Brett McKay: Cheika’s backrow gamble to keep series alive
By Brett McKay
The moment last weekend David Pocock was ruled out for the rest of the Cook Cup series, the hottest question in Australian rugby has been, “who will ‘Cheik’ pick?”
With specialist No.8s Ben McCalman and Wycliff Palu in the Wallabies squad already, they loomed as the obvious replacement for Pocock at the back of the Wallabies scrum for the must-win Second Test in Melbourne. If the Wallabies were to force the series into a decider in Sydney, then surely the Australian pack needed to fight English physicality with fire.
The ‘Pooper’ experiment might have reached its use-by date, so surely it was time to go back to the tried and tested.
No, Siree, Bob. And I don’t mean Mr Dwyer.
Cheika ignored the obvious claims of McCalman and Palu, and instead installed rampaging Melbourne Rebels backrower Sean McMahon in place of Pocock. It was a move that very few saw coming; playing two fast and physical – but not necessarily on-ball – flankers in McMahon and Michael Hooper in the same pack might be an even bigger gamble than the Hooper-Pocock combination ever was.
For one thing, McMahon has never started at No.8 in his senior career, which admittedly hasn’t been going that long. He came to prominence on the blindside flank for the Rebels, but since switching to openside in 2016, his workrate has lifted in all the measures that matter.
Cheika sees no evident risk.
“He’s been one of the standout players for the Australian teams in Super Rugby all year and he’s very passionate about how we play the game and he’ll be very clear on the job he needs to do,” the Wallabies coach said on Wednesday night, after naming the team.
“I think he’ll go about it very well. I believe in him a lot and what he brings and so do all the other players. I have no doubts when I put a player like that into the gold jersey.”
Unsurprisingly, Michael Hooper is keen run in tandem. The Waratahs and Wallabies opensider got through a mountain of work last weekend – scoring two tries to boot – and is clearly relishing the thought of another ‘full-bore’ player like himself tearing into the English.
“Yep, yep, it’ll be great,” Hooper said of his new partner in breakdown crime on Thursday. “We just expect him to be doing what he’s been doing all year, play extremely well, carry very hard and defensively he’s unreal.”
Hooper also made mention of McMahon’s increased workrate for the Rebels in 2016, and it’s certainly true that he’s made impressive improvements is all the key numbers: tackles per game, carries per game, metres per game, line breaks, tackle busts; the lot.
But there’s one number that sticks out among McMahon’s figures.
In twelve games of Super Rugby in 2016, playing as an openside flanker, McMahon has just one pilfer to his name. Viewed alongside Hooper’s two pilfers for the Waratahs in 2016, you quickly see why Liam Gill (six pilfers in eight games) was being suggested earlier in the week as an option for Pocock.
Pocock has five in Super Rugby alone this season, and had his hands on the ball again repeatedly last weekend in Brisbane.
But it’s not just the absence of Pocock that McMahon and Hooper (and Cheika) will be battling to overcome. In naming Courtney Lawes and Harlequins flanker Jack Clifford on a 6-2 forwards-backs bench split, Eddie Jones wants his England side to take their already physical and messy breakdown game to another level again.
It means that the Wallabies are going to need to be very precise in everything they do.
South African referee Craig Joubert will be the man in the middle, and while it will be interesting enough to observe his views of the England scrummaging tactics, his interpretation around the breakdown will be just as crucial for the Wallabies.
Cheika said in the build-up that he wouldn’t be seeking Joubert out for a meeting, and that he didn’t need to, because the Wallabies players know he likes a fast, open game. But in saying he didn’t need to meet with Joubert, Cheika has essentially delivered a pretty clear message anyway: ‘Don’t let them get away with what they got away with last week, Craig. Please.’
For the Wallabies, it’s a simple equation. Win, or the Cook Cup will return to England under the arm of a very familiar face.
It’s all set up for a ripper of a clash in Melbourne. And hopefully Sean McMahon can repay the faith of his coach. There’s only a whole country sweating on it.