Cheika looking for balance in second World Cup campaign

Rugby World Cup
Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika says he won’t just be replicating the plans his side used to make it to a World Cup final in 2015 as they embark on their 2019 campaign.

Cheika led the Wallabies to a Rugby World Cup final in the 2015 Rugby World Cup but he isn’t cutting and pasting the plan from four years ago into the side’s tournament in Japan.

The differences between 2019 and 2015 aren’t hard to spot.

For a start, Japan’s stifling heat and humidity are a far cry from the mild English autumn weather in which the Wallabies landed in 2015.

Just 12 of the current 31-man squad that arrived in Japan on Monday night were part of the group that won their way to a Rugby World Cup final four years ago.

Thirty-eight players have made their Test debut in that time, with less than half that number ultimately making the final cut.

This squad has 200 caps more experience than its 2015 counterpart with an average of 45 caps and an average age of 27, ranging from 19-year-old Jordan Petaia to 35-year-old Adam Ashley-Cooper.

Sekope Kepu is one of the elder statesmen in the Wallabies group. Photo: WalmsleyThough the squad might have some different faces among it, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika hasn’t let go entirely of the process that took Australia to a fourth Rugby World Cup in England.

Australia spent much of their final weeks ahead of this year’s tournament in a camp away from fans and media, bunkering down in New Caledonia for 10 days before a brief return to Sydney to face Samoa.

There’s a sense of more work, less talk from Cheika and that was evident in what was believed to be a gruelling camp in the Pacific Island in their final days before the tournament.

Cheika said there was a balance to be struck between hanging onto the lessons of 2015 and embracing different plans and admitted there would be more differences than similarities.

“I think not the same, it's different,” he said.

“We've got a different team, different group of players, in a different country, it's all very different to 2015 but still many lessons learned from '15 I can use this time for sure.”

Australia's pool opponents might not be at "death" levels but there is nothing easy about an opening pair of matches against ever-improving Fiji and in-form Wales.

A loss to either of those sides could put the Wallabies on a collision course with England in the quarter-finals and would place the Aussies most likely on the All Blacks' side of the draw.

Debate centres around much of the same positions now as it did back in 2015, with the halves combination and the backrow generating some of the hottest debate externally.

Will Genia has been the first-picked no. 9 in recent years. Photo: WalmsleyThe combination of Nic White and Christian Lealiifano appeared to be the first-choice through the Rugby Championship but whether there is still a temptation to return to familiar duo Will Genia and Bernard Foley will be seen in just 10 days.

Michael Hooper will almost certainly start as captain and no. 7 in the first Test against Fiji, potentially leaving David Pocock to come off the bench unless Australia’s selectors opt to return to the “Pooper” of old. 

Cheika has not deployed the dual openside structure this season with Pocock injured and Australia’s back row has proven to be one of its major strengths with Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and Isi Naisarani combining strongly with Hooper.

Jack Dempsey and his valuable aggression add another element of debate and Cheika said the selection panel would likely make a call about their starting XV for Fiji early next week.

“We've got some ideas about what we want to have (against Fiji), we'll let the week pan out here as well and then with the selectors we'll decide what we're going to pull out probably early next week, he said.

Australia will train in Odawara, south-west of Tokyo, until next Wednesday, when they will travel to Sapporo for their opener against Fiji.

The Wallabies take on Fiji on Saturday September 21 at the Sapporo Dome, kicking off at 1:15pm local, 2:15pm AEST, LIVE on Foxtel, Network Ten and RADIO.