The Roar
The Roar


Cheika's eccentric selections lead to loss

Michael Cheika has welcome Curtis Rona into the Wallabies starting line-up. (AFP PHOTO / MARTIN BUREAU)
Roar Guru
11th June, 2016
3044 Reads

Anyone who saw the Waratahs versus Chiefs match recently would have been surprised by the sheer force of what was described as the Palu/Skelton/Tatafu Polota-Nau axis. It is a series of three cannonballs rolling into the vaunted opposition in attack and defence, and providing an excellent platform in the scrum.

Paul Cully noted this would trouble England if assembled in the June Test series, and it might well have put a stop to the rampaging opposition forward pack. So where was it?

More of the wash-up from Wallabies vs England
» Eddie Jones – genius or madman?
» Five talking points
» Pocock ruled out of series
» Match report: Eddie’s England too good
» DIY player ratings
» Roar Forum – what changes should the Wallabies make?
» Watch the full highlights

One of the three on the bench and the rest on the outside. The other standout power forward omitted, Lopeti Timani, exactly the kind of player who could put a dent in the rampaging Bill Vunipola, wasn’t even in the larger squad.

The sad old tale of the Wallaby pack being steamrolled has beeen told many times, and its lesson is still to be learned. Serious power players need to be on the pitch for the Wallabies to win regularly, even if they are not the best players in other respects.

Otherwise the pack is bulldozed. The whimsical Hooper/Pocock combination could bewitch foolish opposition coaches, but the All Blacks naturally worked it out and realised that it left the Wallabies open to a ritual bulldozing. Jones gleefully learnt the lesson.

He understood that so long as you can deal with the threat of turnovers from the two 7s, it weakens the pack physically to such an extent that it is possible to batter them off the field.

Indeed, while there was much talk of mind games before this match, little was read into the oddity of Jones suggesting Maro Itoje would play 6, only to mysteriously reverse it. What was the purpose of this?


Perhaps it’s worth looking at the result. It was suggested that with Itoje at 6, there would be too many high jumping locks for the Wallabies to be able to select Will Skelton, a weak jumper, in the second row. Indeed he wasn’t selected, and maybe this is precisely what Jones wanted, as Skelton is one of the few players who might bully his beastly pack.

What’s important here is not whether Palu or Skelton are at their best, or can last the whole match, or whether Timani is a newcomer. It’s simply that they are big monsters who can bash and bully the English bully boys.

The even greater failing is in selection of the backs because this is where Cheika should be able to win the match. The Wallabies have often lost in the forwards but won in the backs, but this relies on the getting the best of a stellar array of talent on the field.

It does not mean selecting Rob Horne and Dane Haylett-Petty on the wings. Cheika has the likes of Taqele Naiyaravoro, Chris Sautia, James O’Connor and Karmichael Hunt to choose and he ends up with one player is not obvious international quality and if anywhere as a centre, and another who if played would be a fullback.

O’Connor could be recalled at will from abroad having served a long punishment, Naiyaravoro doesn’t seem ready for a virtual debut while magically Haylett-Petty is, and Chris Sautia who for several weeks made Paul Cully’s team of the week and has more talent vastly more talent at Rob Horne in his whole body, languishes outside the larger squad.

If any of these players are not being well-coached at Super level, Cheika should sort them out and improve them himself.

To some extent rugby is simply a game of getting the most talent on the field.


What distinguishes Horne and Haylett-Petty is not what they do wrong, but what they fail to do in attack. It’s no surprise that they weren’t making the breaks and deadly runs that other players would have, and if two of the backline are sleepers in attack, a Wallaby backline is singularly failing to maximise its function as the team’s major game-changing force.

Added to all this, Eddie Jones gifted Michael Cheika a golden opportunity by sending his A team attacking players, Danny Cipriani, Semesa Rokoguduni and Chris Ashton, on a B team tour to South Africa and taking a pedestrian line-up along, while leaving Ben T’eo out. In fact the absudity of the Cheika/Jones selection strangeness was summed up by the average Marland Yarde’s unsuccessful attempt to by pass the out of position Dane Haylett-Petty. If the A team backline were tagged to the A team pack Cheika would have even greater problems.

Then there is Israel Folau at fullback, safe, but weakening the team by removing him from his best running position at 13. Again it’s as much about what isn’t done in attack as what is done. Hunt or Haylett-Petty might have been chosen there, or ideally, James O’Connor.

Quade Cooper’s a whole different issue which Cheika is already paying attention to.

A list of the most talented outside backs might return Folau, Kerevi, O’Connor, Sautia at the top, Kuridriani a notch down, Hunt in theory, Possibly Naiyaravoro. Put them all in the same team somehow and England would be shredded.

So the formula of powering up the pack and getting as much talent in the backs on the field as possible is clear.

It’s time abandon the Pocock/Hooper trick and plug the power deficit, and stop selecting average players and go for talent in the backs.


Cheika has the advantage that Jones prefers not to select his best backs and so he won’t have to face much of a backline.

This is not to criticise Cheika too greatly, as there was benefit in playing two 7s against teams too foolish to deal with them, and there were good arguments in some safe selections for the series. But now gaps must be plugged and talent chosen.