The bad news coming out of the first two rounds of Super Rugby matches is that most of the senior Waratahs are out of form and should be facing the sack from the Wallabies World Cup squad.
The good news is that there are many players from the other Australian Super Rugby squads who can and should be brought in to the Wallabies to take their place.
This bad news, good news dilemma was neatly summed up by a comment made by REALIST on The Roar following the Queensland Reds’ narrow defeat by the Highlanders at Dunedin and the Waratahs depressing win (just) over the Sunwolves in Japan: “I didn’t think that Michael Cheika will be pleased at all. Not a good look for him when Scott-Young, Kerevi, Stewart and Petaia comprehensively outplayed Hanigan, Phipps, Folau, Beale, and AAC.”
Nick Phipps actually was not playing, but the sense of the comment was clear. The Waratahs stars, although I would leave Israel Folau out of this discussion, are showing their age.
Their time seems to be up as far as international rugby is concerned.
This perception seems to be especially relevant when a host of younger and even some older players not in the Wallabies starting squad in 2018 are showing the sort of form that could help lift the team out of last season’s doldrums.
Let’s look, to begin with, at the Wallabies incumbent No.10, Bernard Foley, the long term Waratahs stalwart.
Time has caught up with him. His sharpness off the mark, his tricky footwork, the eye for the gap, even his talent for kicking goals are absent this year.
The Iceman is not delivering.
Rugby, like most contact sports, is an unforgiving endeavour. Players get to a certain age, endure a certain number of hits and their flexibility and speed taper off.
Even the best of them just don’t have the qualities that made them special players any more.
It seems to me Foley has reached this point.
Luckily, though, the other starting No. 10s in the Australian franchises – Quade Cooper (the Rebels), Christian Lealiifano (the Brumbies) and Hamish Stewart (the Reds) – are showing superior form.
And there is Matt Toomua, currently in England, still to come back to Australia to make his claim for the Wallabies No.10 jersey.
So Foley is no longer an inevitable nor an obvious selection.
Another important take-out from the Highlanders 36 – Reds 31 thriller was the brilliant form of the Reds centre pairing Samu Kerevi and Jordan Petaia.
I know that Petaia is still young enough to play for the Australian under-20s side. But his game against a defensively sound Highlanders side was sensational.
If you are good enough you are old enough is a sound precept where exceptional talent is concerned, and Petaia is an exceptional talent. He is the X-factor player that the Wallabies need to lift them from their current mediocrity.
Petaia ran for 100m out of the 455m that the Reds ran in total!
His defence was solid, too. On attack and defence he also seemed to have plenty of time, a sign of a very good player.
Watching him run through gaps with speed and balance, I was reminded of the young Jason Little. This is a big call but every now and again a young player plays so brilliantly that you are forced to acknowledge his talent and his readiness to play at the highest level.
For most of the Cheika years, the Wallabies have lack an outside centre who can break the line with real, blazing speed.
The Kerevi-Petaia partnership could be the answer to the mid-field problems of too many playmakers and not enough play-creators in the national side.
The Reds also put out a pack that destroyed the lineout of the Highlanders and, additionally, more than held their own in the scrums.
Substitute the Queensland equivalents for the Waratahs in the Wallabies pack and add in some bruisers from the Brumbies and the Rebels – and the Australian pack will become the formidable beast it needs to be to win big tournaments.
The Reds, of course, did not win.
To really establish their credentials as must-pick Wallabies, the Reds stars have to start forcing victories, even against such formidable challenges as next week’s contest against the rampant Crusaders at Brisbane.
The Brumbies showed the way for the Australian franchises in 2019 with their terrific 54-17 victory over the Chiefs at Canberra. Admittedly, it was a home match. But this was only the second victory by an Australian Super Rugby side over a New Zealand opponent in 42 contests.
Moreover, the 33 points the Brumbies scored in the first half against the Chiefs equalled the same number of points the Brumbies scored in the first half against the Crusaders in the 2004 Super Rugby final.
What stood out for me was the combination of Brumbies ruthlessness in the pack, hard-shouldered running by forwards and backs and sheer pace of some of the backs, especially Tom Banks.
I would love to see Banks playing at fullback for the Wallabies. He is the nearest thing to Chris Latham we’ve seen in Australian rugby since that great player retired.
The main problem for the Wallabies in the last couple of years is the lack of players who can break a game open with their searing pace. Banks has this, as does Petaia.
This brings us to the Folau issue and the question of where he should be played in the backline.
I will say this because it challenges the conventional wisdom in Australian rugby: Folau’s best position is not fullback.
He is a wonderful runner and leaper for the ball. But he is, essentially, a try-scorer rather than an all-round rugby player.
His lack of skills as a fullback are exposed when his game is compared with that of Ben Smith.
Smith involves himself, especially towards the end of the game, with playing at first receiver, doing hit-ups, taking the ball up through the middle from high kicks and linking up with forwards or backs who have made a break.
You rarely see Folau doing any of these things. This is why he should be played on the wing to exploit his phenomenal running power and penchant for scoring tries.
Robbie Deans, when he coached the Wallabies, used Folau to great effect as a winger.
For the Waratahs and the Wallabies Michael Cheika has tended to use Folau as a fullback.
I think Deans, a good selector unlike Cheika, was right.
Imagine how devastating a Wallabies backline would be with the Reds centres, Folau on one wing and Banks roaring through the mid-field as he did so spectacularly for the Brumbies against the Chiefs.
Now all this brings us to an important interview that Michael O’Connor gave to the rugby media after he was recently appointed by Rugby Australia as a Wallabies selector.
He would give, O’Connor told reporters, ‘serious thought’ to playing David Pocock at No.7 for the World Cup instead of Michael Hooper.
About time, I would say.
Rugby history has shown that playing two No.7s just does not work. The exception is, perhaps, towards the end of a match when desperate defence is needed by a side to hold on to a small lead.
The George Smith-Phil Waugh combination did not work, just as the Richie McCaw-Matt Todd did not work.
Playing Pocock solely as a No.7 would allow the Wallabies to play another bigger and more powerful flanker and a similarly big and tough No.8.
In other words, the Wallaby back row would be balanced. It would have ‘shape,’ the concept that Alan Jones, an excellent selector, always insists is key to the selection of winning rugby sides.
As O’Connor noted from his time in 2006 and 2007 as a Wallaby selector: “We didn’t start Waughy because we had a couple of big, very effective backrowers in Cliffy Palu and Rocky Elsom. Hooper and Pocock are two of the best back-rowers in the game so we’re fortunate. To leave one off, I think, there’s always going to be an argument.”
And if this strategy is used for the Wallabies, as it should be, the selectors should look to the Reds, the Brumbies and the Rebels to supply the big Palu-like and Elsom-like loose forwards to support Pocock.
O’Connor also suggested that Quade Cooper, after his fine game for the Rebels against the Brumbies, still needed to fix ‘problematic areas’ in his game if he was to be given a Wallabies call-up.
This was also a shrewd call.
Lealiifano and Toomua (the two obvious successors to Foley), on the other hand, are strong tacklers.
Stewart, is, also. But he is probably a year or so off having the maturity, skills and insight to be the chief playmaker for the Wallabies.
The point about all this is that right now, about four years into taking over the Wallabies, Cheika has presided over the collapse of a side that played in the final of the 2015 World Cup.
A significant reason for this collapse is that Cheika has relied too much on senior players, most of them from the Waratahs, who reached their peak in 2015; or younger Waratahs players who just haven’t fulfilled expectations.
This process of de-Waratahing the Wallabies seems to me, after watching the first two rounds of the 2019 Super Rugby tournament, to be the key to creating a Wallabies side that can challenge England, Ireland, Wales, South Africa and New Zealand this year.
It should have started last year. But better late than never, however, seems to be the motto for Cheika following the dire season the Wallabies suffered in 2018.