One can’t imagine the word “continuity” features heavily in Michael Cheika’s vocabulary. Or at all.
As widely reported this morning and now confirmed, the Wallabies have made a number of crucial changes for their quarter-final against England. Had it been under any other coach, it would come as a surprise. Under Cheika, at this World Cup, it’s just more of the same unorthodoxy.
To be fair, Eddie Jones’ unusual decision to bench George Ford for the match has evened up the ‘wait did he really do that for a quarter-final?’ stakes. The fact remains, though, that the Wallabies have been consistently inconsistent in their team selections in Japan.
A quick word on the positives: the forward pack is as expected, Michael Hooper and David Pocock starting together again, and will provide the Wallabies with a strong platform at the set-piece. Christian Lealiifano is back at flyhalf, Marika Koroibete and Samu Kerevi have kept their places on the wing and at inside centre respectively, and the bench, while lacking Jack Dempsey after two impressive displays from the New South Welshman, is for the most part strong.
Wallabies team to play England in RWC quarter-final
- Scott Sio
- Tolu Latu
- Allan Alaalatoa
- Izack Rodda
- Rory Arnold
- David Pocock
- Michael Hooper (c)
- Isi Naisarani
- Will Genia
- Christian Lealiifano
- Marika Koroibete
- Samu Kerevi
- Jordan Petaia
- Reece Hodge
- Kurtley Beale
- Jordan Uelese
- James Slipper
- Taniela Tupou
- Adam Coleman
- Lukhan Salakaia-Loto
- Nic White
- Matt Toomua
- James O’Connor
Then there’s the head-scratchers.
For the fifth time in as many games, the Wallabies have changed their halves pairing, Cheika and his selectors dropping Nic White to the bench and bringing Will Genia into the run-on side.
White has not enjoyed a stellar tournament, out-performed by Genia in the three games he’s worn the no.9 jersey.
But Genia’s one start was a horrid, intercept-marred display against Wales, a match in which White was the far better scrumhalf after being subbed on in the second half. And his selection alongside Christian Lealiifano comes despite the duo having played just the one Test together this year as the starting halves, the Wallabies’ 16-10 win over Argentina in Brisbane.
Every one of Lealliifano’s other Wallaby starts at 10 this year have come with his former Brumbies teammate at halfback.
Even with Cheika’s penchant for regular changes, it’s remarkable that such an approach has extended all the way to the side’s playmaking fulcrum.
Yes, the coach has espoused the merits of having depth, competition for spots, and different options at his disposal. But in the run to the 2015 final, his finest moment as Wallabies boss, there was never any doubt about his halves – Genia and Foley started together in every game of that tournament aside from the pool match against Uruguay.
That’s not to say a constant 9-10 axis would guarantee the Wallabies another final appearance, nor even favouritism against England this weekend. Only that, with the backline still yet to click into gear this year (with the obvious exception of the Perth Bledisloe Cup win – a match in which Lealiifano and White both started), a bit of stability in the halves would be welcome.
Maybe the Exeter-based White has just watched too much of England’s players during his Premiership seasons for Cheika’s liking.
Then there’s Jordan Petaia.
The young Queensland Red is a phenomenal talent. He’s going to spend the next decade and a half wearing Wallaby gold, providing he stays in the code and country – and out of the casualty ward. His performances on the wing in his first two Tests were impressive enough to demand selection against England.
Which he has been given – at outside centre.
If someone could outline to me the logic behind picking a 19-year-old, however promising he may be, in a position he’s never played at Test level for a must-win quarter-final, I’d be much obliged.
From an attacking perspective, you can somewhat understand the move. It should get the ball in Petaia’s hands more than what would have been the case were he on the wing.
But does he have the ability to distribute well enough from 13? His handful of Super Rugby games in the position isn’t enough of a sample size to judge that, but with the ball having a velcro-like relationship to Kerevi’s hands, it’ll be a crucial responsibility.
Defensively, it raises far more questions. Can he handle the organisational duties from 13? Will he be able to handle marking
Manu Tuilagi Henry Slade? Can a centre pairing of Petaia and Kerevi contain the big English midfield? Are we going to see another shoe-horned system which shifts everyone around the backline in defence to hide him on the wing?
These are no criticisms of Petaia himself, only of the decision to hand an inexperienced player such an important role for a World Cup quarter-final.
Maybe’s it’s just Cheika wanting to catch Eddie Jones and England off-guard. If that is the theory, it’s strange to have come from a coach who focuses on his own side’s strengths rather than studying the opposition.
Whatever it is, hopefully it works. Hopefully Petaia lines up in the front line of defence and crunches Slade – or Tuilagi, for that matter – early on. Hopefully his speed and agility regularly breaks open the English defence. Hopefully he lays on a beautiful pass for Kerevi or Koroibete to score and grabs a try or two himself.
While we’re at it, hopefully Kurtley Beale is able to have his best game under the high ball and on kick return to nullify the impact of George Ford and Farrell. Hopefully Reece Hodge isn’t left wanting for match fitness, having been slotted back into the side after serving his three-match suspension. Hopefully the selectors won’t rue dumping Dane Haylett-Petty from the matchday squad after his strong pool performances.
Hopefully Australia beat England for the first time since 2015.
It would be nice, though, to be heading into a must-win Test with a little more than just wistful hope. Petaia may very well be the player to provide a more grounded optimism for Australian supporters in the coming years, but the backline he’s been picked in for this quarter-final does not.
As for Cheika, there’s every chance this will be his final game in charge of Australia. There’d certainly be something fitting about his Wallabies tenure ending on the back of another round of bizarre selections.