By Lee Stace
THE WALLABIES squad has been named.
On the surface of it, the talking points are the recall of veterans Drew Mitchell and (surprisingly) Radike Samo, Kane Douglas nosing impressive newcomer Cadeyrn Neville for the last locking spot, Jake Schatz’s elevation and the inclusion of two young opensides in the form of Michael Hooper (already capped) and Liam Gill.
Scratch deeper, however, and the real issue is going to be the make-up of the Wallabies’ backline.
Coach Robbie Deans needs to think long and hard about what components he chooses to weld together for the Rugby Championship. What he comes up with will have some bearing on how the men in gold and green play.
Let’s assume that fullback Kurtley Beale, utility back Adam Ashley-Cooper (probably in the No 14 shirt) and wing Digby Ioane are certainties out wide. Throw pint-sized halfback Will Genia into that category, too.
That leaves flyhalf and the midfield as the only vacancies to fill.
At No 10, you would have to think the solid Berrick Barnes would have the inside running over the flighty magician Quade Cooper after his heroics in June against Wales. Deans has hinted he is likely to retain his spot on the back of his tidy allround efforts against the Six Nations champion.
Still, it must also be said that the Wallabies struggled to score tries throughout June and meat pies are needed if they want to lower the All Blacks and reclaim the Bledisloe Cup.
Cooper’s advantage over the somewhat conservative Barnes is he is willing to challenge the line and has the attacking mindset to get Australia going; his disadvantages are he crumbles under heat, shies away from tackling and is yet to fully convince at test level.
Deans has to weigh up whether the charismatic flair of Cooper is far superior to the composed solidarity of Barnes.
Perhaps the best solution would be to play Cooper at flyhalf and Barnes outside him in the No 12 shirt.
The two combined could work. Having Barnes one out from Cooper would allow the duo to play a dual pivot game and take some of the pressure off the latter.
Barnes playing at inside centre would mean Pat McCabe, currently injured, would push out to centre when he is healed. In the absence of the latter, Anthony Faingaa could do the job.
Again, the direct running and hard defensive game of McCabe or Faingaa would complement the kicking and ball-playing skillset Barnes brings to the midfield equation. It would certainly add more variation to the one-dimensional McCabe- Faingaa combo currently in place.
Of course, there is still the injured James O’Connor to consider.
Former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones believes the Wallabies can ill-afford to play Cooper, Beale and O’Connor in the same backline. He argues they are similar, instinctive players and including all of them upsets the overall balance.
If the top backline consists of Genia, Cooper, Ioane, Barnes, McCabe, Ashley-Cooper and Beale, then O’Connor would find himself being utilised as a bench warmer when he is discharged from the casualty ward.
One option for Deans could be to have Barnes or Cooper at flyhalf, McCabe at 12, Ashley-Cooper at centre and O’Connor on the right wing.
Ashley-Cooper has played some exceptional code in the midfield at test level and has the size, speed and skills to make a good go of the position on a fulltime basis.
Another could see Barnes playing inside O’Connor, with McCabe in the No 13 shirt and a back three comprising Ioane, Ashley-Cooper and Beale.
In this scenario, Cooper would become an impact player used off the bench.
Deans has plenty of nutritious food for thought to digest in the next week or so as he looks to assemble his backline parts together.
Don’t be surprised if he has a sore head by the end of it.
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