As the All Blacks and Wallabies prepare for the oversea leg of their Rugby Championship campaign, RYAN FRISBY analyses the selection conundrums confronting Steve Hansen and Michael Cheika.
Contenders: Stephen Moore, Tatafu Polotu-Nau, Jordan Uelese
Experience is one of the most valuable assets to any player in any team. But when your skill level isn’t up to standard, experience can be expendable. Stephen Moore has been a workhorse for Australian rugby in both Super Rugby and on the international scene. In two games this year for the Wallabies, he has run three times for five metres, made seven of eight tackles, conceded three penalties and won four line-outs. The upside is Moore is the best thrower in the country.
When Tatafu Polota-Nau is in form and can stay on the pitch, he is devastating with ball in hand and in defence. But at 32 years old and renowned for getting injured, you can’t be confident in handing him the No.2 jersey, as you don’t know how many minutes you will get from him. Polota-Nau’s lineout throwing has improved but is still inconsistent. A better bench option than Moore, as he has more impact.
Jordan Uelese is my choice – in 40 minutes of his debut season for the Wallabies he has run the ball 10 times and scored a try. The modern-day hooker runs around as an extra flanker and has the ability to break tackles down the flanks. Uelese is cut from the right mould. He’s intense, aggressive and wants to run the ball. Dane Coles and Agustin Creevy are the two leading hookers in world rugby, and they are dangerous with ball in hand and can get around the park in defence. There is the obviously flaw with Uelese’s lineout throwing but if he can fix that he will be up there with the best. Every team is looking towards the 2019 World Cup in Japan so it’s a good time to throw him in the deep end.
All Blacks Blindside Flanker
Contenders: Vaea Fifita, Liam Squire, Jerome Kaino
Vaea Fifita produced one of the best debut games you could ask for from a No.6 – 11 runs, 11 defenders beaten, 113 metres, three line-breaks, one try-assist and a solo try for the ages. Fifita is great around the park with ball in hand, but in his first run-on game against Argentina he only made 4 tackles, which for a blindside flanker isn’t ideal. Steve Hansen told us that Fifita still needs to learn the team’s structures, as he finds himself out of place within those structures. Fifita needs to do a bit more of the grunt work – hitting rucks, making tackles, support play – to really make him a premier No.6. This will take time, however, and with such depth at this position, he will have to bide his time.
First bursting onto the scene when he played for Tasman in the ITM Cup, Liam Squire was snapped up by the Highlanders after cutting his teeth in Super Rugby with the Chiefs. A bit like Fifita early on in his career with an amazing running game out wide but lacking a bit of the grunt work. He has evolved over the years, especially at the Highlanders where hard work pays off. Squire now is more of an all-rounder, including his ability to jump in the lineout. He still has that X-factor with ball in hand and he’s knocking on the door to make that 6 jersey his own.
Jerom Kaino has been in this position before where young blindside flankers have tried to come and take his jersey. Victor Vito was the main contender, but Kaino over and over again has proven that he is the best. A two-time World Cup winner and an important part of the tripod along with Read and McCaw. He’s by far the most effective in defence with a powerful tackle and precise counter-rucking. Kaino runs the ball hard to get the All Blacks the go-forward ball they need, usually in the middle of the field instead of the outside flanks like his other contenders; the veteran gets my vote.
Best position for Beaudan Barrett: Flyhalf or Fullback?
Arguably the world’s top player, Beauden Barrett wouldn’t and doesn’t look out of place at either position. People have been talking about how his sleight of hand to be able to pass the ball under pressure is poor, giving SBW no room to move and hindering his game.
Any flyhalf can play good when their team is going forward, but when they go backwards, they really struggle. Barrett is the best No.10 when his team is under the pump because he can run himself out of trouble being nearly the fastest man on the planet.
Yes, he struggled against the British and Irish Lions, but that was the first time his forwards were going backwards since he has been in the No.10 jersey – and remember that the Lions are made up of four nations, so they are pretty handy.
Barrett adapted to this when the Wallabies and Pumas tried to rush the defence in his direction. He can obviously play fullback as well with more time and space; his speed can dominate a game from that position. But with Ben Smith, Damien McKenzie, Israel Dagg and brother Jordie competing for that spot, Beaudan is not needed in at fullback and quite frankly would probably be the second- or third-best fullback in that group of players. No.10 is his position.
Best Position for Israel Folau? Outside Centre, Wing or Fullback?
Israel Folau has held down the fullback spot for Australia since September 2013, producing some unbelievable Test performances – last Saturday against Argentina a case in point. He invariably manages to find the try-line at least once a game in the wide channels, crossing for 10 tries in just seven Tests in 2017.
Folau does struggle to set up tries, though, and he isn’t very direct in his running. You don’t find him in the middle of the field looking for work. When he counterattacks he usually skips before the line and tries to run around people and use his fend. If you watch most fullbacks, they will see a gap and use their pace to exploit them. This is an area Folau needs to improve on. He plays outside centre for the Waratahs and had mixed results in that position, although his forwards and team generally underperformed and couldn’t get him any qualify ball.
The 28-year-old isn’t renowned for his tackling and the No.13 channel is one of the hardest to defend in. If you watch highlights of the British and Irish Lions’ tour of Australia, you will see Israel Folau wearing the No.14 jersey and tormenting the Lions’ defence in his first Test series.
This is where I think Folau should be used for the Wallabies. On the wing you can catch the ball and back yourself – you don’t have to worry about setting teammates up for tries. Folau can come off his wing and cause havoc around the ruck area, which he currently doesn’t do at fullback – probably due to the Wallabies’ game-plan. Right now he is too easy to read when he comes into the line from fullback, whereas on the wing, he can use his footwork and power to score even more tries.
But whether Michael Cheika will bite the bullet and move Izzy from the custodian role is another question altogether.