Finegan: A Wallaby renovation, Cheika's way

by Owen Finegan

Marika Koroibete’s Wallabies selection has been polarising to say the least, but the former NRL winger could become a crucial piece of the Test puzzle.

His inclusion in the Spring Tour squad sparked discussion that the Wallabies were handing jerseys out for free, an assertion Cheika swatted away.

In what has been a volatile season for the Wallabies, this was one tough call for Cheika to make but it might just have been a necessary one as he looks to ‘renovate’ his team moving towards the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Koroibete is the X-Factor in a strategy that began with the ‘Giteau clause’, the flashy finisher who adds something extra to a well-founded team.

You can’t help but sympathise with winger Luke Morahan, who has worked through the traditional pathways and stood out in the NRC, but it’s not as if Koroibete is a pioneer in code-crossing.

Go back just over a decade and players like Mat Rogers, Lote Tuqiri and Wendell Sailor bypassed the traditional routes, albeit not quite as hastily as Koroibete, overtaking guys like Scott Staniforth.

Cheika's current renovation of the Wallaby team has to be achieved predominantly without buying, but any edge that he can get from a talent like Koroibete, who wanted to return to rugby, should be seen as a win for the Wallabies.

Building a Test team is a challenge Cheika has spoken of often, one that is in stark contrast to the resources of a club coach, who can treat players more as commodities.
In previous environments he would go after a player that he believed was a crucial cog or piece in the puzzle, for the right price.

Immediately in a Test environment he is limited in his choices and even widening the net to include veterans playing overseas has not made that much easier, with a whole new web of discussions to negotiate for the release of those players.

When I was at Leinster with Cheik, plenty of locals were up in arms when he brought in players like Argentinian international Filipe Conteponi at 10, Wallabies halfback Chris Whitaker and other non-Irish blood

But, it was the influence of those players as well as Irish legends like Gordon Darcy, Shane Horgan and Brian O'Driscoll that helped develop the current Ireland and Lions stars of today, with playmaker Johnny Sexton a good result of what he created.
Cheika won a Heineken Cup having brought in Rocky Elsom and combining the former Wallabies captain with Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien.

When he took the Waratahs to the 2014 Super Rugby title, he was forced to make some risky calls, many of which paid off, bringing in an ageing Stephen Hoiles, a talented but temperamental Nick Phipps, an expensive Adam Ashley-Cooper and abrasive South African backrower Jacques Potgieter.

That group became the nucleus of a championship side, just months after being eyebrow-raising recruits.

As Wallabies coach you need an eye for talent and an understanding of the future potential of your players, a long-term vision and identity of your team.

Cheika would be the first to admit the risk of renovating in the England series was costly, with the first Bledisloe being a painful development of the construction.

Koroibete is far from the only new face in the Wallabies’ set up, coming after 11 players notched debuts through 2016 - are those players also being ‘gifted’ jerseys?

In the final Bledisloe match before heading to Europe nine of the fifteen players that ran out against All Blacks at Eden Park did not start in the Rugby World Cup Final.

The selection of the four development players Taniela Tupou, Izaia Perese, Andrew Kellaway and Jack Dempsey shows Cheika has one eye on the future, with players who impress provincially not being sacrificed for the likes of Koroibete.

Perhaps the easy thing would have been to add Koroibete in the development squad to silence the critics?

He could have, but he hasn’t, because he sees him as being a big part of the long term future of the Wallabies.

One good game from the NRL flyer and the polarisation will likely be forgotten, with the most important thing remaining - the best players should be picked for the national sides, regardless of where they are coming from.

A former Captain of the ACT Brumbies, Owen Finegan played 90 matches for the Brumbies and 56 Tests for the Wallabies. He is currently the CEO of The Kids' Cancer Project Australia.

The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the ARU.