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Like all good revolutions and re-inventions, the Wallabies at some point were always going to be forced into working out what their backrow would look like in the days beyond David Pocock.
Pocock’s looming 2017 sabbatical meant that the Spring Tour was probably going to be an opportunity for experimentation, but his broken hand will force Michael Cheika into action sooner.
Pocock was forced off in the 36th minute against Argentina on Saturday, initially as part of the re-shuffle while prop Scott Sio was off with a yellow card, but didn’t return after halftime and emerged in the second half hunched under a jacket and with his hand already significantly swollen.
He had surgery in Perth on Sunday, has already been ruled out of the games against South Africa in Pretoria on October 1, and against Argentina in London on October 8. Depending on how his recovery progresses – and Samu Kerevi’s three-week layoff with a similar injury this season is being used as a guide – Pocock could be available for the final Bledisloe Test of 2016, at Eden Park on October 22.
“It was quite swollen so it was hard for him to move his hands,” Cheika said post-match. “He wanted to play through, I had to take him off.”
Of course, he’s not long back from the fractured eye socket suffered in the first of the three England Tests in June. Michael Hooper lamented Pocock’s luck in that unique way with words he has, while also highlighting the opportunities created.
“He puts himself in such a great physical nick to play, that sucks for him,” Hooper said. “We’ve got guys chomping at the bit to get in and it’s a loss to the squad.”
It certainly does, indeed, ‘suck for him’. But it sucks for the Wallabies too, because something they thought they might’ve had more time to prepare for now has to happen immediately. And rushed plans and the Wallabies don’t always go well together.
Cheika’s options for the next two Tests at least, but also going into 2017, are to go back to a relatively traditional backrow, or fashion another hybrid backrow out of his playing stocks to best suit – and I use this term loosely – the current Wallabies game plan.
So he can find a fetching opensider, a ball-carrying and lineout-jumping blindsider, and a physical wrecking ball No.8, or he can pick the three backrowers who tickle some obscure urge for him that week and let the rugby public come up with a silly name for it, like ‘Fapooper’.
I’m not entirely sure the weekend’s win over the Pumas, or the other games on the peripheral, did anything to solve the issue, either.
Against Argentina, Sean McMahon came on for Pocock after halftime, and had a storming game – he made tackles (and didn’t miss any), he carried strongly and left defenders in his wake, made metres, and got passes away.
Hooper played a typically strong, typically Hooper-style of game, ticking all of the same boxes McMahon did, made 20 tackles for the game, and scored a try running a nice inside line off Quade Cooper in the second half.
Dean Mumm was… Dean Mumm.
Lopeti Timani might have played the most anticipated debut in recent memory, but he really didn’t get much of a chance to show anything in his 13-minute cameo. He carried a couple of times, made a couple of tackles, but played at blindside with McMahon No.8-ing up a storm.
Meanwhile, in the NRC, Ben McCalman got through about 45 minutes unscathed in his return from a shoulder injury on Sunday, and left the field with Perth Spirit well and truly in command at 38-0 on their way to a big win over Queensland Country.
Like the rest of his Perth teammates, he did nothing but tackle for the first 20-odd minutes, but also showed some nice touches around the park in attack as the tries started to rain down.
The day before Scott Fardy played 60 minutes for the Sydney Rays, in a display best described at solid without being spectacular.
But Rob Simmons was recalled for the Perth Test after two solid but not spectacular performances for Queensland Country, so by that measure, Fardy would seem to be in with as good a chance as any of starting in Pretoria.
Pocock’s injury really doesn’t solve anything, and there is a real danger that Michael Cheika will keep playing selection lotto and we’ll keep debating this for the rest of the year.
But somewhere along the way – hopefully sometime soon – the decision needs to be made about the backrow formation in 2017.
Cheika can take the easy option and play Sean McMahon alongside Hooper and Mumm, and keep compromising the forward pack.
Or, he could shake things up and realise that that combination is really just a carbon copy of something that was so 2015, and start a backrow that will improve the Wallabies ability to compete at the breakdown and make the gain line.