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The Michael Cheika era has been characterised by a rolling storm over his Wallabies selections.
It started with Nic White, Liam Gill and Joe Tomane being left out of the 2015 RWC in favour of Nick Phipps, Dean Mumm, Rob Horne and the overseas contingent brought in under Matt Gitaeu’s Law. Since then, the selection squalls have continued unabated.
With the win-loss ratio of Cheika’s Wallabies hovering at around 50 per cent, the selection process is coming under even more scrutiny despite the coach still has the backing of Rugby Australia.
So, what can happen to assist Cheika in putting the right team on the field for the right game plan?
I think there are three main things that can be done:
The Rugby Australia High-Performance Unit
Some would say that RA and High-Performance Unit is an oxymoron but this entity needs to be involved in Cheika’s personnel planning.
Cheika and the HPU must sit down and develop three lists:
One list should contain the best the three best players in Australia for every rugby position.
The second list should cover the two best emerging players in each position from our U18 pathways that can be developed and retained by Rugby Australia.
The third list comprises the overseas players we want to target and entice back to Australia due to depth issues in the first two lists.
This bounds the eligible player pool for the selection process and provides Cheika with his candidates for Wallabies camps and development opportunities. A rep from the HPU would also sit on the Wallabies Selection Panel with Cheika along with a rep from the National Coaching Panel.
The HPU also would have a key role in liaising with the Super Rugby clubs to ensure the players on those lists are played in the positions listed on the sheets.
Right now we have Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale, Reece Hodge, Matt Toomua and Jack Maddocks all being touted as contenders for the Wallabies’ number ten jersey, but only one of them actually plays flyhalf in a Super Rugby club.
The HPU would also seek to entice back any o/s players to add depth where needed and find franchises for them.
The national coach should not have carte blanche in this regard as it has financial and player welfare implications.
The decision to lock in players for five years for millions must be related to rigorous selection and strategic player development plans rather than knee-jerk populism or a coach’s demands.
The National Coaching Panel
This unit obviously needs to sort out connecting the elite pathways coaching, to the grassroots coaching, and lastly, the selection of Super Rugby and national coaching staff.
This is a separate article in itself. However, for Wallabies’ selection purposes, the NCP needs to provide a suitably qualified rep to the selection panel that has the wisdom and experience to assist Cheika in developing effective game plans and choosing the right players.
This rep needs to add scrutiny and provide some intellectual rigour to Cheika’s proposed plans and selections.
We can’t afford to leave this all in Cheika’s head – too much is at stake and a contest of ideas is sorely lacking in the Wallabies coaching setup. To be honest, the latest Wallabies performances, while gritty, look creatively stagnant and in need of fresh ideas – particularly in attack.
The Wallabies Selection Panel
As mentioned, this is a panel of three to allow a decisive vote and a proper contest of ideas.
It comprises Cheika, the HPU rep and the rep from the National Coaching Panel.
This should exist and meet for two primary purposes. Firstly, for a development of a tailored gameplan for each opponent, and secondly, to select the best 23 players available to execute that game plan for each test match.
Ensuring the right two people are chosen to support Cheika on this panel should be an RA Board decision based on past performances.
They don’t have to be Australian to be on the panel. It would help, however, if the HPU person could spot rugby talent inside and outside of the GPS schools, was respected by the franchises, and had a tactical rugby brain in their head.
The rep from the National Coaching Panel needs to be a greybeard with serious mana, strong rugby performances, and some serious credibility on test match coaching that is reasonably contemporary and cognisant of the modern game.
And no, this does not include Allan Jones or Rod Kafer. I’m thinking more a Graham Henry, Michael Lynagh, Bob Dwyer, David Nucifora or Rod Macqueen for these positions.
The key benefit of the selection panel is that it erodes player power over the coach and distributes selection policy amongst the panel.
This makes it easier for the coach to implement selection decisions without the fear of being replaced by the players over perceptions of who the coach’s favourites are.
In addition, it also spreads culpability for performances when the media hysteria peaks and the pitchforks are out while also deflecting some blame and pressure from just the coach until sanity returns. These factors alone may stop the bleeding of Wallabies coaches if we get it right.
So there you have it, Roarers. This is not exactly a complicated suggestion and should be easy enough to implement – don’t you think?
Who could be the other candidates that could challenge Cheika on such a panel?