The good news about the Wallabies’ challenge for the 2019 Rugby World Cup is that the selectors have given Michael Cheika a squad that represents the best rugby talent available to play for Australia right now.
The bad news is that this talent is essentially lacklustre. There is not one player in the squad who would walk into any of the top sides competing in the tournament.
The only world-class player in Australian rugby in the last few years, in terms of being a probable choice for virtually every national rugby side, was Israel Folau.
Rugby Australia has shot the Wallabies in the heart and legs with their campaign to ensure that Folau never plays for the Wallabies again.
The effect of this loss can be gauged from a consideration of the Bob Dwyer Rule.
The 1991 World Cup-winning Wallabies coach posited that to win a Rugby World Cup title a side needed about five of world-class status, about ten or more players who are good Wallabies and a couple of dependable journeymen players who, like Bob Egerton in ’91, covered up the weaknesses of their more brilliant fellow players.
There is no world-class player currently available to Cheika. And this includes David Pocock, who may or may not even be available for the tournament.
There are, though, a number of players who could be good Wallabies if given the chance. And a team of good Wallabies, shrewdly selected and brilliantly coached, could mount a strong Rugby World Cup challenge.
The problem in the last few years has been that the selection and coaching of the Wallabies has been poor.
So when the new selectors, Scott Johnson and Michael O’Connor, sat down with the former sole selector, Michael Cheika, it was clear to them and everyone in Australian rugby aside from Cheika that new personnel had to be introduced into the Wallabies’ starting side.
And with their squad, the selectors have given Cheika the chance to develop a much stronger side by passing over “longtime favourites”, to quote Georgina Robinson, and embracing “the new balance of power” based around the successful Brumbies “to resuscitate Australia’s Test fortunes in an all-important World Cup year”.
So out with Wallabies Nick Phipps, Ned Hanigan, Quade Cooper and in with the Brumbies’ Joe Powell and Rob Valetini, and the Rebels’ Luke Jones.
Cheika was honest enough to concede that the process of having two other selectors meant that “we’ve come up with a better outcome for that than maybe if I was picking it by myself”.
I would’ve said ‘Amen to that’, if quoting the Bible is still allowed in a rugby context.
Last week, The Roar published a possible starting side that showed a promising and potentially very strong side was available for the first Test against the Springboks if the selectors followed through with their search for a new, improved Wallabies team for 2019.
There was strong support for the Brumbies front row of Allan Alaalatoa, Scott Sio and Folau Fainga’a.
My only question mark here was Fainga’a’s throwing yips in the Super Rugby semi-final.
The second-rowers with the most votes were Rory Arnold and Izack Rodda. These two are obvious starters and with the abrasive front-row picks create a strong tight five.
Eighty-four per cent of voters supported Isi Naisarani at No.8, 81 per cent voted for Michael Hooper at open-side flanker and 34 per cent for Luke Jones at blind-side flanker.
Three other possibilities, all on about 27 per cent, were Jack Dempsey, Rob Valetini and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto.
The stand-out in this group is Salakaia-Loto. I would have him in the starting side to give the Wallabies a real physical presence in the back row to complement the power, size and strength of the front five.
The point here is the Wallabies need as many X-factor players – even if right now they are only a small x – as they can field to give them a point of difference and power against the top sides.
The Roar readers showed a much better realisation than Michael Cheika in the past with their selected backline: Will Genia, Christian Lealiifano, Marika Koroibete, Samu Kerevi, Tevita Kuridrani, Jack Maddocks and Tom Banks.
What I like about this backline is that it has pace (yes, even Kuridrani when he winds up). Players like Dane Haylett-Petty – a good, physical runner and tackler but without much pace – have a limited future in international rugby.
This side, with Lealiifano in the starting XV, also has a ready-made captain to take over from Michael Hooper if the selectors believe that Liam Wright’s height and size offers a better open-side prospect to Hooper, a player who is becoming more of Pocock-type defensive player than an attacking option.
And in the next few weeks, Cheika and new attack coach Shaun Berne could find that James O’Connor, who has played inside centre for a year or so for Sale, might be the versatile, multi-skilled, strong-running No.10 the Wallabies have been searching for.
I know that O’Connor has been, as the media suggests, a former bad boy, with fines for using cocaine in 2017 being his last disgrace. But he apparently turned around his life in the last two years at Sale.
The rugby community, especially the rugby writers, should understand that there needs to be a redemptive aspect to the rugby culture. Players who show maturity and humility in turning their life around should be given the chance to do so.
There is a lot of talk about the duty of care a player owes the game. And this is right. But the game itself, which legitimises violence on the field, should also show a duty of care to players who have clearly reformed their behaviour on and off the field.
Michael Cheika, too, has rightly decided to go for broke in his Rugby World Cup campaign by trying to win all the Tests leading up to the tournament, including next weekend’s tough fixture against the Springboks at Ellis Park.
So unlike Steve Hansen with the All Blacks and Rassie Erasmus with the Springboks, the full Wallabies squad, including the injured David Pocock, have travelled to South Africa.
Alan Jones suggests the total cost of the squad’s two weeks in South Africa is about $1 million.
Cheika’s rationale for this million-dollar going-for-broke policy takes into account the fact that the Wallabies had their worst ever Test season in 2018 and that wins now are crucial for their Rugby World Cup hopes.
“To come from way back you’ve got to build momentum and belief in yourselves on the way. I think that’s really important,” Cheika said. “We’ve just got to help them get the good performances under their belt and win some Test matches along the way and build some momentum.”
The fortunes of the Wallabies, literally and metaphorically, are at stake at Ellis Park, a past fortress of the Springboks, on Saturday night.
Bring it on!