Australia’s openside flanker spot is among the most hotly-contested Test positions.
The form of incumbent Michael Hooper has been under fire in recent days, but should his position really be under threat?
Firstly I must acknowledge that the most vocal commentary was from one of the most passionate and successful coaches ever. One thing I learnt from Bob Dwyer was that you would never die wondering and his transparency and ability to speak his mind is one attribute of his I greatly admire.
Let’s first look at Michael Hooper. What an athlete. His agility and all-around running ability allow him to seamlessly transition in and out of the backline from first-receiver to wider out on the flank. In effect, having Michael Hooper in your team is like having a third centre who has the ability to play in tight. It’s this which has probably been the root of the criticism directed towards him. The effectiveness of any centre is more often than not, a reflection of how much go-forward your forward pack is creating, and the Waratahs have admitted that they have been lacking in this area.
David Pocock is world-renowned for his ability over the ball at the tackle. While his hulking physique, that has taken him a lifetime to create, has created an extra mystique around one of his greatest strengths is his ability to read the game. When the ball dies, David is usually not too far from it. This matters. With the combination of his strength and his knowledge of the game, if he is there first he is almost impossible to move. Almost tarred with the one-dimensional brush two or three years ago, David has built out his running, support and linking game. This has allowed him to cover both number seven and eight, which he saw to devastating effect in last year’s Rugby World Cup.
We then draw our attention to Sean McMahon. Strong, abrasive, raw and passionate. Sean has been in a fortunate position to learn off likes of Hooper and Pocock. Every opportunity Sean has been given he has stood up, featuring the top two or three players on the park even at Test level. Sean is possibly the most versatile of the Australian backrowers, with experience playing across all three positions. His strengths are clearly in tight where his abrasiveness shines as he carries and belts others at any opportunity. His work over the ball improves every week and that can only improve with a mentor like Pocock.
Liam Gill is the latest talk of the town, and rightly so. He is another superb athlete and his Sevens background has enabled him to develop every skill – including slotting 40 metre drop goals. Historically Liam has been hampered by injury which has allowed him to fall out of the Wallabies conversation. The key for Liam is to string back-to-back games together and exhibit all the skills he has to offer. His clear strength is at the tackle where he is able, through his extraordinary flexibility, turn the ball over when most other sevens in the world couldn’t.
The most unfortunate of all the sevens in Australia is Matt Hodgson. Matt has been around Super Rugby since 2002. He spent a large part of his development in the Sevens arena building an engine and skillset that allows him to have one of the largest motors in the game. Matt would not be out of place in any back-row but he has been a victim of the most unfortunate timing.
Who is the sixth? Well whilst all the talk is of the Australian number sevens in Australia, we must not ignore the performance of George Smith. George has been an absolute standout in Europe. Firstly starring for Lyon in France’s Top 14, and now arguably the most influential rugby player in the English Premiership running around for London based Wasps. George has continually performed on the world stage and has all the skills of the five players above in one package. George could have one last stint in a Wallabies jersey against the coach who first started his career, Eddie Jones.
Clearly, there is an abundance of talent and the greatest question at present is how the Wallabies will put it to use. If I was a betting man, I think Michael Cheika will persist with the very successful back-row from last year’s World Cup. Their performances will need to be good though, as there are hungry sevens in waiting. I will note, George Smith may be the bolter…. If he wants to be.
From 1999 through until the end of 2011 Waugh earned 79 Test caps for the Wallabies (3 as Captain) and 136 caps (58 as captain) with Waratahs.
The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the ARU.