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The Wrap: Cheika plays his cards while Hansen still shuffles his World Cup deck

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Expert
25th August, 2019
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In the wake of the Wallabies World Cup squad announcement from Sydney Airport on Friday, stories emerged of retired World Cup stars being tasked by Michael Cheika with phoning the chosen 31 in the days before to advise them of their selection.

While most played it straight, others like Matt Giteau pranked it up, leaving Adam Ashley-Cooper hanging through a twenty-minute conversation, before almost offhandedly revealing the real reason for the call.

Ever a man to understand what it means to play Test rugby and to represent one’s nation at a World Cup, Cheika himself took responsibility for phoning the fringe players omitted from the squad, plus flyhalf Christian Lealiifano; in part a nod to his heart-wrenching exclusion of Lealiifano in 2015, and partly to honour Lealiifano’s achievement in returning to elite rugby after winning a battle with cancer.

Like many things rugby, they do things differently across the Tasman.

Legend has it that in the 1960s, New Zealand’s Meads brothers would set down their crutching handpieces for long enough to make a cup of tea and gather around a crackly transistor radio in the woolshed, to catch the side announced in a news bulletin, before finishing off the run then making arrangements to have the farm looked after while they were away on All Black duty.

On other occasions the NZRFU would conduct a final All Black trial, with the selectors forced to make final deliberations in a small room in the dark, dingy bowels of Athletic Park, before emerging to hand a sheet of paper to a NZRFU office bearer who, standing on a chair, would announce the side to a tense, packed, room.

In 2019, trial matches and boozy after-match functions are no longer the preserve of All Black hopefuls. Instead, the new way is not even to wait for a selector to phone, but for a player – let’s choose one at random and call him Liam Squire – to call the coach, to let him know if he’s up for the task or not.

More on the All Blacks’ selection challenges later.

Anticipation around the Wallabies’ selection centered as much on which players didn’t emerge from inside the Qantas jumbo as much as who did. And so it was established that big Will Skelton hadn’t snuck in on an early morning flight from London after all.

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Nor was popular fan choice Tom Banks tucked away in the galley finishing off his breakfast. He, along with other unlucky squad members Luke Jones, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Liam Wright and Joe Powell were instead reduced to baggage-handler status, required to remain with the squad in Sydney for now, and to stay fit and motivated should injury require their call up during the tournament itself.

With the announcement coming so soon after the Rugby Championships and Bledisloe Cup block, there was no prospect of any shock from left-field – another throwback to amateur days when a hitherto unknown player might be plucked out of club rugby on a selector’s hunch.

Squad sizes now remand enough manpower for more than two teams, so the pool of likely players is highly visible, with all of the realistic contenders at all times, in full view of the selectors – both the real ones and the armchair/keyboard warriors.

Curious attempts to portray 19-year-old Jordan Petaia as a ‘bolter’ should be ignored. He has been attached to the Wallabies squad for a year now, with only a foot injury early in the Super Rugby season preventing him from playing Test rugby this year. He has trained strongly over the past few weeks and is set to play an important role in Japan.

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Notable is the influence of recently added selectors Scott Johnson and Michael O’Connor – if not in terms of who made or missed the final cut, but in shaping the composition of the whole squad. The return of Nic White and James O’Connor from England has immediately provided a different feel to the Wallabies – not by accident.

As always, there are unlucky and lucky players. Cheika has chosen to persevere with Lukhan Salakaia-Loto at blindside flanker, despite misgivings about lack of pace and agility in the wide channels.

Salakaia-Loto is only 22 – young for the role he is being asked to play – and if he appeals as a player around which to build Australia’s 2023 World Cup challenge, perhaps back at lock, he regardless remains a risk at this stage.

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Ashley-Cooper has beaten the clock and will suit up for his fourth World Cup – an outstanding achievement, but one that does nothing to dispel concerns about the Wallabies’ lack of pace in the outside backs.

His claim over the weekend that “he won’t rest until he wins the World Cup” is either a good portent for the Wallabies’ chances, or else a pledge that we will see him again in 2023, at the ripe age of 39.

Tom Banks can count himself unlucky, but in truth, he has never quite managed to convince Cheika how his potential might translate into success in the Test arena.

Liam Wright too will have to wait for another day, David Pocock an automatic selection once he convinced the selectors of his fitness. Which path Australia adopts, with respect to use of Pocock and captain Michael Hooper in the same side, once again poses a headache for Cheika and fans alike – stay tuned.

What is apparent is that the Wallabies’ World Cup fortunes do not rest on the specific ins and outs of this squad. Personal preferences and quibbles aside, it is, or very near to, the best selection of available players.

No matter who takes the field in Sapporo on the 21st September against Fiji, and in Tokyo a week later against Wales, Australia’s success or failure will be determined by the same things that marked their run through the recent Rugby Championships.

That is; their collective ability to remain connected and sure in defence, their ability to leverage off a world-class lineout, having the smarts and desire to compete consistently and accurately at attacking and defensive breakdown for 80 minutes, and being able to minimise any fallout from their flaky kicking game.

Doesn’t sound like too much to ask, does it?

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With Cheika playing his cards early, Steve Hansen and his co-selectors allowed themselves another weekend to finesse their selection, the All Blacks’ final squad scheduled for release on Wednesday.

Michael Cheika

(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Or was that simply to allow more time for Squire to locate his mobile phone and call Hansen to chew the fat?

The All Blacks’ winning teams of 2011 and 2015 were built on a solid bedrock of experienced players, the belief being that to win three sudden-death matches in successive weeks is less about razzle dazzle and more about instinctively knowing how to graft out wins under extreme pressure.

Yet with some of the All Blacks’ experienced players showing signs of beginning to feel the pinch, and newcomers demanding attention, questions have been asked.

Owen Franks is one of only twenty players to have won two World Cups. His lack of impact with the ball in the Perth loss hinted that a third might be a step too far, particularly after his replacement, Nepo Laulala, was prominent in all aspects of the game.

Ben Smith has become a permanent fixture, either at fullback or on the wing, and once again the All Blacks’ selectors will have to weigh up the known – their desire for proven experience, against the unknown – the all-round competence of George Bridge and the raw enthusiasm and skill of Sevu Reece.

Working against Smith is that the selectors have been down this path before – remember how in 2015, regular pick Israel Dagg was overlooked for rising player, Nehe Milner-Skudder.

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Yet there remains a path forward for both Smith and Franks. Hansen’s original Rugby Championships’ squad comprised 39 players, before it was trimmed to 34 for the two Bledisloe Cup matches. Players cut at that point were Karl Tu’inukuafe, Dalton Papali’i, Shannon Frizell, Asafo Aumua and uncapped flyhalf Josh Ioane.

Hansen made it clear at the time that the door was not shut for any of them, but to force their way back into World Cup contention, they would be required to deliver standout performances in provincial rugby.

All are performing well – Papali’i’s six breakdown turnovers for Auckland against Bay of Plenty on Saturday night were outstanding – but there is no reason to suggest that any have demanded selection in the way that say, Laulala and Bridge did last week.

With 34 to become 31, there are three more players who will miss out. Given that there are currently only 15 backs in that number, all would appear to be safe – including Smith.

The only potential changes are if Ryan Crotty is passed fit (for Nagani Laumape), and the selectors deem that Beauden Barrett is selected primarily as a fullback, in which case the squad looks top heavy in outside backs, perhaps paving the way for Ioane’s inclusion at flyhalf, for Smith.

But let’s call that a possibility rather than a probability, for now.

Things get more interesting in the forwards, with three players required to give way, or potentially four, if Squire makes that phone call, and is drafted back in.

Six props will become five, with the switch-hitting versatility of Ofa Tu’ungafasi a godsend for a tournament like this. If Franks is spared the axe, it will be because Atu Moli’s sin in wandering off his ruck post to allow Marika Koroibete to score unchallenged in Perth, is greater than Franks’ lack of ball carrying impact.

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Despite concerns about lack of lineout presence at the back, Matt Todd seems assured of his place as back-up open-side flanker. Which leaves two of Jackson Hemopo, Luke Jacobsen and Vaea Fifita on the chopping block, or all three of them, if Squire is to return.

It is unlikely that a regulation provincial match between Tasman and Manawatu has ever generated as much interest as the one on Saturday afternoon, with Squire taking the field for Tasman, in sunny Blenheim.

Within a quarter Squire had scored a muscling try, laid on another for Jordan Taufua with a sweet inside pass, and thrown in some of his trademark, heavy-hitting defence for good measure.

He saw out the full 80 minutes, and nothing about his body language and demeanour suggested that here was a man who wasn’t enjoying his rugby, or didn’t feel up to the challenge of winning a World Cup.

I’m picking that he will make that phone call and will be on the plane.

While we’re in the business of predictions, mark down another – young Tasman fullback Will Jordan to be at the forefront of New Zealand’s 2023 World Cup challenge. Blessed with extreme pace and already successfully blooded by the Crusaders in Super Rugby, he is a delight to watch.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen smiles at a press conference

(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

What proved less of a delight to watch was the Australia versus USA Basketball series held at Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium; actor Russell Crowe the figurehead for thousands of angry punters upset at shelling out hundreds (and in some cases, thousands) of dollars, for seats to an event they couldn’t actually see.

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That the promoter, TEG Live, is under investigation by the ACCC is no surprise. What is more astonishing is the inability of so many people to realise – before they shelled out their hard-earned – that a basketball match in the middle of a vast AFL stadium was unlikely to provide a satisfying viewing experience.

It is the equivalent of climbing Mt Everest and feeling cheated because you can’t see your house.

To confound matters further, another 52,000 turned out for a repeat dose, somehow surprised that viewing lines hadn’t improved for match two.

At least the second time around they got to ‘experience’, if not see, a famous Australian win, 98-94, their first ever against the USA.

Lessons for Australian rugby, heading into the World Cup? One is, play with composure and intent, maintain pressure on the opposition, execute the big plays, and anything is possible.

Another lesson is that despite the considerable flak Rugby Australia cops from fans for the way the game is run, compared to the Basketball administrators at the centre of this fiasco, rugby fans should perhaps consider themselves well served.