I have said in several recent blogs on the Roar that Sean McMahon would be a good choice at No.8 long term or perhaps Lopeti Timani with the other at blindside.
For me, both these players bring skills to the No.8 position that David Pocock lacks in his overall game, not the least of which is ball carrying and as a genuine lineout option.
Michael Cheika admits that there are several contenders for the No.8 spot left vacant by David Pocock’s injury, together with his coming sabbatical next season.
He believes that 22-year-old McMahon is the front runner for the long term No.8 position.
“There’s definitely an opportunity. There’s a few guys there that will be in the mix. Ben McCalman is getting some footy under his belt, Lopeti (Timani), there’s a few other players that we’ve got our eye on, but at the moment he’s playing in the Test so he’s going to be the front runner.”
When Cheika pointed out the strengths that Sean McMahon brings to the position, things became more encouraging, as if he’d had lightbulb moment after Pocock was ruled out. Excuse my cynicism there.
That is until he made comparisons with Pocock which left me somewhat perplexed and reminded me of those accusations from some quarters that sometimes Cheika seems in denial about certain players and is reluctant to change things up.
“He’s (McMahon) done a lot of work on his jump, so we feel confident for him to be able to perform on the lineout as well. It’s nice for us to be able to add a strong ball carrier into the back row. He’s maybe not as tall as your traditional eight, but he’s starting to get some of the qualities that a traditional eight has: ball carries, a strong tackle which Poey’s got as well.”
It is that last tag that has me puzzled.
No one can deny Pocock’s strength in the tackle, but how many would call his ball carrying one of his strengths at Test level?
Notwithstanding Pocock’s breakdown brilliance, strong and consistent ball carrying has clearly been an Achilles heel in that position for the Wallabies since Pocock has been playing there.
This is especially true when compared to the ball-carrying prowess of some of those considered the very best in the world the position like New Zealand’s Kieran Read, and England’s very much improved Billy Vunipola.
Pocock made an impressive six steals against the All Blacks in the first Test, but was still outplayed by Read in that match who perhaps more than usual exposed what Pocock didn’t give the Wallabies in that position.
This for me is another Cheika moment when he does not want to come out and actually say what we all know – players like McMahon offer skill sets that are better suited to the position than David Pocock, so he tags on nonsense that alludes to Pocock’s ball carrying being one of his strengths at Test level.
Am I being too hard? Maybe. I am sure plenty will think so.
But you wouldn’t have Pocock ranging out wide with centers and wings too often like Read does for the All Blacks. McMahon you certainly could, and would.
Pocock’s class has seen him develop into a very good, but non-traditional No.8, but he still largely operates like No.7 playing 8.
McMahon stats at Super level are impressive and illustrate why he suits this position for me.
As Cheika also alluded to, he is not as tall as some traditional No.8s, but at 6.1 feet in the old scale, he is still ahead of Pocock and Hooper for height.
He can also jump – and will get better.
If we look at his stats in this year’s Super Rugby and compare them to the player many consider the best in the world in the position, Kieran Read, McMahon comes out well in all but three of the stats.
The have played almost an equal amount of game time so this makes the stats carry more weight. This however has to be balanced by the fact that by playing in the Australia conference McMahon played more games against weaker defensive sides.
Read is about almost 3 inches taller and weighs 106kg but McMahon is not a lightweight at 100kg.
Metres 360 (Av.3.13 metres per carry)
Clean Breaks 7
Defenders Beaten 9
Off Loads 15
Try Assists 5
Open Play Kicks 1
Lineout takes 54
Lineout Steals 4
Metres 564 ( Av.3.98 metres )
Clean Breaks 14
Defenders Beaten 48
Off Loads 6
Try Assists 1
Open Play Kicks 0
Lineout Takes 19
These stats show that McMahon offers the skills to be a very good Test No.8 and we know that he is a strong defender. What he needs to vastly improve is his ball skills in the carry – a common problem across the Wallabies and their Super sides it needs to be said.
He needs to improve his off-loading and have better vision at passing the ball to others around him even in tight spaces as well as the open.
Read is arguably the best No.8 in the world at doing this as his number of try assists attest and we all know his off-loading ability.
McMahon will probably never be a Read in the lineout, but no other No.8 in the world can match him there, but he is still a better option than Pocock and is genuine option as well who at 22-years-old must only get better.
I think this is one of the best moves Cheika has made this year – albeit forced upon him by Pocock’s unfortunate injury. But McMahon should be in the starting side regardless.
The rest of team remains the same with the bench to be named on Friday.
Dean Mumm, has as expected, retained his position at No.6. I don’t have a problem with this, but I do hope Timani ends up there long term and the sooner the better.
This weekend’s game is watershed moment for Cheika and his Wallabies.
Two in a row on home soil with only one being truly convincing is one thing. They must win away to show they really have got better.
No easy task at a ground they have lost the last six Tests at, and the Springboks will play like they have nothing to lose.
The Rugby Championship is already done and dusted so the remaining games are not so much for the overused and abused word “pride”, because you should have pride in the jumper win or lose.
No – the remaining games are about consolidation and redemption.
South Africa need to redeem themselves before a home crowd and remind us all who they are in the world game and especially at home.
Is that part of “pride”? Well yes , but pride alone is not enough. If it was, no team would ever lose.
Australia, after being completely outclassed by the All Blacks, need to consolidate their place as the No.3 side in the world which they hold on to by the skin of their teeth.
It will also be a telling time for both coaches.
One has not shined at all and looks completely out of his depth at this level and a loss at home to the Wallabies could see loud calls for his head.
The other has looked rattled at press conferences and lost for how to go forward after making the WC final with some poor selection choices and at times, dumbfounding tactics and woeful tactical kicking skills.
But Sean McMahon starting at No.8 is a good start for me and in my opinion long overdue. I just hope, win or lose, he has a blinder.