The Breakdown: Talking points from the Wallabies' first World Cup team

Rugby World Cup
by Iain Payten in Japan

The other side of the Pocock-Hooper coin, the Wallabies' plans to beat Fiji, the Pirate scrum factory and unpredictabilty as a weapon.

What are the talking points arising from the Wallabies' team naming?

THE SHORT AND TALL OF TWO OPENSIDES


Gamble is too strong a word but there is risk attached to playing David Pocock and Michael Hooper in the same back row in the Wallabies’ opening clash against Fiji.

As impressive as Pocock is as a physical specimen, there is unfortunately no getting around the fact it's packed into a 184cm-high chasis. And that’s an issue when it comes to lineout time.

The reality is a good tall man will beat a good short man in nine line outs out of ten.

While Pocock has been injured this winter, the Wallabies returned to a more traditional back row mix of two talls and a seven, in Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Isi Naisarani and Hooper.

That gave the Wallabies four recognised targets and the lineout improved dramatically from the last few years, where the price paid for the “Pooper” combination being deployed was three jumpers and a wobbly lineout.

Last year the Wallabies lost 8 of 12 on their throw in Sydney against New Zealand and finished the year with a competition-low 78.1 per cent win rate. 

This year, a pack with four jumpers saw them improve to the point where Australia was statistically the best lineout in the Rugby Championship, with a success rate of 90.3 per cent. It was statistically the best lineout the Wallabies have ever run since the Rugby Championship started in 2012. It is also the first time the Wallabies have ever hit the 90 per cent mark.

Cheika said the team had been working hard on “different options” at the lineout that can compensate for only having three recognised jumpers.

“We want to be consistent there,” Cheika said. 

"Our goal is to have a team that can interchange quite easily and not have to be dependent on any one player to achieve a certain thing. It’s a different sort of look maybe, to some of the other teams. 

"We have multiple options that might be a bit different. There is obviously a lot of difference between Lukhan and David, for example. 

"But they will achieve the same outcomes for us in how we play the game, and then they bring their own special skillset to the game itself. So we have prepared really well for that and we know what our different options will have to be, playing with that type of lineout.”

The Wallabies may be banking on the fact their lineout worked fine in 2015, and that Fiji is also not known as a lineout team.

But if the Pocock-Hooper combination is going to remain - and that looks likely given there has only been one occasion since the last World Cup when both have been available and haven’t both started - they’ll have to make sure the lineout is a reliable platform against the more set-piece dominated teams.

POSSESSION IS PARAMOUNT

Securing reliable lineout possession is all the more important given the way the Wallabies appear to planning to beat Fiji.

Namely, to keep the ball for as much of the match as possible.

Knowing Fiji are exceptionally dangerous with ball-in-hand, the Wallabies dropped enough hints at the team press conference to indicate they aim to finish the game with a high possession and territory count.

If Fiji don’t have the ball they can’t hurt you, kinda thing.

Asked if the Pocock-Hooper selection was to slow the Fijians down, Cheika said: "I don’t know if it’s to slow them down. We want to have as much of the ball as we can, so if we can get the ball off the ground, yep, it is a bonus.

"But rest assured, these players aren’t selected just for their play on the ground. They have a lot of other facets to their game where they can contribute to the team, both in attack and defence. Like I said from an experience point of view, too.

"Yes, to try and get ourselves as much as ball as we can but also for those other reasons.”

SAPPORO PIRATE PROPS


West Harbour Pirates will be a deservedly proud mob on Saturday, particularly at scrum time. The western Sydney club produced three of the four starting props in Saturday’s World Cup opener for Australia and Fiji.

Scott Sio, Allan Alaalatoa and Campese Ma’afu all grew playing in the west Harbour juniors, and though Ma’afu is a bit older, the brother of former Salesi Ma’afu played with Sio at the Pirates.

All three have first names with a backstory, too. Scott Sio was named in honour of Manu Samoa making the 1991 Rugby World Cup playoffs against Scotland, given his father David was a prop in the team. 

Alaalatoa is named after Allan Border and Campese Ma’afu, well, you know the rest.

Sio and Alaalatoa grew up as close mates given they’re families are tight. David Sio and Vili Alaalatoa were, in fact, both in the 1991 Samoa team and now their sons are playing in a World Cup together too.

"It’s pretty special,” Sio said. 

"Back then they were competing for the same spot but luckily for me Allan decided to play tight head so I got a run this week."

HARD TO PICK, HARD TO BEAT?

Michael Cheika likes to describe the 2019 Wallabies as “unpredictable”, and to be fair to the bloke, that’s proved pretty much spot on.

After four years of trial, error and experimentation, it is remarkable how many of the Wallabies’ run-on team against Fiji you wouldn’t have come close to predicting, even as recently as a year ago.

Some you suspected would be in the mix, like Isi Naisarani, once his eligibility came through.

But a majority of the backline, you’d have got crazy odds if you’d punted on White-Lealiifano-Hodge-Kerevi-O’Connor-Koroibete-Beale.

To start with, Beale is locked in at fullback because Israel Folau decided to pressed send.

White? A year ago he was in England re-signing for two more years because he didn’t think there was a path home.

Lealiifano? Obviously returning from his illness is remarkable enough, but a year ago he was also playing in Japan - but for Toyota Industry Shuttles - thinking he outside the Wallabies’ picture. 

Cheika did, after all, pick Reece Hodge at no.10 against Japan in late 2017.

And O’Connor? A year ago you’d have been laughed out of town for predicting he’d start at no.13 for the Wallabies in the first World Cup game.

Six months ago, even.

In fact, it still hasn’t even been three months since O’Connor left Sale and returned from England to give it a crack in Australia.

Even more amazingly, he'll be a key figure in the Wallabies at the World Cup. Thirteen is a major position these days.

In his first World Cup in 2011, O'Connor exceeded expectations and was superb as a youngster. Cheika will be hoping no-one sees him coming in Japan too.

It’s hard to know how much of this rapidly re-designed Wallabies backline is the product of last year’s poor season, a post-Folau restructure or the input of the new Wallabies selection panel, who’ve no doubt brought healthy debate back into selections.

But maybe there is a real smarts in only putting a team together in the months before a World Cup.

Your rivals will be as flummoxed as everyone else.