The die has already been cast. No-one can say how long Michael Cheika’s tenure as coach of the Wallabies will last, but we can at least be sure that its success or failure – between now and the World Cup in 2019 – will be squarely founded on the performance of four players: captain Michael Hooper in the forwards, and the trio of Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau in the backs.
All four come from the Waratahs, the team Cheika previously coached at Super Rugby level. I have discussed Michael Hooper’s contribution to the Wallaby cause over a number of articles, Hooper is – a least for me – a bright star in the Cheika firmament.
The three backs form the ‘holy trinity’ of the Wallaby back-line, and it’s hard to conceive any of them being dropped without undergoing a crash in form so drastic that it can no longer be ignored or covered up.
Despite his superior international form at 10 last season, Quade Cooper never unseated Foley completely from the starting side. In a compromise, Foley was moved to inside centre and the two formed an awkward axis in the key playmaking roles. When the structure changed and Reece Hodge moved into the 12 position for the final Bledisloe game and the end-of-year tour, it was Cooper who lost his place.
Michael Cheika worked very hard, by all accounts, to persuade Kurtley Beale to return from the English Premiership after one season of a two-year contract. Wasps certainly wanted him to stay, that’s for sure.
Cheika’s efforts have been rewarded with some very influential performances from Beale already in this year’s Rugby Championship, which suggest he has matured considerably as both a player and as a person.
The way Beale fronted up to Sonny Bill Williams in Dunedin on defence showed a player unafraid to confront areas (both psychological and physical) where he has been lacking in the past – defensive doggedness, physical endurance in the close-quarter contests, sheer gritty all-day-long character.
The image of Beale’s pride after scoring what appeared to be a game-winning try against the All Blacks, with the red badge of total commitment to the cause smeared across the left half of his face, will live long in the memory:
Where this will leave Queensland’s Karmichael Hunt when he returns from injury is anyone’s guess. Mine is that he will not return to the starting side at number 12.
Hunt was one of the few Wallaby success stories from the June series against Fiji, Scotland and Italy and he is clearly another player with excellent on-field character. Hunt has a superior skill-set and he never quits on a play either with or without the ball, but it may still not be enough to get him a starting spot in a team where Beale is back at 12 and Israel Folau will be selected at number 15, come hell or high water.
Folau has been picked at fullback throughout Cheika’s reign, despite a hailstorm of calls for him to be moved variously to 12, to 13 and to the right wing. If Hunt has a place in the Australian run-on side, it may well have to be at number 14, where he will be in competition with Dane Haylett-Petty.
The selection of the ‘holy trinity’ can lead to the awkward exclusion of other deserving players. It may also draw Cheika towards a rugby universe in which attacking mastery and coherence is undermined by defensive fragility.
On the attacking side, there can be little doubt that the trio of Foley, Beale and Folau provide a potent mix of abilities – distribution (Foley and Beale), line-running (Beale and Folau) and finishing power (Folau).
Australia’s first try against the Pumas on the weekend (in the 28th minute) was a perfect template of what the Wallabies are trying to achieve offensively:
From a scrum starter in the midfield, Foley and Beale use the two three-man Wallaby forward pods in between the two 15 metre lines to fix the defence while they ‘ghost’ behind them as distributors-in-tandem, and this is particularly clear in the replay from behind the posts:
Here is a model illustration of what the Wallaby attack can achieve with ball in hand: Foley and Beale hopping from one forward pod to the next like bees gathering pollen, the forwards running straight or subtle ‘unders’ lines to collect the first defender on the outside of the pod and delay the drift, and Folau on the end of things once the opportunity has been created.
There surely can be no finer finisher in world rugby than Folau in one-on-one situations, whatever the number on his back!
Australia’s third try in the 53rd minute also owed much to the various combinations of the holy trinity and the same themes present in the first score.
Momentum is originally generated by the presence of Foley, Beale and Folau together in the first frame, with the in-ball to Folau gaining the hard yards. The finish again shows Beale’s instinct to preserve space for the attackers outside him in its best light. He runs the decoy line which drags the last Argentine defender in just long enough to allow Folau to finish in the corner.
The threat of the three Waratahs in conjunction with a power centre like Samu Kerevi is a set-piece dynamic which will create problems for defences across the globe for the foreseeable future:
In situations like this close to their own goal-line, it will be very hard for defences to work out whether they should rush Kerevi before he gets up a head of steam, or hold off and read the play developing between the holy trinity behind him. In this instance, Kerevi got the ball, and was only held up over the line by some desperate last-ditch defence!
The final example is also the simplest, and comes from the highlight reel in the 73rd minute.
Straight from the Argentine kick-off after Australia’s fourth try of the game, Israel Folau catches the ball and within two phases, Foley and Beale have created space for a break by Sean McMahon down the right sideline, eventually resulting in a try for replacement scrum-half Nick Phipps.
Michael Cheika is, and always has been, committed to the Waratahs. He even attempted to continue coaching the team at Super Rugby level after he had been appointed coach of the Wallabies! Cut him and he bleeds sky blue.
This is reflected in the loyalty of his selection policy, especially in the back-line decision-making positions of 10, 12 and 15. Those are the key roles in the kind of offence Cheika likes to run, and they are occupied by players he knows from his days in Sydney.
Loyalty will make it very hard for players like Karmichael Hunt to get back into the run-on side when he returns from injury, even though Hunt was the outstanding Wallaby back in June.
There is no question that the combination of Foley, Beale and Folau works perfectly in the offence the Wallabies are growing. With the passing variations and angles of running being developed in the two forward pods ahead of them by Mick Byrne and Stephen Larkham, the mix of straight lines and double distribution creates a host of problems for the defence – particularly with a finisher like Folau beyond them.
Defence is another question entirely, and there a number of signs to suggest that situations where Foley and Beale can be caught defending out wide on the same side of the field together (typically with one up front and one in the backfield) will prove difficult for them. But that is a question for another day…