Former international bodybuilding champion, Hollywood actor and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger gave a speech a few years ago, where in four words he showed why he has been successful at everything he has ever done. Those words were: I hate Plan B.
Arnie spoke about how having a Plan B saps our attention, energy and willingness to try again after failure until we succeed at achieving what we really want, and ultimately means that failure becomes far more likely.
New Wallabies coach Dave Rennie and his selectors might do well to think like Arnie if they want to win.
What a no Plan B approach to selections would mean for Australian rugby is that players who are selected for the Wallabies starting 15 would be required to have been the best player in Australia playing in that position over the previous Super Rugby season or in an equivalent overseas competition for Giteau’s Law players.
The only place in the Wallabies for a great utility player who didn’t demonstrate that they are the best in position at the start of an international season should be on the bench.
This rule would help rid Australian rugby of its tendency to select naturally talented players into Wallabies positions, where they do not have the full range of position specific skills to succeed in at an international level.
The selections of Kurtley Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper, who have been moved around multiple back line positions, are prime examples of this failed approach. They are both outstanding rugby players who never quite achieved what they could have in gold, because they benefited from a “too good to leave off the park” mentality for their entire Wallabies careers.
Instead of having to be the best in a position over the preceding provincial season, these players knew that they could be selected anywhere. It is likely that had these players been forced to compete for their favoured single position, they would have achieved the class of the All Blacks players, who they were beaten by so often.
Yet despite the failure of this Australian approach to selection for so many years, we can already see the same thinking creeping in about the next generation of players. For example, Isaac Lucas – a prodigiously talented rugby player who has been a schoolboy and club rugby flyhalf and inside centre for most of his career and who has just spent a successful season at ten with Brisbane City in the NRC – is being pegged by writers such as Nick Bishop and Wayne Smith as a potential Wallabies 15.
This appears to be on the basis of a few notable games at 15 with the Reds and in the Australian under-20s in 2019, and the desire to accommodate both Lucas and Waratahs flyhalf Will Harrison in the same starting 15.
Is this experiment that worked well in the under-20s and at Super Rugby level going to cut it at international level? Lucas admitted after his first Super Rugby start in 2019, when he played fullback against the Waratahs, that he is still learning the skills of a specialist fullback.
Moreover, as Bishop has pointed out in his recent article, Lucas does not have a long kicking game. It isn’t hard to imagine how that would work out for him at 15 against the great tactical kickers that he would face in the international environment.
The likes of Ben Smith would just keep belting 50-metre kicks to him parallel to the sideline, and Lucas’ much shorter kick would see the Wallabies caught deep in their own half. Unless Lucas puts a lot of effort into learning the position, he would be likely to have a hard time.
In any case, we already have good options in that position in the likes of Dane Haylett-Petty, Tom Banks and Reece Hodge (if he can get the game time at 15 at the Rebels), all of whom have big boots and do well in other aspects of the fullback’s role.
Wouldn’t it be better for talented Wallabies contenders like Lucas to commit to head-to-head contests with their competitors in the same preferred positions in other teams, than having the distraction of alternative potential paths in their minds?
It would be better for those individuals and for Australian rugby as a whole. At best it could result in four or more players with all the requirements to play a given position at international level at any given time – depth that Australian rugby has yearned for.
So let’s embrace a selection culture of no Plan B to get the most out of all the excellent players that Australian professional rugby is currently blessed with.