Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has used 11 different starting halves combinations since the 2015 World Cup. Picture: Getty Images
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has used 11 different starting halves combinations since the 2015 World Cup. Picture: Getty Images

Cheika takes biggest gamble on way out

CONSISTENCY. It's the word Michael Cheika has used ad nauseum when asked what he's seeking from his Wallabies team.

But the coach's own actions have created a situation where it is near impossible.

Consistent performance comes with consistent selection, and the Wallabies have chopped and changed personnel so often it is no wonder they've gone from 2015 World Cup finalists to the sixth-ranked team, Japan rising close behind in seventh.

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Facing his last hurrah as Australian coach, Cheika is taking his greatest gamble.

After four years of planning, Cheika and fellow selectors Scott Johnson and Michael O'Connor have come up with a backline that has never started together, in a World Cup quarter-final.

The pick of teenager Jordan Petaia at outside centre, after just 100 minutes of Test footy on the wing, has dominated discussion in the past two days.

But the major concern is the selection of starting halves Will Genia and Christian Lealiifano. Both are solid players who've had exceptional moments in 2019, and can lay claim to deserving their starting spots.

But this will be the eighth different starting halves combination used in nine games.

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika with rookie Jordan Petaia. Picture: Getty Images
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika with rookie Jordan Petaia. Picture: Getty Images

For a team that is ideologically built and trained to play ball-in-hand, continual phase rugby, it is bizarre that the key decision makers are being rotated so often.

Australia have looked far from polished at the World Cup so far. Their attack often breaks down through a lack of cohesion and anticipation.

That is only natural when the forwards and outside backs run out with a new look No.9 and No.10 every week.

They're the players who call the shots, touch the ball most often, and connect the game plan.

Australia has been consistently guilty of slow starts, and the lack of combination-building between the halves is a cause of this.

Cheika has used 11 different starting halves combinations since the 2015 World Cup. In that same time, their opponents on Saturday, England, have used just six.

It is a reflection of Cheika's sudden indecisiveness over who he trusts to run on.

The treatment of Bernard Foley is the best example.

Cheika stuck by him unflinchingly for three-and-a-half years, amid enormous criticism, only to dump him at the 11th hour.

Cheika had been Foley's most loyal supporter, when many Wallabies fans had urged the Waratahs playmaker to make way for others over the previous three years.

But it wasn't until July's 35-17 loss to South Africa in The Rugby Championship that Foley was resoundingly dumped as first-choice five-eighth. He played no part in the rest of that tournament.

A token start against Samoa in a warm-up match proved nothing.

Then come the biggest game of the World Cup pool matches, against Wales, Foley was stunningly returned to the No.10 jersey.

Petaia will be thrown in at outside centre in the quarter-final against England after just 100 minutes of Test rugby. Picture: Getty Images
Petaia will be thrown in at outside centre in the quarter-final against England after just 100 minutes of Test rugby. Picture: Getty Images

Against the best defence in the world, having had no time against top tier opposition for two months, Foley unsurprisingly struggled and was hooked after 44 minutes, and has not been picked since.

Foley's Rugby Championship demotion left Cheika scrambling to find a new starting five-eighth.

At that time, he and the other two selectors should have picked Lealiifano or Matt Toomua and stuck with them all the way through.

The opposite has happened, with the indecisiveness after each loss or poor performance seeing the trio in and out of the No.10 jersey for the past three months.

Now, Lealiifano is back as the main man, but partnering Genia when he has played far more rugby with Nic White, who has been relegated to the bench.

After four years of trialling, it is astounding that the Wallabies are rolling the dice on a brand new backline against one of the most well-drilled rush defences in the Test arena.

On the flip-side, England's Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell have started in all six of the previous Tests against Australia, all of which they've won.

Farrell has played some of those games at five-eighth and some at inside centre, but is often first receiver in either scenario, and will have sole control of the team's attack in Oita with coach Eddie Jones opting to bench George Ford.

Will Genia will start as halfback against England. Picture: Getty Images
Will Genia will start as halfback against England. Picture: Getty Images

This has brought bulldozer Manu Tuilagi into inside centre, and Henry Slade at No.13 to take on Petaia.

It is the most difficult individual position to defend on a rugby field due to the extended space to the wingers who often drop back for kicks.

England will use the kick relentlessly, particularly aimed at fullback Kurtley Beale who has shown weakness under pressure from that tactic.

Dane Haylett-Petty, the most reliable player under the high ball at the back, has been left of the 23-man squad altogether, because the Samu Kerevi-Petaia centre combination means Beale offers a secondary playmaking option to Lealiifano that Haylett-Petty can't.

Petaia has been picked over James O'Connor, who has started all of the important Tests this year at No.13, because he has a bigger frame and more dynamic power-running game to counter Tuilagi.

Yet Tevita Kuridrani, the biggest and strongest No.13 in the Wallabies squad, has been overlooked.

Decision-making and execution under pressure will win and lose the day here, and England has recent history on their side.

What the Wallabies require is their most complete performance under Cheika's five-year tenure; outmuscling England's pack, not conceding scrum penalties, winning all lineouts, and Genia, Lealiifano and Beale producing flawless games.

Since Cheika took Australia to the last World Cup final, they've won 23 and lost 26 Test matches.

In that time, they've shown flashes of brilliance and have vastly improved their scrum.

What Cheika is always capable of is inspiring his players to exceed expectation, ride the wave of emotion and use a backs-to-the-wall mentality to ambush fancied rivals.

If the Wallabies pull this off, it will be on the back of fitness, motivation and emotion. But not consistency.

News Corp Australia


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