Cheika mate? Oz coach bets big on getting flyhalf right
Wallabies have won just two of their seven Tests thus far this season, with the Boks in Port Elizabeth to come
The next two Tests may prove defining in Michael Cheika’s tenure as Wallabies coach. He is under the pump after his side won just two of their seven Tests thus far this season.
The Wallabies lost a home series against Ireland for the first time in 39 years in June before being comprehensively beaten by the All Blacks in both Rugby Championship Tests in Sydney and Auckland. Some respite came when his team somehow beat the Springboks in Brisbane but they promptly suffered the ignominy of crashing to a first home defeat to Argentina since 1983.
That’s what made Cheika’s team announcement for Saturday’s Test in Port Elizabeth so weighty on Thursday. The coach has made four changes to his side that lost to Argentina for Saturday’s clash, with Michael Hooper returning to the side after suffering injury against Ireland.
While his return will no doubt bolster the Wallaby forward ranks and seems a straightforward decision, the same cannot be said for his choice of flyhalf. In the four Wallaby wins in the last 10 Tests against the Boks, flyhalf Bernard Foley started in just one. That solitary win was a closely-contested affair in Perth in 2014 when the Wallabies prevailed 24-23.
Perhaps armed with that knowledge Cheika dropped Foley for the clash in Brisbane and moved Kurtley Beale one position closer to the action. The Wallabies won that Test but they soon went backwards when Argentina beat them last time out. His team’s one step forward, one step back routine must be infuriating Cheika. He needs to find consistency in key positions in the lead-up to next year’s World Cup.
The fact that he opted for Beale in this Test shows that in this instance he is of rigid conviction. In Foley he has a more reliable operator at first receiver. The pivot’s reliable boot has extricated the Wallabies and the Waratahs out of some tight corners.
The mercurial Beale, however, offers more in attack, and it is that element of the Wallabies’ backline play that Cheika is hoping to advance. The problem is, as playmaker much is expected of Beale and his performance against Argentina suggests his urgency to live up to that title. He is trying to expedite outcomes, where trust in the process is required.
Beale may have the moves but he is yet to display the patience to maximise his impact at flyhalf. He doesn’t have to reach for the thrust levers as often as he does. Next to him he has Matt Toomua, a player with composure and an intimate knowledge of how South Africans go about their business. Toomua’s time at Western Province will serve him well, while his boot will also be drawn into the equation in Port Elizabeth.
It is Beale, however, who potentially holds the keys to Cheika’s future. Lest we forget, it was he who helped manufacture a Wallaby win when he banged over a long range penalty in Bloemfontein in 2010. Cheika’s gamble on Beale may yet come off in the long run, but first the player has to accept that he isn’t the alpha and the omega of the Wallaby attack.