Michael Cheika is copping a lot of flak at the moment, and I thought I would chuck my two bobs’ worth in as a former amateur lower grades, women’s and junior schoolboys coach.
Who would want that gig? Most of us would, of course, love the status, the opportunity and the trappings, but most of us could not handle the pressure that goes with it. You are in the spotlight from the get-go.
A lot of us forget that world rugby is now firmly entrenched in the World Cup cycle. We powerful nations have the luxury of building over the full four years.
The minnows don’t have it as easy. They have to suffer all the drama of going through the play-off process, with largely amateur teams, and coaches who are not at the top of the world pecking order.
I don’t think that Michael Cheika is finished experimenting yet. If he has a fault, it is probably cronyism and writing people off too early in the cycle – like Scott Fardy, Joe Tomane and Nic White, to name just three.
It might also mean that he has, at least figuratively, sent them to the colonies or, in other words, to let them think hard, play a different style, improve their game and come back.
Not that I have any evidence that Fardy, White or Tomane are thinking of doing that, you never know. There is a bit of water to pass under the bridge between now and next season and anyone wanting to come back would have to jag a Super contract.
At this stage that might be impossible but you can’t assume anything.
I think that Michael Cheika has either left his run a bit late or is playing brinksmanship.
For some historical context, the 1991 World Cup team was finalised in 1989. I know that there were only two states to pick from then and the players were all amateurs, but you still had clubland, city versus country and the schools system and lots of talent scouts out and about, so there could have been a bolter, but there wasn’t.
The only major change that happened in those two years was that Tim Gavin smashed his knee and Troy Coker replaced him in the starting XV, but beyond that the squad was together, settled and ready.
They didn’t go into the tournament as favourites, given that the All Blacks had won the first Rugby World Cup and were widely expected to repeat the result. Aficionados like me, however, knew, in our water, that our lads had the steely resolve and the attitude to get the job done.
So, has Cheika left his run too late?
Here’s the thing. The game in Yokohama in three weeks’ time is a dead rubber.
Most people expect a lay down misere with the All Blacks romping it in. The lads then move on to Europe for the Spring Tour. Has there ever been a better time to experiment, and throw a bit of caution to the wind?
People will still be calling for Michael Cheika’s head and yes, a win against the All Blacks would be a massive bonus for his coaching stocks, but if he is serious about the four-year cycle he should raise his middle finger to those expectations and a nice wave to the crowd, and forget his stocks.
This means now is the perfect time to throw caution to the wind and make a few experimental changes.
Something out of left field.
Bring back Quade Cooper and put some pressure on Bernard Foley. Kurtley Beale is not a number 10 who can play the Australian style properly because he doesn’t take the ball to the line and unleash.
He’s currently too lateral, always wanting to find a runner on the outside, rather than looking back infield. He is best at fullback but has genuine competition from Dane Haylett-Petty. You just have to let the cards fall where they may
Let Cooper and Bernard compete for No. 10 and play Matt Toomua as the No. 12.
There also remains the wild option of playing Michael Hooper in the number 13 jersey. This is entirely out of left field, but would create good competition for Reece Hodge in the centre position.
There are several pros to playing Hooper in the centres.
* He has shown us time and time again that he is a punishing defender and a punishing runner in open space.
* The last two Tests he has popped up out wide and made some massively impressive carries.
* He does exactly what is needed of a centre – smashing over the gain line or busting through a hole to give us a net gain of five or more metres, putting everyone on the front foot.
* As a captain, he gets to read the game from a little further back
* His catch-pass skills are right up there at the highest level. A player cannot play instinctively or with confidence if that particular skill is lacking.
* David Pocock can go back to his preferred position at No. 7 and we can pick a big barging player at No. 8. Bring back Ben Mowen! Sorry, it’s the Brumbies in me.
* You can trust him to run straight and tackle hard in his channel.
* He’s already regarded as a world-class player who has won every award in the book, so it is not as if he will feel unfamiliar out there in No. 13.
As an analogy, if Ian Chappell had asked Dennis Lillee to bowl a leg break he probably would have pulled it off with great aplomb. If he was asked to step up the batting order he would have done it and not be nervous about it.
On the flipside, there are seriously no cons to that move that I can see, other than we may lose some of his skills in tight, but you can offer that at centre just as easily.
Rod Macqueen had the guts to move Stephen Larkham to number 10 when we were under pressure to find a quality fly-half after Mark Ella retired.
There were good ones along the way, David Knox and Lloyd Walker nobody cemented that position until Larkham took it on and showed the world how it was done.
Remember that Larkham had played most of his early rugby as a halfback at Wests, but it made no difference – class is class and the cream will always rise to the top.
The problem always is to play the ‘Australian way’, you almost always have to have a genius at No 10 – otherwise mistakes are made. Although blokes like Cooper are genius class they need to be able to get a backline moving like poetry in motion, just like Mark Ella or Larkham before them.
The Australian style of play expects the backs to be flawless, especially with their catch and release.
If that is not instinctively ingrained then all the other skills like swerving, side-stepping, taking the ball into contact, jumping catches and counter-attacking are always a little bit more constrained and decision making becomes affected.
The Hooper-Cooper partnership is able to achieve this.
So, playing Hooper in the number 13 would be a stroke of genius as he definitely has those skills.
It would cement that position and enable us to pick a brilliant back-row that are horses for courses. It would be good to watch Pocock playing in his best position.
The recent game against Argentina showed how far we have come from last year where we started each game well but couldn’t necessarily finish.
Now we know how to snatch victories while behind.
The common denominator in all of this has been the skill gap between us and the other teams, which results in players pushing passes and making mistakes.
We need to get back to basics and learn the proper ‘no mistakes’ drills and learn how not to panic when taking the ball in to contact.
How many times have we seen a pass shot out to the winger and fly over the sideline?
Even watching the Australian Schoolboys play the New Zealand Schoolboys at Ballymore earlier in the week, there were bullet passes going into the wrong space, or thrown too low, or going over the sideline.
Rugby league teaches their players to pass sympathetically, end over end instead of a spiral when short passes are needed, and why don’t we? Where are the skills coaches?
Back in the day when I did my Level 2 course, we were issued with the green and gold striped coaching manual and the Waratahs drills book that had so many skill drills it made your head swim. I am willing to suggest that not much of that is happening these days.
When we did the ‘no mistakes’ drill at training, the players complained like anything, but they were great drills.
If anyone doubts the power of drills, remember the moon landing, when Houston Space Control was congratulating the astronauts and Buzz Aldrin responded with “just like the drills!”
So, Mr Alan Jones, thanks for your suggestion – I think it is a ripper and could be a game changer – I just hope that Mr Cheika is open-minded enough to embrace the challenge.
Hooper, Cooper and losing the Pooper – could be a blooper – but I doubt it.