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Wallabies old dogs can learn

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It is not too late for the Wallabies old dogs to learn new tricks

When asked in November 2014 whether the All Blacks could win the 2015 Rugby World Cup their now legendary coach Steve Hansen replied, “You don’t have to be the best dog, just the right dog.”

It is a thought-provoking comment to ponder considering Hansen was coaching a team with the goal of remaining World Champions, and if successful, which they ultimately were, Hansen’s team earnt the right to be called the best. Yet on his quest for World Cup glory, Hansen was more focused on being right which is a separate thing.

In reflecting upon that comment, one can comfortably draw the inference that Hansen had at least two requirements when selecting his side; the selected player is the right man to do a particular job for the team and that man will doggedly execute those duties bestowed upon him. Obviously, the right dogs are selected when the coach has already identified what he wants those dogs to do. It is not a ‘cart-before-the-horse’ equation.

Some may subscribe to picking your best 15 players and then find them a position on the ground. That can work if the coach is willing to mould a game plan around what those 15 players’ strengths and weaknesses are and not strictly require that team to play to the coach’s pre-determined system. Square pegs do not fit into round holes and a lack of flexibility from a coach can prevent success.

It is no secret that I am not a supporter of the dual play-maker system, nor am I a supporter of playing two traditional openside flankers. This has been a system and selection policy the Wallabies have largely employed since Michael Cheika took the reins with the Wallabies in 2014 but it has simply not brought sustained success desired despite the occasional top tier scalp. Apart from a very credible 2015 World Cup coupled with a defeat of the All Blacks in 2017, there is no cogent evidence to support the game plan and their accompanying selections in 2019.

In looking at the dual openside flanker system first from an Australian perspective, don’t forget Michael Hooper’s test debut came in 2012 under then Wallaby coach Robbie Deans when selected for that ill-fated nightmare in Newcastle when on an arctic night the Scots defeated the Wallabies 9-6.

In that match, David Pocock ran on, with Hooper from the bench. This selection policy was repeated on a further five occasions in 2012, with far greater success as the Wallabies defeated the Welsh four times and lost to New Zealand 27-19 in Sydney. It has not been seen since and the Wallabies finished 2012 ranked the second best side in the World. Despite having the opportunity to do so, Deans never employed both Pocock and Hooper as starting players.

Deans’ successor Ewen McKenzie did not enjoy the benefit of a fit David Pocock during his tenure as Wallabies coach yet on the European tour of 2013, McKenzie took the Wallabies to a near Grand Slam, something only one other Wallaby side has ever achieved, the legendary 1984 Wallabies.

It is fair to say the Wallabies were harshly treated by the TMOs at Twickenham on that tour when English hooker Dylan Hartley obstructed his opposite Stephen Moore from getting a clear opportunity to tackle Owen Farrell who waltzed over the line to score under the posts. The English won the match, but the Wallabies regrouped and won the next four test matches against Italy, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

Ewen McKenzie never experienced victory over the All Blacks during his time as Wallaby coach, the closest he came was in 2014 with a 12-12 draw in Sydney and in his final test in Brisbane a heart wrenching 28-29 final minute loss. In all of those matches, which were McKenzie’s finest as Wallabies coach, the Wallabies only ever started one specialist openside flanker in Michael Hooper despite also having the outstanding Liam Gill and war-horse Matt Hodgson at his disposal. When McKenzie stepped down as the Wallabies coach, the Wallabies were still a top-four side in the international rankings.

I suggest that a hallmark of the Michael Cheika tenure as Wallabies coach is his preference for the dual openside system by the selection of David Pocock and Michael Hooper in the run-on side as often as possible. If one of those has not been fit either a Sean McMahon or Pete Samu, neither of whom are larger sized back row forwards, have filled in.

That has been Cheika’s prerogative as the coach and to his credit, the dual openside combination has worked for the Wallabies with notable victories over England in 2015, New Zealand in 2015 and 2017 and Ireland in 2018. Yet despite those wonderful wins, the Wallabies did not win the Bledisloe Cup, the World Cup or the Lansdowne Cup. Embarrassingly, the Wallabies were annihilated by the English in 2016 losing their home series 0-3.

Whilst the strategy and selections of the dual openside itself should not alone be the scapegoat for a decline in the quality of Wallaby rugby I submit it is a contributing component of why the Wallabies have struggled against physically bigger sides who dominate or frustrate the Wallabies at the set piece.

You would travel a many-a mile to find two more dogged players than David Pocock and Michael Hooper and both are two of best in the business but together as part of a unit operating in accordance with the recent strategy, neither the strategy nor selection policy has been the right thing for Wallaby rugby.

If it were, the Wallabies would not have dropped at one stage to seventh in the World Rankings in 2018.

The other aspect of Wallaby play that continues to frustrate is the dual playmaker system in the 10 and 12 jumpers. Whilst the system has its place in the game, the evidence suggests it has no place in the contemporary international game. I find it no coincidence that the current top five sides in international rugby, New Zealand, Ireland, England, Wales and South Africa do not – and some never did – employ the dual player maker system in the 10 and 12 jumpers.

The formidable All Black machine utilises the likes of Ma’a Nonu, Sonny Bill Williams and Ngani Laumape in the 12 jumper with often devasting effect. In the 2015 Rugby World Cup, arguably the greatest fly-half to play the game Dan Carter was not accompanied by the magnificent Beauden Barrett in the 12 jumper or vice-versa despite it being an option.

If there ever were a cogent argument for employing the dual player system surely the Barrett – Carter combination would be the most potent combination of recent times to support that method of play. Yet Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith saw victory through other means.

That’s not to say the All Blacks are not averse to playing two smaller backs, in fact, Barrett came off the bench to play fullback in their victory over the Wallabies in the 2015 Rugby World Cup Final. This system of another playmaker entering the fray via the back three is occasionally utilised by the All Blacks still with Barrett at fly-half and Damian McKenzie at fullback for example.

The recent All Black-conquering Irish are similar in their approach, utilising the abrasive Bundee Aki and forceful Robbie Henshaw to accompany Johnny Sexton. Eddie Jones’ England have preferred to use Ben Te’o and Manu Tuilagi off Owen Farrell’s shoulder, even sizeable Kiwi journeyman Hadleigh Parkes does a job for Wales in the 12 jumper. Jamie Roberts, he is not, but despite Wales having a range of playmakers, Parkes gets the jumper. Finally the resurgent Springboks do not use Elton Jantjies with Handre Pollard as a dual playmaker combination, instead opting for the powerful Damien De Allende and Jesse Kriel in their centres to punch over the gain line.

In context to Australian rugby, having a fly-half and inside centre who interchange the first receiver and second-man distributor is a system that has failed to deliver any sustainable success for the Wallabies since the Rugby World Cup in 2015 and it is a damning indictment of the Wallabies coaching staff that they have failed to adjust to what the more consistently successful sides are doing in that space.

There has been an argument circulating around the Australian Rugby community for far too long that Australia lacks the playing talent to consistently defeat their rivals. This is a lazy observation and insulting to the talent at the Wallabies’ disposal. What should be argued with greater fervour is why have the Wallabies continued to persist with strategies and accompanying selections that simply do not work?

Why have the Wallabies not designed a strategy that is both contemporary, logical and executable that delivers success? The recent appointment of both National Rugby Director in waiting in Scott Johnson and independent selector in former dual-international Michael O’Connor are positive steps to assist in finding solutions to such problems.

I thoroughly endorse the removal of Michael Hooper as test skipper and as starting openside flanker, for him to be replaced by David Pocock in the pack with Will Genia taking over as captain. Furthermore, Samu Kerevi must be selected as the Wallabies starting 12 with Kurtley Beale playing his rugby in the 15 jumper or off the bench in such a role. Do not be confused that I am anti-Hooper or Beale, I am not.

I see the value of both Beale and Hooper as senior members of the side and significant contributors to the Wallaby cause. I could think of no better players to come into the contest with 25 minutes to go to bring that experience and ability to wrest the tempo of the match back if required and to ultimately close out matches. I am confident these ‘Old Dogs’ can learn new tricks and be the right selections for Australia if the strategy is also astute.

Finally, an encouraging second round of Super Rugby from an Australian perspective. It was not even a year ago that the New Zealand Herald writer Gregor Paul was quoted, “Australian rugby will become the sort of thing to keep an eye out for in car boot sales: its only value being nostalgic, it’s only interested buyers the old time tragics who can remember the days when the Reds and Brumbies used to scare other teams with the talent at their disposal.”

Well Gregor old son thus far in this year’s Super Rugby season the ledger is 2-1 to New Zealand but, and it’s a big but, the Wobbly Waratahs were a wayward penalty kick away from defeating the Hurricanes in round one. In round two the Queensland Reds were simply heart and class in their narrow loss to the Highlanders.

The Reds scrum was forceful and provided their opposition plenty of concern throughout the match and perhaps if a clear forward pass taken by Matt Faddes angling in off a lineout win that ultimately led to a Highlanders try had been correctly called the Reds may have come away with the chocolates. But the real dessert of the weekend was served up by the ACT Brumbies who put in a near castrating performance, defeating the Chiefs 54-17 who looked clueless at times on how to deal with the talent Brumbies had at their disposal.

My Australian Super Rugby Team of the Week: Round Two.

  1. Feao Fotuaika (QLD Reds)
  2. Folau Fainga’a (ACT Brumbies)
  3. Alan Alalaatoa (Act Brumbies)
  4. Izack Rodda (QLD Reds)
  5. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto (QLD Reds)
  6. Lachlan McCaffrey (ACT Brumbies)
  7. Jack Dempsey (NSW Waratahs)
  8. Caleb Timu (QLD Reds)
  9. Moses Sorovi (QLD Reds)
  10. Christian Lealiifano (ACT Brumbies)
  11. Chance Peni (ACT Brumbies)
  12. Samu Kerevi (QLD Reds)
  13. Jordan Petaia (QLD Reds)
  14. Israel Folau (NSW Waratahs)
  15. Tom Banks (ACT Brumbies)

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It is not too late for the Wallabies old dogs to learn new tricks