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Samoan selection Sudoku for Michael Cheika ahead of the Rugby World Cup

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10th September, 2019
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The puzzle game Sudoku was born in its current form in Japan in 1984, although variations of the same theme had existed as long ago as the 19th century.

The original title of the game, Sūji wa dokushin ni kagiru, means “the digits must be of single occurrence” and the form is a Latin square, 9×9.

No integers must be repeated in any of the rows or columns of that big square, nor in any of the 3×3 mini squares within it, and all of the numbers from one to nine must be used in each square.

The solver has some digits provided by the puzzle-maker to begin with, then he or she is on his own.

The problem-solver in the hot seat before the World Cup in Japan is, of course, Australian coach Michael Cheika. He has his own issues to address in selection after the weekend match against Samoa, and those will be principally in the single-digit numbers.

He began by talking about the back row at the post-match media conference, but could scarcely keep a rueful grin off his face.

“It’s a good competition. I thought Lukhan (Salakaia-Loto) had one of his better games this season,” he said.

“He got a few starts early on and now he’s seen the challengers coming. It gives us good options and creates competition within the squad.”

The coach had none other than David Pocock sitting right next to him, the most imposing of those challengers for one of the two available spots in the back row.

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David Pocock

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Another barely suppressed smile followed as Cheika tipped his hat in the fill-in skipper’s direction.

“It will take him a few games to get re-acclimatised to the pace of things probably but he’s a very quick learner,” Cheika said.

The other major bone of contention to emerge from the past three games has been the composition of the scrum.

Cheika first wore his ‘hard-done by the ref’ hat, only to rip if off abruptly and voice technical concerns about the left side of his front row:

“I was really disappointed we didn’t get more pay from the scrum, penalty-wise. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on our loosehead side. We got no pay from that situation and I was bemused by that.

“When [Paul] Alo-Emile came on – who we know is a very good scrummager – our hooker didn’t do his job, then we adjusted and got back into shape.”

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As in Sudoku, Cheika’s main problems are in shuffling the low numbers – but from one to eight rather than one to nine. He also has to find a way to avoid repeating any of the digits by selecting forwards with complementary, rather than copycat functions. Nowhere is this more true than in the back row.

Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment. Cheika’s determination to turn Salakaia-Loto into a Test-worth No.6 in time for the World Cup is motivated by the needs of his new, Shaun Berne-designed attack.

That structure requires a solid lineout for Berne’s launch plays, and it needs a big second-wave ball-carrier for the high ratio of phase plays run off the halfback.

The basic design, and the functions within the back row, can be illustrated with reference to Wallaby kick-off receipts at Bankwest Stadium. Here is the earliest, and most straightforward, example in the first period:

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Jack Dempsey is in the slot reserved for the main forward ball-carrier, usually positioned at the expected point of receipt. This is the role that would normally be played by Isi Naisarani.

Dempsey (“1” in the screenshot below) takes the ball into contact first-up, and then the distribution of back-row functions becomes clear:

wallabies attack vs samoa

Salakaia-Loto (2) is in a close-range three-man pod off at the end of the scrumhalf’s pass, with an option to move forward himself or pass behind on the over-call by outside-half Bernard Foley.

After play moves beyond him, Salakaia-Loto then runs across the field to become the first ‘hard’ ball-carrier when the ball comes back towards the right-hand side.

Pocock is in the third back-row role (3) which would normally be played by captain Michael Hooper – offering wider support out beyond the two centres.

This pattern was repeated throughout the game:

wallabies attack vs samoa

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Dempsey’s function is to drop into the wide right channel after he’s made the initial carry, and the 8 and 6 tend to play close together, carrying on successive phases whenever possible. The 7 plays with the backs.

Now let’s take a look at a more extended example, starting after Dempsey’s first rumble:

This time, Salakaia-Loto takes a bump before making a neat offload to Foley. The point of attack is then moved wider for Pocock to take a tackle and set up the second ruck.

The second clip extends the sequence a little further, with Salakaia-Loto trotting across to take the next ‘programmed’ carry, on a short ball back towards the right.

He is knocked back hard in contact and the negative dominoes cascade on the next phase. Matt Toomua is met strongly on the gainline and the combined efforts of Tom Banks, Pocock and Rob Simmons are not enough to remove the poacher, the magnificently named Belgium Tuatagaloa in the white headband. The result is a penalty to Samoa.

Now imagine an alternative back-row selection playing out with Naisarani at ‘1’, Pocock at ‘2’ and Hooper at ‘3’. Pocock suddenly has to make those hard carries on the inside of the field rather than ranging wide.

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Would he have the size and power to have scored the third try in the wide channel converted by Salakaia-Loto later in the half?

Pocock and Naisarani could swap roles of course, but there would still be a significant downgrade in the ball-carrying capacity felt somewhere, as would the loss of the extra body at lineout time.

On the other side of the slate, aspects of the defence would be immeasurably improved. Replace Salakaia-Loto with Pocock for Beauden Barrett’s try in Perth or Aaron Smith’s the following week and neither are converted with the same ease, if at all.

Salakaia-Loto also played an important part in giving up a try on the shortside of the scrum in the game at Bankwest:

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The Wallaby No.6 folds in tamely behind James Slipper, and as soon as Samoa begin to promote the scrum on their own right side he loses all sense of connection to the single defender on the shortside, left winger Marika Koroibete. Would Pocock have opened the door to that move off the base quite so cordially? I doubt it.

This try, which signalled the beginning of a strong second-half comeback by the Samoans, leads directly into Cheika’s other conundrum in the lowest numbers of all, 1 and 2 on the left side of his scrum.

The combination of Slipper at loosehead prop and Jordan Uelese at hooker looked more than comfortable in the first period, but as soon as Samoa’s two replacement props were introduced (Logovi’i Mulipola at loosehead in the 45th minute, and Paul Alo-Emile on the other side five minutes later), the scrum momentum turned on its head completely.

Both Mulipola and Alo-Emile have significant top-level European scrum experience, with Leicester Tigers and Stade Francais respectively, and it showed.

Alo-Emile has acquired the typical Top 14 knack of forcing his opponent out of their starting foot position with quick and explosive changes of body height. Firstly, he did it to Slipper:

Note that Salakaia-Loto’s body position is (habitually) less supportive than that of his opposite number:

wallabies scrum vs samoa

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When Slipper was promptly replaced by Scott Sio in the 54th minute, the man from Canberra suffered from some of his old problems with over-extension at the engagement:

Sio was also lucky not to be penalised on the feed in the 70th minute after diving down into the middle of the tunnel as Alo-Emile clicked him up and down on the ratchet:

Summary
The warm-up was just the kind of run Cheika needed to lay bare the most important selection decisions he has to make at the World Cup.

Those choices are Sudoku-like in character. They nearly all exist in the numbers below nine, and the problem of not repeating ‘numbers’ or functions in the forward unit is critical.

Although he brushed off the live presence of Pocock beside him at the media conference as “healthy competition for places”, in reality, the choice between Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and David Pocock at No.6 represents a major fork in the road in terms of playing philosophy.

If he picks the big man, he will be trusting the lineout and the offensive structure engineered by Shaun Berne. If he goes with Pocock, the defence both at the breakdown and in the line outside it will be hugely improved, and Nathan Grey will be wearing a big smile.

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Meanwhile, the left side of the scrum has unexpectedly become an issue under searching examination by first Nepo Laulala, then Paul Alo-Emile in the second half at Sydney.

The problems in countering European techniques at scrum time could prove critical come the crunch group game against Wales on 29 September. The appointee for that game is none other than Frenchman Romain Poite, so any fallibilities in technique will be scrutinised intensely.

The decisions Michael Cheika makes in these areas could make or break his legacy at the World Cup.