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Wallabies backrow under pressure

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The Wallabies' backrow is under pressure from early Super Rugby standouts

A week is a long time in Australian rugby. The inconsistency of our Super Rugby teams means the discourse changes on almost a weekly basis. This time last week, the Waratahs and Rebels were being spoken of as finals contenders, Ned Hanigan was entering a rich vein of form, Kurtley Beale was looking forward to being back at 12, and, according to some, Bernard Foley was still the man to run the show for the Wallabies.

The matches over the weekend may well have put all that to rest, as the Rebels and Waratahs blew opportunities to entrench themselves in the top 8, and Foley, Beale, and Hanigan all went missing in the local derby. The Brumbies and Reds may have won their games, but neither will be overly happy with how they played for the majority of their matches.

There were some real positives for Australian rugby, however, mostly around the performance of our blindsides and no. 8’s. Luke Jones had a standout game for the Rebels in the 6 jersey, showing the impact he can have around the park when he doesn’t have a prop’s arse resting on his shoulder. Isi Naisarani gets over the gain line more often than not, which is a big contributor to the Rebels being able to play as flat as they have been.

Lachie McCaffrey completely dominated an all-Wallaby backrow. He is a smart player that has a knack for big plays, something that comes in handy in test matches (hint hint).  Over in Tokyo, Scott Higginbotham had moments of brilliance, but it is obvious his mind is elsewhere and who could blame him? It is absolutely criminal the way he has been frozen out of the national setup over the last few years. The overall positivity around the back-row was somewhat dampened by this and another injury to Rob Valentini, but let’s talk about why these good performances are so important for Australian rugby.

WARNING: The following may seem like common sense, but if you’ve watched the Wallabies in the past few years you’ll know there’s nothing common about it.

The backrow has been the biggest talking point of Michael Cheika’s tenure. His preference to play two opensides is seen by some as making the best of what we’ve got, but as shooting ourselves in the foot by the rest. Advocates say that David Pocock and Michael Hooper are often the two best Australian players on the park, so start them both, while the detractors point to our inability to get over the gain line, and a faltering lineout. Pick multiple threats at the breakdown or bigger bodies for more physicality? Who would want to be a coach?

Many will recall that when the Wallabies ran this previously, with better cattle in George Smith and Phil Waugh, it didn’t work out. So why would it this time? Well, I think we can conclusively say that it hasn’t. The lineout isn’t functioning and part of that is we don’t have enough tall timber, putting pressure on already struggling hookers. We don’t get the benefit of having two opensides on the paddock, as Hooper’s best work isn’t at the breakdown. Without a proper no. 8, we don’t have someone that can bend the line, so our backline is under constant pressure as the defense is always moving forward.

One of the biggest criticisms of the Wallabies since the last World Cup has been the inability of the forwards to consistently give the backline a good platform to attack from, in general play and at set-piece. Tight five aside, why then do we consistently pick a backrow whose strengths don’t lie in getting over the gain line, resulting in slow, contested ball for our (usually) very sharp backline?

It’s no coincidence that the last good game the Wallabies played against the All Blacks was in 2017 at Lang Park, where Sean McMahon started at 8 with Jack Dempsey alongside him at 6. Two natural ball carriers working in tandem had the All Blacks on the back foot, and funnily enough, we ended up winning that one.

Dempsey’s performance had many punters lauding him as the answer to all our problems, but injury not long after scuttled that plan. McMahon departing and Pocock returning from sabbatical meant Cheika had to find a place for one of the world’s best players, which took us into 2018, where we played an 8 who is the best 7 in the world, a 7 who isn’t effective enough at the breakdown, and, more often than not, a 6 that plays like a second rower. Confusing? Yes. Effective? No.

To be clear, I’m not knocking Michael Hooper. He is a great athlete, a big game player, and his defensive work is second to none, but when you have someone like David Pocock, you play him in his best position and you don’t confuse his job description. We only need to look at the way the All Blacks have been getting plenty out of Ardie Savea by bringing him off the bench, to see that the Wallabies should do the same with Hooper. They’re both players with incredible work rate and pace, so bringing them on against tired legs is a no-brainer.

The selections at blindside flanker have been more mystifying, as Hanigan is too early in his development to be an asset there, and Lukhan Salakai-Loto doesn’t have the work rate. He is an out-and-out second rower and should be developed as such.

As an aside, I think one of Cheika’s biggest problems as a coach is that he is regularly trying to jam square-shaped blocks into round holes. He wants all ‘his’ best players on the park, without giving enough thought to where the international game is heading, or the right combinations to deliver in that arena.

His loyalty to players who have not done the job for him before is also a bit of a head-scratcher. I would understand if there was a prior winning record that underpinned his belief in his selections but there isn’t. This faith is likely reinforced by the Waratahs finishing higher on the ladder than the other Australian teams in recent years, so you could speculate that he felt there weren’t better alternatives to choose from.

So far, it’s a different story in 2019. The Rebels and Brumbies are outperforming the Waratahs not only on the ladder but in metrics such as advantage line success rate, where the Rebels and Brumbies rank 2nd and 3rd respectively, while the Waratahs sit dead last. The Rebels and Brumbies backrowers are also generating more turnovers (when you combine pilfers and forced penalties), while the no. 8’s are making more run metres.

Which brings me back to how good it is to see a number of players at 6 and 8 performing strongly this year. I can’t have been the only one who noticed Valetini mark-up on Naisarani every carry in both local derbies; their exchanges were fantastic. Hanigan had his best game I’ve seen against the Reds, and Dempsey has been consistently good, despite the increased ball carrying he has been asked to do playing at 8.

McCaffrey has been the best in a competitive Brumbies backrow, and must be a part of the conversation when Cheika sits down with Scott Johnson and Michael O’Connor to hash out a Wallabies squad. I’d like to say the same about Higgers, but I know that ship has sailed, at least we can hope that Salakaia-Loto is only considered for the second row this time around, which would open the door for someone else.

With these players stepping up to the plate, there are new, exciting backrow combinations worth considering:

  1. Jones 6. Valetini 6. Dempsey
  2. Pocock or 7. Pocock or 7. Pocock
  3. Naisarani 8. McCaffrey 8. Naisarani

Any of these options have a better balance than what we are currently running, and recent results have shown us that if we want to make it out of our pool at the World Cup, we need to try something different.

Balance cannot be emphasised enough when building a backrow, and getting it wrong not only results in players shouldering extra work outside their core roles, it can be the difference between the backline firing or not. The Wallabies need a backrow that offers height in the lineout, grunt to run through a brick wall, and the ability to force turnovers or slow the opposition pill.

All the right players are there, it’s now up to the powers that be to pick them.

My backrowers to go to the World Cup:

David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Isi Naisarani, Pete Samu, Luke Jones (covering second row as well), Jack Dempsey, Lachie McCaffrey

Queensland Reds backrower Scott Higginbotham:

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The Wallabies' backrow is under pressure from early Super Rugby standouts