The sickening last minute defeat that Australia suffered to the All Blacks brought the curtain down on the career of Ewen McKenzie. His position of authority, was by all accounts, compromised. He had to walk. And in their darkest hour, the ARU turned to the man who brought the Waratahs the super rugby crown, Michael Cheika.
What a position Cheika found himself in! Inheriting a squad that had suffered three successive defeats, lost their manager, and were on the threshold of their end of season trip to Europe. Not only that, but he had virtually one week to have a look at his panel and bed down his own management structure and personnel. He did it quickly and effectively.
The first leg of the journey entailed a test against the eclectic and mercurial Barbarians in front of fifty thousand fans in Twickenham. This particular squad contained ten all blacks and a number of other superstar players, who put Australia to the pin of their collar before succumbing 40 points to 36. The Barbarians played some outrageous rugby, attacking at every opportunity, while being typically and characteristically porous in defence.
This last weekend, the Wallabies took on Wales in their first actual test match of the tour in the Millennium Stadium. The first half was just a free for all with no less than six trys being scored. The second half was a tight edgy affair, with the wallabies emerging on top on a score line of thirty points to twenty eight.
To summarize, in three weeks under Michael Cheika’s tenure, the Wallabies are at one hundred percent all be it against moderate opposition. So from what we have seen, in what has been a tumultuous month for the Australian Rugby team, what is the state of the nation? What can we expect to see from Cheika and his charges? Is the future brightening or fizzling out?
The first thing that Cheika needs to sort out is his squad selection. The panel he took to Europe was virtually the exact same as the panel Ewan McKenzie had been selecting. Its understandable that Cheika would be reluctant to rock the boat with the senior players, but he is renowned for being ruthless when he was required to be. He has an abrasive manner, and I am sure should he feel the need to wield the axe, he will. The reality is that apart from a handful of players, McKenzie had selected the best thirty odd players Australia had to offer, so Cheika shouldn’t really have to do much there. He has the cattle he has inherited.
A criticism I had of Ewan McKenzie’s reign, particularly toward the end was his indecisiveness in his chosen pattern of play for the Wallabies. He seemed caught between two stools. He had the Brumbies style of play on one hand, which was a lot of tactical kicking combined with a focus on the breakdown, and he had the Waratahs way, which is to run and attack from virtually everywhere, and to carry the ball hard through the forwards. This style is exciting to watch but can result in giving away chunks of territory and risking getting caught out at the back with turnovers.
McKenzie, annoyingly would pick the likes of Nick White at nine with Toomua and Leliafano at ten and twelve. When these players are combined with Folau, Ashley-Cooper and Rob Horne, you had a hodge-podge of styles with no clear defined plan. Not everybody was on the same page and it looked a little disjointed. The evidence suggests from the first two matches, that the Wallabies will pursue an open attacking style consistant with the waratahs championship winning effort of 2014.
The team itself has already begun to be manipulated by Cheika in terms of personnel. It looks like Will Skelton is going to become more and more of a feature under Cheika, but his conditioning is still suspect. Is Bernard Foley the best number ten in Australia? I’m not sure. It remains to be seen if Cheika will experiment with the pivot position. Quade Cooper seemed to be McKenzie’s go to guy, but Cheika has traditionally overlooked these mercurial types for his ten shirt in favour of steadier player. I remember a young Jonathon Sexton being repeatedly overlooked at Leinster by Cheika for similar reasons, with Felipe Contempomi being considered more suited to Cheika’s vision for the side. Ultimately, Cheika may remain with Bernard Foley in posession of the ten shirt, for now.
Another big question will be, is Cheika willing to extend the olive branch to misanthropes like James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale. I personally would love to see these guys on the field as they are simply more talented than the players at Cheika’s disposal. Cheika I am sure will believe that he can get the best out of guys like this. Another big question will be the imminent return of David Pocock to the fold. Michael Hooper is arguably the best number seven in the world and recently assumed the captains role. The attritional nature of the sport of rugby union football at the highest level will always result in injuries. But the question remains, will Cheika be willing to compromise his team to squeeze Pocock into the side.
A huge problem, that I would love for Michael Cheika to address would be the front five selection. For a decade, the Wallaby tight five have been globally mocked and considered an absolute rabble no matter what players started. Scrum after scrum after scrum after lineout after knock on after sin bin. Absolutely pathetic. Cheika has brought in Blades from the Waratahs to address the scrum but we all know he has his work cut out for him. I don’t like to be critical of individuals but I am going to here. Sekopi Kepu has been found out in every single test match I have ever seen him play in. From the Italians to the Irish to the All Blacks, all have taken a piece of Sekopi Kepu. He is just not up to it. Benny Robinson is not much better. The Wallabies have a raft of hooker injuries but out of the tight five, I believe this is the one position where they are reasonably well stocked. Ben Alexander has never actually won a single scrum at international level to my memory, yet test match after test match, he gets wheeled out.
In the second row, James Horwill has endured an awful season with the Reds and has basically depreciated as a player since the Lions tour. Skelton is carrying 20 kilograms too much in weight, his conditioning is just not at a world class level. Sam Carter and Simmons were ordinary against Wales, and one wonders if ordinary is all that they are capable of.
With a world cup around the corner, Cheika has a lot on his plate. He has to imprint his identity on the squad. He has to find the right blend of players to ensure that his ideas are executed on the field. He needs to scour the country for front rows and locks, and he needs to decide the fate of ostracised players and decide of integration is possible for those players returning from injury.
As a whole I am reasonably confident that Cheika will deliver. Australia on their day can beat anybody. The next few weeks against France and Ireland will help Cheika decide the composition of his squad going forward. Michael Cheika has delivered success virtually everywhere he has been, there is no reason going forward that he cant do the same for Australia.
Over and out,