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FEATURE Charlie Cale may be the answer to Joe Schmidt's back-row prayers

Charlie Cale may be the answer to Joe Schmidt's back-row prayers
4 weeks ago

I had just breathed a huge sigh of relief, after finishing a 75-page analytical preview for the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia back in 2001. As if an invisible thread had been tugged in Marshfield, on the outskirts of Newport, the phone rang almost immediately. It was the Lions head coach, Sir Graham Henry. As was his wont, ‘Ted’ asked me for a précis of my thoughts on the world champion team we were about to face, and ‘make it brief’.

‘It gets better, the higher the numbers in the XV’ was my response. Apart from freakish athlete and leader John Eales, the tight forwards were only workmanlike, but the Wallabies began to take a big step up in quality when you reached numbers seven and eight in the back row. After that it rose steeply to world-class, pretty much anywhere you looked from nine to 15. Those numbers have always provided the real steel in the Wallabies, and all the star recruits from the sister code tended to gravitate towards double-digit jerseys.

The number eight in Rod Macqueen’s class-leading squad was Toutai Kefu, who was probably the last great pure eighth man to bestride the Australian game. By the time the World Cup in 2015 had arrived, 14 years and five Wallaby coaches later, Michael Cheika was committed to picking two outstanding open-side flankers in the same run-on side [Michael Hooper and David Pocock]; partly due the individual excellence of the pair, but also because of the lack of top-shelf alternatives at the base of the scrum.

The twin open-side theory rapidly became a trend and still has its proponents. England successfully shifted Saracen Ben Earl to number eight at the World Cup and the experiment continued during the Six Nations, with Bath’s Sam Underhill returning to the starting XV to provide the double-headed pilfering threat.

Even the current Wallaby eight Bobby Valetini initially had to be shifted from his position on the side of the Brumbies scrum – the Canberra outfit preferred ‘Pistol Pete’ Samu at eight with Bobby on the blindside – to learn the requirements of a new position at national level.

It is only this season that a blue-riband number eight has finally reappeared on the Wallaby horizon, a man who truly promises to fill the boots of Kefu and Tim Gavin before him. His name is Charlie Cale, and he plays for the Brumbies.

Ex-Wallaby ‘high number’ Cameron Shepherd suggested on Stan Sports’ Rugby Heaven Cale would be an international player, but questioned his potential longevity at the top.

“He [Cale] is a perfect example of someone who needs the likes of a Valetini, [or] maybe even a former player connected to the group, to help guide him through.

“He’s still got a lot to do. He’s great in a lot of parts of the game but there’s polish that needs to be added.

“He has obviously got a lot of talent but he needs the right support to make sure we turn him into an 80-Test Wallaby and not a 10-Test Wallaby.”

Former Wallaby second row Justin Harrison added: “We are very good at producing athletes. We know rugby produces a somatotype now and they are athletes.

“What we also need is this thing called ‘rugby nous and rugby IP’. You only get that if you can absorb action and conversation and intelligence from players who have done things ahead of you.

“[That happens] when you interact with that past and present player.”

And therein lies the conundrum: a future Wallaby number eight receiving sage advice, but not from men who occupied the same position on the field, or who played the game in the recent past. Cale needs his very own Kefu to improve as quickly as his ‘somatotype’ warrants. He might even have to go all the way back to Gavin, who played 47 Tests between 1988 and 1996, to find a mesomorph who possesses similar physical characteristics and interpreted the role in the same way.

Cale and Gavin both stand around 1.97m in height and tip the scales at 105KG. They are/were both dominant lineout athletes and excellent ball-runners in open play. As Gavin himself opined on ESPN back in 2017, the Wallabies have been lacking a player who can multi-task, and cover both.

“We just haven’t had the players [at no.8] who can cover all the attributes, including the lineout. At least we have [had] some good ball runners.

“The mindset seems to be there. Everyone is talking the right way, and once we get that core team leadership through the middle of the side, rather than just having one or two leaders, then you will get to the top of your game.”

Up to round eight of Super Rugby Pacific, Cale had 18 own-ball takes and a competition-leading 14 steals on the opposition throw, despite playing less than half of the total minutes available. Currently the young tyro is poaching an average of 2.4 opposition throws per game, one whole pilfer per game more than anyone else in the tournament.

In the round seven win over the Waratahs, Cale had already pinched three New South Wales feeds before the end of the first quarter, and made the front-middle of the line a ‘no-go’ zone for the Tahs caller.

 

 


A player who can get up off the ground and hang in the air so effortlessly it appears the opposition throw is in fact the Brumbies’, displays all the telltale signs of a long-term lineout dominator.

That spring-heeled quickness in another setting is also the key to Cale’s effectiveness as a runner in open-field.

 

 

That lightning-quick first step from the base of the scrum not only draws the ‘bracket’ – the attention of two defenders from opposite sides at once – it creates separation and an opportunity to offload in the seam between them. The words of Gavin in 2017 ring true for Joe Schmidt’s Wallabies of 2024.

“There are signs of [our] platform getting better, particularly with the Australian scrum starting to improve. And it is from the scrum that a lot of the number eight play can come from. Once we’ve got that sorted out, we can expand a bit more.”

That attacking expansion extends to lineout, in the following example with Cale used in the role typically reserved for a blindside wing from second phase lineout.

 

Among international number eights of recent vintage it is only possible to imagine the likes of Pierre Spies or Radike Samo converting this kind of opportunity – eighth men with the speed of an outside back, men who often played on the wing during their rugby upbringings.

With that kind of basic foot speed and acceleration, it hardly a surprise that Cale also feels right at home in the Samu role in the wide 15m channels during phase play.

 

Now translate that to the Wallabies, with Valetini carrying the load on the hard yakka carries between the 15m lines, Cale outside and Fraser McReight linking it all together with his pick and shovel in support.

The challenges will present themselves in the tighter areas of play. Cale probably has room to add another 8-10KG in muscle mass wihout losing any speed. Gavin benefited from extensive experience in the second row and understood the nuances of set-piece and carrying in traffic, but they are a work in progress for the young Brumby.

 

 

In the first clip, Cale lacks the power on the carry to force the ball to ground in the choke tackle and turn maul into ruck, in the second he is bullied off his maul block by Jed Holloway, allowing the Waratah to penetrate on to the ball-carrier and force another turnover scrum.

It is high time Australian rugby stopped looking for saviours in the outside backs, whether it is from within the union game or from the sister code. Goodness knows, enough false prophets have come and gone in that area of the Wallabies team.

Now is the moment to look for help where it is really needed. The national side has been playing without a top-class number eight forward for the better part of two decades, ever since the halcyon days of Kefu.

Cale may be the answer to Schmidt’s prayers. If he can add some ballast and continue the steep curve of his improvement, he may yet be Kefu’s natural successor. Schmidt could not find a better mentor than Gavin, a similarly athletic player, but with a tight forward’s attitude and toolbox.

That would permit Schmidt to shift Valetini back to the blind-side, select McReight on the opposite flank with Cale as meat in the sandwich. Add Nick Frost and Will Skelton in the middle row, et voilà: a Wallaby back five for purists to savour.

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