Keep it tight or give it some height seems to be Michael Cheika’s plan for the Wallabies in Johannesburg this weekend, in Australia’s first post-Israel Folau and pre-World Cup Test.
In a World Cup year, the abbreviated Rugby Championship becomes mainly a chance for the four teams to refine their game plans and combinations for a crack at the Webb Ellis Cup.
For the Wallabies, it’s also an opportunity to break a 56-year drought against South Africa at Ellis Park and kickstart some much-needed momentum given their woeful 2018 season, which yielded four wins from 13 starts.
There are only five survivors from the team that went down 37-18 to England in London in November.
The wingers and halfback selections were among the most intriguing choices made by the new panel of Cheika, Scott Johnson and Michael O’Connor, on top of the Test debut for Isi Naisarani at No.8.
In the absence of Israel Folau, Tom Banks will make his first run-on start for Australia at fullback, with Melbourne Rebels pair Dane Haylett-Petty and Reece Hodge on the wings.
Marika Koroibete returned to Australia earlier in the week following the birth of his second child, while Jack Maddocks – who was expected to be named in the starting side – also headed home but was seemingly fit given he’s due to play club rugby this weekend.
Nic White will start at halfback in his first appearance in gold since 2015, pushing regular No.9 Will Genia to the bench.
With Haylett-Petty and Hodge on the edge, it’s unlikely that Cheika will plan to burn the Springboks on the outside too often. It’s a wing combination that’s not the speediest, especially when compared to the jet shoes of the South African wingers S’bu Nkosi and Makazole Mapimpi.
Banks brings plenty of pace, but his long kicking game, which was so pivotal to the Brumbies’ Super Rugby success this season, was probably most attractive to the selectors.
While Folau was a weapon when running with the ball, his kicking game was one of his weaknesses. Banks’ ability to peel off plenty of territory with the boot makes him a valuable asset for the Wallabies, whose lineout frailties can create stress if pinned deep inside their own territory too often.
Like Banks, one of White’s biggest strengths lies in his astute kicking in general play. He’s quick as well, but his long kicking game and accurate box kicks can take a lot of heat off his five-eighth.
In his time with Montpellier in France and Exeter in England over the past four years, he was given more of a chance to control the game, especially from phase play.
Mix White’s impressive box kicking with the size and aerial ability of Haylett-Petty and Hodge, and the Aussies will go to the air a fair bit in Johannesburg. Add altitude to the mix and White’s kicks can go a bit further than normal.
Boks coach Rassie Erasmus thinks Australia are less of a threat without Folau, but don’t think his absence will mean that Australia will stop going to the air for contested high balls.
If White and Banks can build pressure with the boot, Cheika might feel comfortable taking a more kick-orientated gameplan to the World Cup. He’s repeatedly said in the past that he ideally wants to stick to a ball-in-hand style of play, but he’s pragmatic enough to realise that it’s not working, one of his most potent line-breakers – Folau – is gone, and he needs to rack up some wins for morale as much as goodwill.
There’s also a strong possibility that Johnson, who had a decent degree of success in Europe – where kick-focussed field-position gameplans are more prominent – has given strong urgings that Cheika should adopt this style.
It’s a style that also means centres Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani can be used in a simple and direct way. There’s not much passing subtlety in their games so they’re at their most effective when they’re hitting holes and trying to get their team on the front foot. Naisarani can also bob up on the edges to puncture the line with footwork.
White’s inclusion could bring out the best in Genia too. He’s dropped a bit of speed, but he’s still a classy No.9. Cheika may still view Genia as his top halfback, but White offers enough of a point of difference to give him an opportunity to spark the side.
Will we see a duller, more kick-orientated Wallabies at Ellis Park, who are content to play a controlled, territory-focussed style? Will we see less of the phase-heavy running game from most parts of the field?
Very likely given the addition of White and Banks, and the influence of Johnson as Rugby Australia’s director of rugby.