Cheika talks up "ground" threat of Pocock-Hooper starting combo ahead of World Cup opener

Rugby World Cup
by Iain Payten

Michael Cheika says combining David Pocock with Michael Hooper makes the Wallabies more of a threat “on the ground” after reports emerged he was set to re-unite the flankers in the run-on team against Fiji in the World Cup opener.

A day out from Cheika naming his team to take on the Fijians in Sapporo, the coach was staying tight-lipped on whether he does plan to get the dual openside band back together following Pocock's successful return from a six-month calf injury against Samoa.

It appears Pocock will play no.6 and in-form Isi Naisarani will remain at no.8.

The Pocock-Hooper combination was born in almost identical circumstances four years earlier, when the two open sides played against Fiji in the 2015 Rugby World Cup opener.

The two sevens worked well in 2015, and despite mixed success since and some strong back row performances this winter, it appears Cheika and his fellow selectors are keen to re-deploy the same mass disruption tactics at the Sapporo Dome.

The man to lose out would be Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, who has been strong for the Wallabies on the blindside and has helped restore the Aussie lineout.

Speaking after the Wallabies’ welcome ceremony in Ebestu City, outside Sapporo, Cheika was asked about what the two opensides brought to his team when playing together.

"We will see tomorrow when we announce the team if they are playing together or not,” Cheika said.

"If they do play together or not, if they do play together, then obviously it looks different to if we play a more traditional back row and we’re probably more of a threat on the ground. 

"If we play another style of back row, we’re probably more a threat on ball-carrying but you’ve seen it before and you’ve seen how they play together so you can imagine it yourself.”

With the Sapporo Dome guaranteed to be dry and fast, the game’s pace could be extremely high and there is perhaps a wariness from the three Wallabies selectors - which include Scott Johnson and Michael O’Connor - to not play into the hands of Fiji, who will thrive under helter-skelter conditions.

Pocock and Hooper’s ability to stifle the Fiji breakdown and recycle speed would allow the Wallabies to much better set their defence.

Legendary Wallabies flanker George Smith said last week he would keep Salakaia-Loto in the starting side and resist the urge to use Pocock in a run-on role.

But in 2015 Cheika said the selection of his two brilliant open sides was pretty simple.

“It’s pretty hard not to pick one of them,” he told reporters at the 2015 World Cup.

"It sort of means you pick them both. I’m not trying to claim there is any brilliant rocket science behind it. You just have two very good players.”

His form Cheika was naturally keeping his cards close to his chest regarding selection but said the team picked to play Fiji would be a combination of the form team, along with a longer-term strategy for the remaining pool rivals Wales, Uruguay and Georgia.

"I think the team is going to be based on some performances that we’ve had building into the tournament and across the whole squad, not just the 23 that we have picked and when different players play throughout the tournament,” Cheika said.

"We will pick a team that we think is well ready and prepared. Some elements maybe particular to Fiji but really I think looking at the whole flow of what we’ve had so far and which players will be 100 per cent ready for the game on Saturday."