The Breakdown: Cheika takes biggest punt and, as always, it's not each-way

Rugby World Cup
by Iain Payten

Unsurprisingly, Will Genia wasn’t ready to contemplate the end two days out from a potential end.

Quarter-finals at a World Cup are like that. It is a weird Twilight Zone of a week for Test players who’ve announced the World Cup will be their swansong. 

No-one in their right mind wants to entertain that it could be the end, so the prospect is ignored.

The deserved tributes for a senior player are skipped, and so too the career reflections. The confidence and self-belief of an athlete out to win a World Cup demands it.

Sometimes, however, quarter-finals are lost and the final moments of those stars getting sucked into a black hole of recriminations and regret. 

Michael Lynagh’s Test career ended in defeat in the quarters in 1995, at the hands of England, and in 2007 it was George Gregan and Stephen Larkham, also against England. Larkham had the extra gut-wrench of being injured for that defeat, also against England.

Will Genia is not contemplating the end just yet. Photo: Stu Walmsley/RUGBY.com.auGenia, David Pocock and Sekope Kepu are all retiring from Test rugby at the end of the World Cup, and the halfback was asked if he was motivated to make sure that farewell lap came in a World Cup final, not a wretched quarter.

"You try to put all those things aside and concentrate on what’s important as far as my job, and just blocking all that sort of stuff out,” Genia said. 

"It can be easy to make it about yourself but that would be really selfish.”

Genia, recalled into the no.9 shirt, said he’d stay focussed on doing what he’s always done in a Wallabies strip, and that appears to be precisely the same mindset of another facing the potential of a final weekend with Australia - coach Michael Cheika.

Cheika has said he won’t re-apply for the head coaching job if they don’t win the World Cup, meaning the the start of the knock-out phase at the World Cup has potentially put a clock on his Wallabies career, too.

The Wallabies midfield talk tactics in Oita. Photo: Stu Walmsley/RUGBY.com.auLike Genia, Cheika was not allowing the tension of final consequence change his approach one iota this week, and in his case it was rolling the selection dice on an untested teenager.

Cheika isn’t one to take the safe route and picking 19-year-old Petaia to start for his first Test at outside centre, in just his third Test overall, was as far removed from a safe route as possible.

Given the importance of the game, it is comfortably as big a selection gamble that’s ever been taken by a Wallabies coach at a Rugby World Cup since they began in 1987.

Petaia probably goes on the list of biggest bolters in the modern era, too.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it was one of Cheika’s former coaches at Randwick, Bob Dwyer, who last made a habit of throwing unknowns into the Test fire, with the likes of Phil Kearns, Tim Horan, Jason Little and even Steve Merrick blooded on his watch.

Indeed, on all available evidence, the words “safe option” don’t even exist in Cheika’s lexicon.

Whether it is a major flaw or the courage needed to genuinely succeed as a coach in elite sport, Cheika is an all-in gambler. There’d be no betting each-way on a trip to the races.

Michael Cheika at Wallabies training in Oita. Photo: Stu Walmsley/RUGBY.com.auAnd Petaia is the biggest punt of Cheika’s tenure.

Back in 2015, Cheika maintained a remarkably steady hand at the selection table, sticking with mostly the same team apart from an all-change Uruguay clash.

This tournament, it’s been all-change, all-the-time. 

Perhaps it is because he genuinely still can’t decide who is his best team, or that with the experience in his squad (the most capped at the World Cup), there is no one "best team”. Only the best team for that week.

Petaia is a risk but he is also a unique case, despite all that. The risk is mitigated by his personality and his seeming ability to rise to every occasion he’s placed in.

Those who know the teenager say he is the most unflappable young footballer they’ve come across.

Teammates will suss out a rookie’s vulnerabilities pretty quickly in pre-season training, and then in the week-to-week grind of a season. 

Petaia has all the necessary flash with the ball in hand but what impressed many, including Matt Toomua, was watching the youngster defend with old-head know-how at training.

When coaches can trust you to defend at Test level at the age of 19, Toomua noted, you are going to go places.

There will be traffic coming Petaia’s way in the form of Manu Tuilagi on Saturday but Toomua quipped his young teammate is no small boy himself.

“And I am sure he’s had Samu running at him all year, so that’s as close as you get,” Toomua said.

Jordan Petaia jumps for a ball at Wallabies training. Photo: Stu Walmsley/RUGBY.com.auCheika said Petaia’s age wasn’t a consideration at the selection table, and when it’s all said and done, the assignment was pretty simple.

"This is going to sound silly - you just go and play footy you know?” Cheika said.

"Yes, it’s going to be fast and aggressive and all that type of stuff and I know that lad will rise up to that challenge. I know it. I’ve seen it in him.”

Cheika has backed Petaia with his hard-earned.