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Michael Cheika’s biggest Spring Tour questions

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29th October, 2018
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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, Wallabies fans.

Australia starts a Test a little slowly and concedes an early try, but gets onto the board themselves. The Wallabies show some promising, ground-making signs through the forwards, concede another try, but claw one back late in the half. They head into the sheds in a not-completely-terrible scenario.

They then claw the margin back to less than a try, only for a combination of ordinary defence, ordinary skills, and sheer stupidity to see them ship 17 points in 17 minutes, and ultimately, the game. Late bench cameos will do enough to launch ‘he needs to start’ discussion, a late but actually well-worked try is scored, only to concede another right on the bell.

Full points for correctly identifying ‘this one’ as Saturday night’s Bledisloe 3 loss in Yokohama.

But bonus points for recognising ‘this one’ as so many of the Wallabies losses – and definitely as one of so many Bledisloe losses – in as far back through this current playing cohort as you’ll allow yourself to masochistically recall.

The loss itself was disappointing; there’s not denying that. But for mine, what’s more disappointing is that we’ve seen ‘this one’ so regularly now that we can predict the result with depressing accuracy.

It goes a little like this: a game will play out and mistakes will be made. The loss is there for all to see, and the reaction on the field is disappointment and lament of missed opportunities. Positives will be latched onto post-match and some will even make sense.

And ultimately, resolution of said issues won’t be difficult, we’ll be told.

And because we’ve become so used to predicting how it plays out, we also become attuned to latching onto those positives.

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Matt Toomua of the Wallabies

Matt Toomua of the Wallabies (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

So we’ve seen the positives in Matt Toomua coming back from England, and the way he’s gone into familiar switch between first and second receiver. We’ve enjoyed the emergence of Izack Rodda as a lineout target, and even more so the impact brutality of Taniela Tupou. We love that Dane Haylett-Petty’s footballing ability is coming through, now that he’s been allowed to play as a proper fullback, just as the benefits of Israel Folau’s simplified game on the right wing are clear.

Thus, that’s all we’ve got again from Yokohama.

Rodda’s first half was really good, and so was that the case of his second-row partner Rob Simmons, who it felt like ran more metres and certainly made more gain line metres in I don’t know how long. That run of his to be held up over the line under the posts was the exclamation mark on what had to that point been a strong game.

Scott Sio was strong, David Pocock was strong, Michael Hooper was great in defence. Sefa Naivalu was industrious in his first game back in yonks. Bernard Foley again showed why he’s a starter and not a ‘finisher’. And on his return from injury, Samu Kerevi was so good as a finisher that he’s probably needed as a starter again.

And so, we again find ourselves in an uncomfortable position going into another Spring Tour. The domestic season hasn’t gone well at all, and not even three really good wins against Wales, Italy, and England will necessarily resolve anything.

Furthermore, with it becoming pretty obvious that the current playing a coaching group is heading all the way to the Rugby World Cup, now less than twelve months away, the question of how Michael Cheika reinvigorates, reshapes, and – hopefully – revives the Wallabies over this next year becomes the most crucial of all.

Michael Cheika

These are difficult times for Wallabies coach Michael Cheika. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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So, then, how should the Wallabies approach these final three games of the season?

Three wins would still only make for a six-and-seven season, so it’s not like a winning campaign can be achieved.

Undoubtedly, these three November Tests have to become about trying new things, new positions, new players even, should any new faces actually make the tour of course.

Two months ago I floated the idea of Will Genia skipping the Spring Tour for the greater good of Australian scrumhalves, and after Nick Phipps was only able to get nine minutes off the bench with the Wallabies already down by 19, I remain as convinced as ever.

Genia is the best scrumhalf in Australia; that’s not up for debate. But he was hit by a bus tomorrow, such has been the Wallabies reliance on him in 2018, that their approach to the game would be lost without him.

And if Phipps can only nine minutes in a well-beaten side, what hope does he have of applying any pressure on Genia himself, never mind the likes Jake Gordon and Joe Powell? Powell won’t get another chance in 2018 now, paying the price for a lack of game time caused by spending so much time on the Wallabies training track during the week and in the ‘number ones’ on weekends.

Gordon and Phipps both need to start Tests on this tour. If it’s alright for Ireland to hold back starters from the first of three Tests in June with a view to them being needed later in the series, then there’s no harm in the Wallabies saving Genia for England, either.

Will Genia

Will Genia needs a break. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

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It’s time to see just what other backrow positions Hooper can play too. Pocock’s forced-hybrid game at no.8 is becoming so compromised now that he’s playing well but doing so in spite of what he has to do. If Pocock has had to adapt to blindside or at the back of the scrum, then why shouldn’t we try Hooper there too?

I don’t at all like the selection of Adam Ashley-Cooper in the training squad this week, but I can see the advantages. For one, it’s obvious that Folau’s Wallabies career at outside centre will be short-lived. And Ashley-Cooper at 13 would at least attack and defend in the same place, thus reducing the moving parts that have again crept into the backline.

And what of Tolu Latu? With two other hookers in the squad, and Tatafu Polota-Nau to join the squad in Wales, I’d argue that Latu is the expendable one. Yes, his yellow card was probably on the harsh side, given the lead-up to it, but I’m completely with All Blacks coach Steve Hansen on this.

If Latu can’t control the “dumb things” still lingering in his game, then there’s other hookers better equipped to face European front rowers who would otherwise be lining up to bait the Waratahs rake.

So what will Cheika do? How will he approach these last three Tests of 2018? And what can he do with this playing group to prove that he is the best-placed to lead the Wallabies to another World Cup?

Only he knows. But I look forward to him showing us over the next three weekends.