I can see Beale as the run-on fullback for Australia next year. I didn’t pick Beale for the World Cup squad, for a number of reasons, but all you can do is perform when you get the chance and he did. His defence has improved and most of the time he realised he didn’t have to do it all himself, and as a result played better in the team.
I am not suggesting Folau should be moved just to accommodate Beale. Beale could start on the wing, or at No. 15 if Folau is at No.13 (or if Folau is injured).
As for the critical issue of goal-kicking, Australia should not adopt the ‘Brearley’ approach and pick a kicker who does not deserve their position in the team for their primary role.
Having said that the kicker needs to have an excellent conversion rate. At the World Cup Foley kick conversions (not total attempts but conversions of tries) at 71 per cent, while Dan Carter was 77 per cent.
Lance and Prior both kicked at 83 per cent for the NRC (yes, I know it’s not the Rugby World Cup) which were almost entirely for try conversions and not penalties. If it is a close call between two players and one is a goal-kicker with a try conversion success rate of over 80 per cent, then pick that man!
Ruan Smith (26)
Rory Arnold (25)
Jono Lance (25)
From the first Test next year Cheika needs to blood new players and have an eye to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but the Wallabies need to keep winning and we should look to ‘break the glass’ only in time of an emergency.
The Test series against England next year is not an emergency, but an opportunity! Cheika just needs to get the balance right.