In a Test match, players sometimes aren’t able to hear calls or broken play may see traditional structures abandoned. In these moments, combinations stand out.
Good combinations mean you don’t need a verbal call to know what’s going on; you are just instinctively in the right place at the right time.
The Wallabies need to start locking down their combinations for the 2019 World Cup. A few old players will make way and it is important to blood new players now so their skills have time to develop and grow to Test match standard.
First up is the front row. No team can win a World Cup without a strong front row and one thing is key in this area: experience.
The Wallabies’ first choice front row of Scott Sio, Stephen Moore and Sekope Kepu have plenty of experience, but with Moore and Kepu both on the wrong side of 30, Michael Cheika and Wallabies forward coach Mario Ledesma have to make some hard decisions in the coming months.
Moore is still a class hooker and will be leading the Wallabies out for the June internationals but I don’t see him making it through to the next World Cup – certainly not as captain. Age is catching up to the old workhorse, with a few young hookers starting to gain the spotlight.
Tolu Latu is firmly in Cheika’s sights. Terrific over the ball, he has good tackling technique and is solid at the set piece, but Latu still makes basic errors, which can be costly at Test level. Similariy, Latu’s ball handling and line-out throwing lack polish and he tends to rush out of the line, disrupting his own defensive pattern. If Latu can work on these deficiencies, he can be a great asset.
First-choice prop Sio is currently out with a knee injury, which means Cheika will probably stick with the age and experience of Kepu paired with a young prop. Last year, Allan Alaalatoa and Tom Robertson were singled out. Both have great potential and to be given Test caps so young can only be good for their development. Robertson has a good combination with Kepu at the Waratahs, which might see him start the first June Test, but don’t be surprised if Alaalatoa does.
Second-row incumbents Rory Arnold and Adam Coleman should hold their places, but it has been wonderful to see the resurgence of both Sam Carter and Rob Simmons, who both have the fire back in their bellies after a lacklustre 2016, and are pushing hard for starting spots.
The back row is where things get interesting; David Pocock is on sabbatical, which means Cheika doesn’t have to worry about the advantages or disadvantages of picking the Pooper combination.
Michael Hooper will be the number 7, he is a workhorse and a leader. One of the Waratahs’ standout players this season, Hooper is strong over the ball, fierce in defence and electric in attack. He will be at the World Cup.
The real selection dilemma is who to include at numbers 6 and 8. Scott Higginbotham plays with aggression and flare, and has been a handful for defences with his offloading ability. If Cheika persists with his quick-pace gameplan, then he could do a lot worse than pick Higginbotham at No.8. However, Higginbotham’s weakness is discipline, getting into too many off-the-ball scuffles and giving away silly penalties. He needs to develop a cooler head if he wants to truly lock this position down.
The 6 spot is hotly contested, with Scott Fardy, Richard Hardwick, Sean McMahon and Ned Hanigan all having great seasons. Fardy might have done enough to get himself back into the Wallabies starting side, especially now that Sean McMahon is out with a broken wrist, but Hardwick and Hanigan are players to watch out for in the 2019 World Cup.
Hardwick the enforcer type that Cheika loves to have in his teams and Hanigan is a rangey workhorse who could become a real asset if he put on a bit more muscle.
This brings us to the halves.
Will Genia is still at the top of the tree and will start in June, though Nick Phipps is starting to pick up some momentum. One person who needs a mention is Joe Powell, who gets to more rucks than any Australian halfback in the last ten years. To back that up, his pass is crisp, fast and always in front of the player. All of these things are exactly what Cheika is after, which is why Powell was picked out of the blue last year to join the Wallabies in camp.
The only feature of Powell’s game that needs work is his over-eagerness. This year he has made handling errors at the base of the ruck simply because he was too keen to get the ball out, or wasn’t paying close attention to the pressure coming through. Making the right choice in these situations will come with experience and the time to give that experience to Powell is now.
Bernard Foley is a lock at five-eighth. Quade Cooper is his rightful back-up, but past this, stocks are thin. One or two injuries in this position could undo any chance Australia has at challenging for a World Cup, especially when players such as Beauden Barrett and Curwin Bosch are lighting up the stage in New Zealand and South Africa respectively.
As inside centre, Kurtley Beale would be right at the forefront – his combination with Foley is on point and he has the natural talent to both challenge the line and distribute. Unfortunately, Kurtley contracted a hamstring injury in Wasps’ 21-20 win against the Leicester Tigers, ruling him out of the Aviva Premiership final and June internationals.
If Kurtley was fit, he would be picked with Samu Kerevi, the latter being the form outside centre in Australia. His pace, step and pure strength are enough to worry any defence and if Kurtley and Kerevi form a combination, the Wallabies should have no trouble making mid-field breaks.
Tevita Kuridrani is playing some good footy, as are Reece Hodge, Duncan Paia’aua and Billy Meakes, but none have Kurtley’s pure talent or Kerevi’s tackle-breaking ability.
This shows depth being built in the centres, but the combination between 10, 12 and 13 has been lacking. Expect Cheika to choose Hodge to start the series at inside centre, but he will continue to rotate combinations throughout the June internationals with a view to forming the first connections for the World Cup.
The back three has always been an Australian strength, and there are four frontrunners at this stage: Israel Folau, Karmichael Hunt, Henry Speight and Dane Haylett-Petty.
Izzy is one of Cheika’s favourites and rightly so, he cops unfair criticism about his game. Sure, he has been in a bit of a form slump, but he has always been a quality footballer and better than most other options even when he is not at 100 per cent.
While Cheika will probably stick with there, Izzy lacks the positional foresight and kicking ability of a truly wonderful fullback, and when running the ball back sometimes he doesn’t go hard enough at the defence, or shifts pressure through an average kick or pass.
Putting Izzy on the wing forces him to go at the defence at full pace. and also puts him in one-on-one situations more often. His ability to always beat the first defender and keep his arms free for an offload makes him a scary proposition for defences.
Folau on the wing opens it up for either Hunt or Haylett-Petty at 15.
Haylett-Petty was in fine form until he tore his hamstring in the Force’s loss to the Chiefs in April, and he is not likely to make it back for June. Still, he is an excellent fullback – he can catch, pass, kick, tackle and is aggressive in contact. He will be in the reckoning for the 2019 World Cup and at this stage would probably be my preferred pick at the back.
Hunt has had a career-defining year at the Reds after a period of adjustment in 2016. In the off season Hunt has clearly worked to bulk up his frame, which is doing wonders for his abrasiveness and line-breaking ability. Hunt’s drive is also there, along with his ability to play the ball, making him a well-rounded footballer.
With Haylett-Petty out, Hunt would be my pick for fullback come June. He provides great value in both a sweeper and playmaking role, and his decision-making is excellent in pressure situations. Unfortunately, he will probably be picked on the wing or on the bench, which is a shame because he has put in a lot of hard work to get to the standard that a good international fullback needs to be at.
Finally, we have Speight. A traditional Fijian Test winger, Speight seems to have recaptured his form from a couple of years ago, when he was such a bright prospect. His pace, strength and finishing ability are real assets and the Wallabies need an outright winger like him to barrel into defences and give an extra bit of potency out wide.