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David Pocock is ready for the Wallabies but not as starter

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6 days ago
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What was the purpose of the Australian side that played Samoa on Saturday in a final hit-out before the team’s opening match of the 2019 Rugby World Cup tournament against Fiji in a couple of weeks’ time?

Looking at the selection of the side, with many of the obvious starting players left out of the playing squad, it was an exercise in preservation of the best players.

This is not what most of the other leading sides did in their weekend Test.

So the Wallabies side, supposedly preparing for its opening Rugby World Cup game in two weels had the probable starting backs, Nic White, Christian Lealiifano, Samu Kerevi, Kurtley Beale, and probable starting forwards, the Wallabies captain Michael Hooper, prop Allan Alaalatoa, hookers Tolu Latu and Folau Fainga’a, locks Rory Arnold and Izack Rodda all sitting in the grandstand.

By way of comparison, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland and Wales, all teams with justifiable hopes to be strong finals contenders at the tournament, fielded just about the strongest sides they could, taking into account protecting some players with niggling injuries.

The Springboks and the All Blacks, admittedly, play each other in the opening round of the tournament.

If they had played a make-shift squad, as the Wallabies did against Samoa, then their best teams would have gone into their most important pool round match without playing a match for more than three weeks.

The Wallabies’ opening match of the tournament is against Fiji, one of only two teams in their pool (the other team is Wales) with a reasonable hope of making the finals.

Instead of polishing up the revamped attack game that coach Michael Cheika tells us his attack coach Shaun Berne has devised, a Wallabies side with four players not going to Japan, Tom Banks, Rob Valentini, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Nick Phipps, took the field against Samoa.

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I cannot see any advantage to the Wallabies in their quest for Rugby World Cup glory in Japan in these selections.

The big risk in this curious case of resting the Wallabies’ best players is that the side will be rusty when they play their opening match against Fiji.

As I say, four teams with justifiable ambitions to win the William Webb Ellis trophy, Wales, Ireland, South Africa and New Zealand, went into their last pre-tournament match with their best available guns blazing.

Why did the Wallabies not take this option? Playing players not going to the Rugby World Cup tournament in a last hit-out does not make any sense.

I can understand (or think I do) why Michael Hooper was rested from the match and David Pocock given the opportunity to play at number 7, and captain the starting side.

This was, I would hope, to test Pocock’s fitness after a long period out of rugby.

And, I am guessing here, to try out Pocock in the captaincy to allow him to give Hooper a rest break in one of the pool matches.

Also, to prepare for Pocock to come on as a replacement for Hooper in the big matches if the need arises.

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David Pocock

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

There has been some media hype about the quality of Pocock’s play against Samoa. But let us be honest, here: Pocock was unobtrusive in his captaincy and, generally, unobtrusive in his play.

There was nothing in his play to suggest that he would be a better starter than Hooper.

Or that he remains such an influential player that he needs to be played out of position, either at number 6 or number 8, to accommodate the presence of Hooper at number 7.

On Saturday, admittedly coming back from a long injury, Pocock was content to make several tip-on passes, one leading to a try, make some tackles but none of them bone-crushers, and make one turnover out of four or five attempts.

He was nowhere near as impressive in his loose forward play as, say, Jack Dempsey.

It was the sort of passive display by Pocock, in fact, which contrasted sharply with the energy and dynamic running that Liam Wright, the Reds youngster, brought to his play when he replaced Pocock.

I have been arguing for a long time now that the time for Pocock as a starter, if Michael Hooper is available, has long passed.

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His best value to the Wallabies right now is as a super-sub ready to come on towards the end of a match, in any of the back three positions, and make an impact (hopefully) with his penchant for turnovers and his strong tackling ability.

The fact that he has had the experience of captaining the Wallabies is useful, too, in that, if necessary, Pocock can make a total switch with Hooper if the captain needs to be replaced.

But let’s not kid ourselves, or the rugby writers kid themselves, Pocock is nowhere near the player who was so impressive in Rugby World Cup 2011 (the hero of the quarter-final against the Springboks) and Rugby World Cup 2015 (where he won the most turnovers of any player in the tournament).

Compare Pocock’s 58 minutes on Saturday with the play of Matt Todd or Ardie Savea for the All Blacks against Tonga and you get a sense of what I am suggesting that cameo roles rather than starring roles is the future of Pocock for the Wallabies.

Back to the topic of those nations other than the Wallabies, it was interesting to see that the respective coaching staffs of the Springboks and the All Blacks have opted for two entirely different game plans to win the tournament.

The Springboks are going for a power game based around the dynamic attack and defence by a monster and mobile attack, a prodigious kicker and big runner at number 10, and ultra-fast wingers.

As a matter of tactics, the Springboks refuse to try and play a game of rugby inside their own half. They are a team that believes its real strength comes from applying pressure to opposition sides inside their own half and, hopefully, opening up chances for penalties, rolling mauls, and opportunists tries from turnovers and intercepts.

This is how they monstered Japan over the weekend.

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This is going to be an incredibly hard system for oppositions to break down in the tournament.

It is also a game that South Africans feel very comfortable playing. It is, in essence, the game that won the Rugby World Cup tournament for Jake White’s Springboks in 2007 and Kitch Christie’s Springboks in 1995.

It is a scary thought in this context for non-Springboks supporters that, in my opinion, this 2019 edition of the Springboks is a much better squad than the 2007 and 1995 editions.

On the other side of the playing spectrum we have the All Blacks game which will be based on speed, skills, flair and some power.

Their 92-7 win over Tonga was their biggest winning margin in a decade, an ominous statistic for their Rugby World Cup opponents.

The temperature in Japan last weekend when the Springboks smashed a lively Japan side was 31 degrees.

This sort of heat could melt down some of the steeliness that the Springboks are bringing to this campaign.

That, it seems to me, is the hope of the All Black coaches who want to bring speed and more speed to their game to tire out their potential rivals, South Africa and the best of the European sides they play against in the tournament.

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Whether this emphasis on skills and speed can survive the rigours of a tournament and some pedantic refereeing (it did not for the Rugby World Cup 1995 All Blacks) will be one of the stories of the Rugby World Cup 2019.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen smiles at a press conference

(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

In the other major Tests of the weekend, Ireland became the number one team in the World Rugby rankings but more importantly showed that they have the talent and coaching to be a formidable side in Japan.

Wales, the main opposition in their pool round for the Wallabies have lost three of their four Tests in the lead-up to Japan.

But they still look like a side that could go deep into the tournament on the evidence of their staunch display against a fired-up Ireland side playing in front of its home crowd.

The other obvious contender, England, played a virtual second 15 against Italy and smashed them.

As England start the tournament with an easy first game, it makes sense for Eddie Jones to use their opening game of Rugby World Cup tournament itself to fine-tune the play of his best squad for the harder matches to follow.

Argentina totally out-played and out-muscled a courageous Randwick side at Coogee.

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The presentation of the match showed up the feeble efforts of the Super Rugby administrators. This was a great occasion for a club that remains dedicated to promoting running rugby.

But for the match itself, the truth is that back when Randwick played their famous match against the All Blacks, it was a case of club players playing club players on both sides.

At Coogee on a sunny afternoon the Pumas professionals were just too professional for the Randwick club players, boosted by a handful of professional players and old-timers.

Professional players will always be too strong for club players, it seems to me. So what the Pumas got out of the game was a chance to play some attacking rugby without worrying too much about the inevitable result in their favour.

So, in summary, on the last weekend of matches for the teams going into the 2019 Rugby World Cup tournament, the strong teams got what they wanted and needed.

The exception to this was the Wallabies.

Michael Cheika, it seemed to me, was more concerned about giving a farewell to some players not going to Japan to actually testing his best side.

I can’t see how this helps the Wallabies moving on to Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan.

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