We can all breathe a sigh of relief: the ‘Pooper’ is no more.
With David Pocock’s retirement from international rugby at the end of the 2019 World Cup, there is zero chance of he and Michael Hooper being reunited in the Wallabies’ back row.
While this will provoke a raft of mixed reactions, it will not solve the selectors’ problems in this area. When Dave Rennie sits down with Scott Johnson and Michael O’Connor in June to pick his new-look Wallabies for the first Test against Ireland on July 4, finding the right balance in the back five forwards will still be one of the most pressing issues.
Rennie needs to replace Rory Arnold, currently tearing up trees in the Toulouse second row, and then find a new number 6 to pack behind him.
It will not be an easy task. Arnold advanced into the foremost rank of international locks in 2019, while Pocock has been on the shortlist for best player in Australia for as long as anyone can remember.
Last week’s interview with Scott Fardy highlighted two key elements in the selection process for numbers 4 and 6: a glue player dedicated to the unglamorous chores and ready to sacrifice himself for the greater good of the team, and the utility of a flexible forward who can handle the basic chores equally well at both positions in the scrum.
Rennie will already be acutely aware of the second requirement from his experience at the Chiefs in New Zealand, and latterly with Glasgow Warriors in Scotland.
At the Chiefs, he always had a fund of ‘tweeners’ who could shift between the two rows of the scrum, whether it was Michael Fitzgerald, Taleni Seu or Kane Thompson. At Glasgow, he has frequently started Rob Harley (who represented Scotland on the blindside flank) in the second row.
The ultimate positional shape-shifter in world rugby – the spectacularly talented Leone Nakarawa – only recently returned to the European club, where his abilities were best showcased.
At Racing 92 in France, Nakarawa was largely wasted at number 8. In his prior stint with Glasgow, he was outstanding as a mobile, ball-handling second-rower in the finest Pacific Islander tradition – and that is the way the Warriors will use him the second time around.
Finding the magic Fardy ingredient which made the Pooper combination so formidable in 2015 is likely to prove a much more arduous task in 2020.
With Isi Naisarani and Hooper nailed on to start in the back row, another out-and-out lineout player on the blindside flank is not a priority. Naisarani demonstrated he is able to provide a convincing third lineout option in 2019, so the priorities for the new number 6 are defence and work in contact.
There is a definite need for someone who can do the hog work, the more prosaic nuts and bolts, allowing Naisarani to focus on carrying the ball and freeing Hooper to forage and fly around the field.
Let’s look at the Fardy model from one of the games he played earlier this season, for Leinster in the European Champions Cup. The away match against Lyon in the second round was a potential banana-skin.
Leinster had lost momentum at precisely the same stage of the tournament against Toulouse in 2018-19, while Lyon had won eight of their first nine games to lead the French Top 14 one year later. They played their games in front of a typically oppressive, partisan home crowd at the Stade de Gerland and were coming in under the radar. It was like walking into an ambush.
In such situations, players like Fardy are pure gold. They have the experience and the communication skills, but above all the unquenchable desire to enter the furnace where it burns at its hottest.
There has never been any doubt about Fardy’s ability to get stuck in and hold his position over the ball at the breakdown, especially for such a tall man. In the first half he won turnover when Leinster were under pressure in their own 22:
Rhys Ruddock makes the chop tackle, shooting in underneath knee level with Fardy in over the top. Two Lyon forwards are unable to remove him once he’s established over the ball.
In the second period, Fardy illustrated how a good jackal can vary his technique when he is being pulled down and away from the ball by a crocodile roll technique:
He accepts he is too far away from the ball to hold his feet, but he can still play at it while going with the roll – long enough for someone else to finish the job and launch the counter-attack.
This example illustrates how well Fardy works in combination with his ‘fellow flanker’ (Fardy was actually selected in the second row for this game), Josh van der Flier (in the red hat).
That understanding was also in evidence at upright contact situations like driving maul defence:
Fardy is playing heads up, looking for the ball-carrier as the drive rolls infield and pulling an arm away to expose the ball for van der Flier to scrape back on the Blues’ side.
Closer to his own goal-line, Fardy buckled up his chin-strap and really went to work against driving maul. In this first lineout, he starts away from the ball and looks up before deciding where he can do the most damage, in this case driving the maul at an angle towards touch:
In the second instance, he is defending at the point of the drive, fragmenting the blocking front before it can gel around the receiver (Virgile Bruni in the yellow hat). Although he is eventually taken to ground and consumed by the second wave of Lyon forwards, the damage has already been done.
Fardy has disappeared from view, invisible when the turnover scrum is awarded – but it is his sacrifice which has been rewarded, make no mistake:
Fardy’s reading of the play in defence was superb throughout the game. In the second period, he made an outstanding save after Ireland prop Tadhg Furlong was in danger of being exposed to a one-on-one with dangerous young Lyon halfback Baptiste Couilloud:
Fardy is preparing to move up to the Lyon first receiver but has the speed to recover when Couilloud tries to break inside him, stripping the ball at full stretch in the tackle and forcing a turnover scrum.
Even though he started the game at number 4 (shifting to number 6 late on in the game), Leinster were unafraid to implement the idea Fardy mentioned in his interview with me, having him link up and cover space with the backs. In both the following screenshots Fardy is the last forward defending inside the openside winger:
What would Rennie not give to discover the same versatility in one of his back five forward choices?
Rennie needs to find two players to replace Rory Arnold and David Pocock, given Izack Rodda, Michael Hooper and Isi Naisarani are all likely to keep their places after the World Cup.
Fardy-like attributes will be necessary in at least one of the vacant positions at 4 or 6, and both are roles which Fardy can still handle with aplomb. A clarion call should be sent out into Australian Super Rugby: who among the current crop of players is prepared to sacrifice themselves, to do the dirty work so that others can shine?
At number 6, Sean McMahon would be an ideal solution if available, with his tremendous engine and desire to play through the tape, to the end of the game and beyond. If not, Queensland’s new captain Liam Wright, and Pete Samu or Lachie McCaffrey from the Brumbies all have a shot at fitting the bill.
In the second row, the time may finally have come for Lukhan Salakaia-Loto to shake off his miscasting on the blindside flank and prove he can play the Nakarawa role of the ball-handling second-rower which will probably interest Rennie the most. The choice may come down to Salakaia-Loto and the Rebels’ Matt Philip for the spot alongside Rodda.
Whoever finally gets the nod will have to demonstrate they have the potential to play the position as well as Scott Fardy, whether it is at 6 or in the second row – and that will be no easy matter. He is still setting standards which are hard to match even in Ireland, even in the twilight of his career.