At the beginning of the year, while envisaging a pre-COVID season, Dave Rennie explicitly highlighted that Michael Hooper would need to earn his starting Wallabies position and captaincy, which had previously been bestowed without question.
The Wallabies’ credibility as a rugby power was further shattered on the weekend.
Australia’s fruitless performance condemned the side to a first loss against Wales in a decade.
The heat on Michael Cheika has now reached new scorching temperatures. The Wallabies three-win, eight-defeat 2018 season is indicative of a side with no confidence and no consistency.
A lot of the blame has to be laid on Cheika. As the coach, he needs to suck it up and take accountability for the constant losses, even when his team does ridiculous things like turning down kickable shots at goal.
I do think though that Cheika deserves credit for his willingness to try and reinvigorate the starting line-up.
People often criticise Cheika for failing to stick with players’ week in and week out.
However, if the team is losing regardless, experimentation is worth a shot. Here are three shake-ups Cheika threw at us this year and how they fared.
1. Caleb Timu selected at number 8
Caleb Timu was thrown into the starting line-up for the first two Tests against Ireland in June.
At 190cm and 108kg, Cheika selected a big presence who could use his size to roughen up the opposition’s defence.
Before the first Test, Cheika called Timu’s carrying game “outstanding” and applauded the youngsters impact for the Reds thus far that season.
Timu’s role was to provide aggression and brute muscle to Australia’s running game. The plan didn’t work out.
In two Tests against Ireland, Timu had five carries over the gain line for 14 metres. That is a miserly return for a player brought in specifically for his ball-carrying ability. He also proved himself a liability in defence.
In the second test, Timu gave away three first half penalties and was hauled off at half time. Consequently, he was cut entirely from the squad for the third test and replaced with Lukhan Tui. Cheika had the right idea, but the wrong man for the job.
2. Kurtley Beale selected at 10
In both of the convincing Bledisloe losses to the All Blacks, Bernard Foley struggled to attack the line.
As a result of this, Cheika surprisingly named Kurtley Beale at five-eighth for the Wallabies opening match against the Springboks.
Cheika wanted Beale, as Australia’s most electric and dangerous runner, to get the ball in his hands more quickly and more often.
The second Test against the Boks sums up this experiment quite well. In the first minute of that match, Australia had the ball on their own try line. Instead of clearing his lines, Beale threw a speculative looping pass that was duly intercepted by Aphiwe Dyantyi and dotted down for a five pointer.
It was a ridiculous and unnecessary risk to take in the first minute of the Test match and Australia never really recovered.
Beale thrives when he can exploit space with his speed but unfortunately this ability was shunted while at first receiver. It seemed as if Beale was trying to force crafty plays without any clear control over the Australian backline.
The added responsibility of playing five-eighth limited the imaginative qualities that make him special.
3. Dane Haylett-Petty selected at 15
Throughout Cheika’s tenure the public and the media have often called for Folau to be shifted from fullback onto the wing.
With Folau injured for the second Bledisloe, Haylett-Petty earned his first start at 15.
Importantly, Cheika kept him at fullback even when Folau returned from injury. This move had two purposes.
It allowed Haylett-Petty to play in his best position and also aimed to maximise Folau’s footwork and finishing prowess on the wing.
Cheika’s move paid immediate dividends with Folau scoring a beautiful solo try against Argentina.
In all, Haylett-Petty has so far been solid rather than spectacular. In his first Test at 15 against New Zealand, he ran for 99 metres, made two clean breaks and beat six defenders.
In Saturday’s match against Wales he ran for 93 metres and beat four defenders. To date, I believe this specific decision has been vindicated as Haylett-Petty has looked more dangerous and productive than when he played on the wing.
However, the main problem with Haylett-Petty at fullback is his lack of a try scoring threat. He must develop this part of his game to solidify his spot at 15. Overall, a fairly successful decision by Cheika.
These three selection changes show that Cheika hasn’t completely rested on his laurels throughout this awful period for Australian rugby.
He has at least sought to rethink and tweak the side. Timu at eight and Beale at ten were unsuccessful moves but I hope Haylett-Petty learns to really make the fullback spot his own.