Australian rugby union fans can rejoice. Our prayers have been answered. Bernard Foley will start at flyhalf and Kurtley Beale will come off the bench in this weekend’s vital clash against South Africa.
In addition to this, Nick Phipps has replaced Nic White at scrumhalf, creating a dynamic combination that is the start of backline predominantly made up of Waratahs.
This got me thinking, why do we want this to happen? I have previously written about how Kurtley Beale is not the most ideal player to have at 10, but there has to be something deeper than that.
Time for a bit of a history lesson. Take a look at these combinations of All Black and Wallaby luminaries.
- Michael Lynagh/John Eales
- Stephen Larkham/John Eales
- Sam Whitelock/Dan Carter
- Grant Fox/Garry Whetton
Notice a glaring pattern?
They are all combinations of a high-quality flyhalf and a lock, the two most important positions on the field when it comes to creating chemistry.
For a rugby team to be successful at international level, the coach must create chemistry between his players.
You could get the 15 best rugby players in the world, but if they were unable to work well with each other, they would only be a good team. Not a great team.
This is why the All Blacks have reigned dominant over the past 12 years. They have stuck to a squad where there are strong combinations and chemistry between positions.
Let’s separate the lock and flyhalf positions and have a look at a number of variables for each.
Consider the Whitelock/Retallick combination in the previous Bledisloe Cup matches.
Whitelock has the second-most tackles in the entire competition with 27, and Retallick has 22.
Whitelock also has the second-most amount of lineout catches (nine) with Retallick also placing in the top 10 for this statistic, with four.
How can you stop chemistry like that?
I’ll give you the answer. You can’t.
The Wallabies attempted to defeat the Whitelock/Retallick combination with Sam Carter and Rob Simmons.
Now this is exactly what proves my theory.
Individually, Carter and Simmons are both fantastic players.
Carter was one of the most dynamic tacklers of the 2014 Super Rugby season and Simmons is a set piece maestro.
However, the two players do not have any chemistry together, as Carter has less than five Test caps and Simmons has had his partner at No.4 changed three times since the start of the international season.
It seems now as if the pair will be playing together for the foreseeable future, but it is going to be a long wait before the become as dominant as the Whitelock/Retallick combination (see my Bledisloe 2017 article for more on this).
Now we move into the backline.
The simplest way to look at it is like this.
Bernard Foley and Nick Phipps won a Super Rugby championship together, so they should work well together at international level.
The Wallabies got sucked into the trap of putting together two strong players at flyhalf and scrumhalf, but White and Beale did not have good chemistry and couldn’t get the job done.
The selectors chose White for his bullet pass and his decent box kick, but he is unable to command a line like Phipps can.
Beale was put into flyhalf for reasons unknown, and he did not work well as a first receiver and as a field general, something the Wallabies lack and need.
Put Phipps at scrumhalf and yes, you have a weaker passer, but so what?
You have a player who is able to command those around him, along with Foley, a natural flyhalf who is able to run in a straight line and take control of the entire backline.
The players backing these two up will consist of Rob Horne, Matt Toomua, Tevita Kuridrani, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Israel Folau.
This means that five out of the seven players in the starting backline will be Waratahs.
This is perfect, as the Waratahs backline won the Super Rugby championship, and Phipps and Foley, as a combination, will assist these players during the game.
It also means that they will be able to stick to the Waratahs’ style of play, which is a strong and consistent attacking structure.
Now, concluding my argument and looking back at the example I used with World Cup-winning flyhalf/lock combinations, it is clear that Australia are not quite there yet.
The best combination you could think of using this formula would be Simmons/Foley, but Simmons is not a complete attacking and defensive player, and applying Carter to the theory would not make sense after less than five Tests.
When applying this theory to the All Blacks you have the dynamic Whitelock/Cruden or Whitelock/Carter combination, which is simply unstoppable.
What do you say? Does this theory work?
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