When a national coach opts for a reckless selection policy, amongst the many duds he eventually has to pick a good one.
At last Michael Cheika’s approach in selecting anyone and everyone in a Wallabies jersey has provided fruit, with winger Marika Koroibete excelling in his first run-on start to provide some hope from another international where Australia could not finish off, instead experiencing a frustrating draw with the Springboks for the second Test running.
Since the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the Wallabies have played 23 Tests for only nine wins. During that time Cheika has introduced an extraordinarily high number of 24 newcomers to the Test line-up.
Some of these selections have been in the scatterbrain category, and smacked of desperation, to the extent that you sometimes wondered whether a Cheika selection meeting merely revolved around throwing 30-odd names up in the air, then writing them down how they land.
Several of those chosen have been shown to be out of their depth, and were soon discarded, but some pretty average ones are still part of the Wallabies squad because the talent pool in numerous important spots is underwhelming.
Cheika has yet to prove he is a quality Test selector- or anywhere near the level of Australia’s two World Cup winning coaches- Bob Dwyer and Rod Macqueen, who made their mistakes at selection time, but more often than not got it right, particularly when they had to be adventurous. The rise of the Ella brothers, Jason Little, Tim Horan, Phil Kearns and John Eales under Dwyer’s reign and Stephen Larkham, who was converted from fullback to No.10 by Macqueen, all come to mind.
Forever hanging over Cheika will be the dumb selections he made before the 2015 Bledisloe Cup Test in Auckland. After Australia enjoyed one of their most courageous Test victories the previous week in Sydney when defeating New Zealand 27-19, Cheika lost the plot. The Wallabies win revolved around an exceptional back-row and midfield performance- and a Bledisloe Cup series win for the first time in 13 years was a distinct possibility.
So what did he do? He inexplicably dropped Australia’s best player- back-rower David Pocock- to the bench, included a past-his-prime No 8 in Wycliff Palu who often went missing against the All Blacks, and reshuffled the midfield by selecting the erratic Quade Cooper at No.10 ahead of Matt Toomua- even though the ACT Brumby was an excellent midfield general in Sydney. There was also no backup halfback in Auckland, while only one specialist lineout jumper was picked.
The result of this stupidity? The Wallabies lost 41-13.
Since then there have been numerous times where you’ve pondered why Cheika has not persevered with some of his wide-berth selections, as well as wondering whether favouritism was colouring his selection process.
At least Cheika can take pride in the Koroibete experiment working out in South Africa. It was not just Koroibete’s two tries- each coming from excellent Bernard Foley wide, shallow passes- that marked him as something special, but also his high work-rate and stellar defence, especially early in the Bloemfontein Test.
Usually on the veldt, South Africa opt for a deep kicking game. This time around, the Springboks went for a fast, expansive, ball-in-hand approach, constantly moving their phase play from side to side, particularly in the opening minutes. So Koroibete was repeatedly tested near the sideline, and he thwarted the wide attack with several comprehensive tackles. In the end, he only missed one of his eight tackles- a fair Test start, especially as some others in the team shirked their defensive responsibilities.
Now we can only hope that Cheika shows some consistency and gives Koroibete time in the Test position to mature and eradicate his mistakes. He has the potential to make a difference as was shown with his positive approach towards reaching the try-line. Next weekend’s Test in Argentina, the Bledisloe Cup match in Brisbane and the end-of-season northern hemisphere tour is the time to formulate a regular Test line-up.
Cheika also must stop bleating about referees and his team being victimised. The Australian rugby public has grown sick of his endless Hard Luck Hal routine. Cheika clearly needs better off-field advice. The inexperienced New Zealand Test referee Ben O’Keeffe did not have a great game, but the Wallabies are having themselves on if they believe they were hardly done by.
Numerous referees would not have allowed Australia’s first try, as the final pass from Foley to Israel Folau looked suspiciously forward. One second-half off-side penalty which went the Wallabies way was about 20 metres further down the field towards the Springboks’ try-line than it should have been. And Folau should have been sent to the sinbin for his hair-pulling of Springbok winger Dillyn Leyds.
So Cheika should give the whinge-fest a break. It’s tedious. And wrong.