In November last year, immediately after the Rugby World Cup, I wrote an article entitled Moving on to the Wallabies’ England series in 2016.
I have updated that article to take into account injuries and form.
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. Michael 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 to this 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 this 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. Toby Smith seems the next cab off the rank, and with all three still young the future looks good.
For hookers, Stephen Moore is in good form, but will he be around for the next World Cup? Tatafu Polota-Nau is a proven performer but 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. Later, perhaps is Andrew Ready?
Tighthead prop is a position that worries me. Yes, Greg Holmes is playing well and likely to start, but 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 is a certainty for the Tests next year, but who to partner him? 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 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.
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.
Christian Lealiifano is not one of Cheika’s favourites, but with Beale out is a real possibility. 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 has serious reservations.
Foley will start, but Debreczeni’s less than stellar form makes selection of the back up ten a challenge.
Hopefully this 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, but is injured and so not in the squad, but it might be the time to give someone like a Samu Kerevi a run.
All things being equal Tevita Kuridrani will be at No.13. His form this year has been patchy but he has shown what he is capable of at the highest level.
Folau at 13 has been relatively successful, but can this translate at the international level against a quality opponent?
Given our wing stocks 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 with Joe Tomane and Henry Speight injured who should in the starting side. Luke Morahan is one who I thought had a big future ahead of him, but has had limited opportunity.
Israel Folau has been a very good fullback for the Wallabies, albeit with some limitations. Dane Haylett-Petty has been a revelation for the Force, and looks a great chance for Wallaby selection sometime this year. Karmichael Hunt has a lot of poise and class, and despite many negative comments on the forum is a real chance for the game day 23.
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 kicked conversions (not total attempts but conversions of tries) at 71 per cent, while Dan Carter was 77 per cent.
Note the following players out through injury: Kurtley Beale, Matt Toomua, Joe Tomane, Henry Speight and Kane Douglas.
Wallaby potentials for England 2016 (with age as at June 11, 2016)
Run on; bench; Next in line
Slipper (27); Sio (24); Smith (27)
Moore (33); Hanson (27); Polota-Nau (30)
Holmes (33); Weeks (30); Faulkner (27)
Simmons (27); Coleman (24); Arnold (25); Neville (27); Carter (26)
Fardy (31); Dennis (30); Jones (25)
Pocock (28); Hooper (24); McMahon (21)
Timani (25); McCalman (28); Hollaway (23)
Phipps (27); Frisby (23); Prior (25)
Foley (26); Lealiifano (28); Debreczeni (23)
Kerevi (22); Lealiifano (28); Godwin (23)
Kuridrani (25); Folau (27); Kerevi (22)
Haylett-Petty (26); Morahan (26); Horne (26)
Folau (27); Hunt (29); Haylett-Petty (26)
Slightly more important than the strength of the scrum is the strength of the line out, so we need at least three genuine line out options! This means if Cheika goes for the ‘Pooper’, both Locks and the blindside flanker need to be genuine line out options! If Cheika goes with Skelton as one of the locks, then the No.8 must be a genuine line out option!
Given Cheika’s fetish for Hooper as a run on player, Pocock then must be at No.8 (unfortunately).
How can I place Timani as the number 1 No.8 when he is playing as a Lock? Because of his background and natural style of play!
If Kerevi is at 12, and Folau is at 13, then Hunt will be at 15. If Folau is at 15, 12 will be a ‘ball player’ (what that exactly means is open to very broad interpretation!), more than likely Lealiifano. If only Godwin had more time to prove his wares, he might have been a show.
I’m a big fan of having two of the back three as fullback capable. Given his form, and dearth of high quality Test-ready wingers, I’d look to give Haylett-Petty a go.
While Horne can fill in admirably on the Wing at Test-level, I’d look to a real positional expert – perhaps Morahan – a good run.
From this group my game day 23 would be:
As I said last year “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.”