Soon enough, maybe even as soon as this week, we’ll find out what kind of poker player Wallabies coach Michael Cheika really is.
On the eve of the 2019 international season, with first round of the Rugby Championship very suddenly upon us this week, will Cheika go all in and focus primarily on establishing his combinations and settling on his best XV for the Rugby World Cup in September and October, as Spiro strongly hinted yesterday?
Or should he use these early TRC games to get some game time into the guys that may not begin their Test careers in earnest until next year, when a swag of senior players and maybe even Cheika himself move on?
What are the current Wallabies coach’s obligations for the next Wallabies coach?
I don’t actually know what the right answer is – maybe there isn’t one – but it’s certain that Australia doesn’t have the luxury of proactive player management like South Africa and New Zealand have already given very strong indications toward.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen admitted last week that naming a 39-man squad for the first couple of games “allows us to pick a very strong squad for what will be a challenging first Test against Argentina in Buenos Aires, while at the same time giving most of the Crusaders players in the All Blacks a rest from what has been a very tough Super Rugby Finals campaign.”
Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus also confirmed last week that the compressed TRC fixture because of the RWC has effectively forced his hand.
“Obviously the ideal is to win the Rugby Championship and build confidence going into the World Cup,” Erasmus said.
“If you just purely think of the logistics… playing Australia here and then getting on the plane and arriving on a Monday or Tuesday, and thinking you have a realistic chance of beating New Zealand in New Zealand?”
“So with the hand we got dealt, we have to split our resources. However, it also gives us chance to work with some fringe players that we haven’t had a chance to work with.”
Erasmus clarified that sending players to New Zealand early, and effectively naming two different sides to face the Wallabies this weekend at home and then the All Blacks in Wellington next weekend, wasn’t a case of picking a stronger team and a weaker team, however.
“What is the difference between Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert? Or Franco Mostert and Lood de Jager? There are very few players where you can say this one is streets ahead of this one,” he said.
It’s certainly a nice problem to have, but it absolutely underlines my point about depth. Having now adjusted their eligibility policy to select players from wherever they’re playing, Erasmus can be both pragmatic and strategic with his selections during the Rugby Championship.
But Erasmus also admitted that he’s thinking ahead about who should take the Boks’ clipboard full-time after the RWC. Erasmus is officially South Africa’s director of rugby, but has been juggling that gig alongside his Springboks head coach role since Allister Coetzee was sacked at the end of 2017.
“It’s begun in my head and I’ve shared some ideas with the steering committee that I report to. There are certainly a few names that we’ve bounced around,” Erasmus said.
“If we can find a way to sort out the succession planning in terms of players in South Africa, then I think the next step will be to get a proper succession plan in terms of coaches.”
Former Chiefs and current Glasgow Warriors mentor Dave Rennie is heavily favoured to succeed Cheika, and England attack coach and former Waratahs and Wallabies assistant Scott Wisemantel has been mentioned as well, though the latter is also strongly tipped to take up the vacant Waratahs’ job.
Either way, it’s hard to imagine Cheika playing much if any role at all in selecting his successor. And why would he?
But then for the good of Australian rugby, why shouldn’t he?
Well for one thing, he does have an important role to play in the development of future Test players that he may see very little direct benefit from.
In naming three uncapped players and a further ten players with a dozen or fewer Tests to their name, it’s clear that Cheika does have something of an eye on what the post-RWC Wallabies might look like.
But it remains to be seen how many of those 14 players will see action during the Rugby Championship, never mind how many will actually go to Japan.
This is where the input of fellow selector Scott Johnson and Michael O’Connor becomes very interesting, because they will certainly be part of the Wallabies planning going forward.
Whether their input around the selection table in the coming weeks of the Rugby Championship is noticeable will be every bit as intriguing as Cheika’s logical desire to push hard for immediate success.
There is a Wallabies legacy to be built here. It’s just a matter of whether Cheika feels he wants to be part of that.