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If you want a Wallabies shake-up, this may be the time

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Expert
13th September, 2018
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Spring is the time for new beginnings and fresh starts.

The change of season has certainly had an effect on Michael Cheika, but perhaps because it was coupled with talk of changing the Wallabies coach.

Two heavy defeats to the All Blacks last month – to end another bleak Wallabies winter – reinforced the cold reality that Australia were well off the pace a year out from the World Cup.

The Wallabies had chalked up just one win over seven Tests. New Zealand, Scotland and England had thumped them and Ireland had ground them down.

The chatter about ditching Cheika inevitably surfaced.

Fans’ expectations have always been high and after their poor performance, the heat was on.

There was an inkling Cheika wasn’t going to play favourites when he axed prop Sekope Kepu – a staple at the Waratahs and Wallabies – for the second Bledisloe Test at Eden Park.

But the big surprise came a week ago when he cut five-eighth Bernard Foley from the starting side for last Saturday night’s Test against South Africa.

Bernard Foley

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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It was a huge call, as the Wallabies coach had been loyal to Foley for years at Test and Super Rugby level. Foley had been below-par, but far from terrible, for much of this season.

He played with a rigidity that failed to inspire the backlines he was directing. Given Quade Cooper was out of the frame, the return of Matt Toomua from England finally gave Cheika another playmaking option.

He didn’t waste any time flicking Foley back to the bench. One could argue that Cheika had little to lose given his job security was fraying.

The Wallabies went on to record a gutsy win over the Boks in Brisbane, with Toomua solid in the number 10 jersey.

And now Israel Folau – fit again after missing two Tests with an ankle injury – has been moved from fullback to the wing for this Saturday’s clash with Argentina. Dane Haylett-Petty keeps hold of the number 15 jersey.

Folau hasn’t started an international on the wing since the 2013 Bledisloe Cup, having played fullback for his past 61 consecutive Tests.

It’s a positional change that many Wallabies fans have wanted for a while. He’s brilliant at fullback, but the proponents of the shift thought Folau could be a juicy target for cross-field kicks, though he could also get more chances to run in space.

Folau’s opposite number on Saturday night, Ramiro Moyano, scored a cracking swerving try against the All Blacks last weekend in Nelson. He’s 1.80m so not tiny but at 1.93m, Folau will have a sizeable advantage over him in aerial contests.

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David Pocock and Israel Folau

(AAP Image/Mark Dadswell)

There’s no doubt that Folau wants the number 15 jersey, and that makes the selection call intriguing.

Is it a coincidence that Foley and Folau are yet to re-sign with Rugby Australia for next year and have been dropped and shifted sideways over the last two weeks?

Is it a bit of a power play from Cheika, who would be aware of their pay and contract demands?

After all, it seems stunning that it’s September and the pair is still unsigned for the World Cup next year. It may just be a little nudge from Cheika to let them know they’re not indispensable.

It’s also intriguing because the Wallabies now have the curious situation in which the best fullback in the world, Folau, is playing on the wing and the best openside flanker in the world, David Pocock, is playing at number 8.

Do the three changes with Kepu and Foley to the bench and Folau to the wing constitute a selection shake-up?

If not a shake-up, then it’s some zealous stirring. They are certainly significant given the loyalty Cheika has shown the trio over the past five years.

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Are there more changes to come from Cheika if he isn’t getting the commitment he craves and the balance he desires?

Will Pocock go to the number 7 role and send Michael Hooper to the bench? Will Hooper move to the centres? Is Sean McMahon going to be back from Japan? Will it be the return of Adam Ashley-Cooper? They are all either outside chances or long shots.

The next big selection call is surely Taniela Tupou to start in the front row.