Happy customer: Adam Ashley-Cooper. Photo: Getty Images
A very good England side toured New Zealand in June this year and departed on the end of 3-0 series loss.
They are still a good team, but one of the reasons they could not progress beyond that was their confusion about their best midfield, typified by the decision in the second Test to play Manu Tuilagi, their best midfielder, on the right wing.
It would be milking it to say there were direct, parallel dangers for the Wallabies, but there are echoes. Adam Ashley-Cooper can play wing at Test level. But he has been the best No.13 in Australia this year, if not Super Rugby as a whole. His ability to beat a player has been without peer, and in games involving the All Blacks' top two centres (Conrad Smith of the Hurricanes and Malakai Fekitoa of the Highlanders) he took the points decision on both occasions.
Across the ditch, former All Black No.7 Josh Kronfeld this week exclaimed that Ewen McKenzie ''should get a bullet'' if he doesn't play Adam Ashley-Cooper at outside-centre, and although we are not at the stage where firearms are required to solve the puzzle, it is an important decision full of grey areas. There are no easy answers here. Disrupt the Tevita Kuridrani-Matt Toomua coupling and you may lose some of the offensive defence and turnover potential the Wallabies are keen to exploit.
What has been noticeable about Ashley-Cooper's play, during the past year, is that he is really a master of the small things. Against Fekitoa, the young Tongan raced up out of the line on one occasion and hit Ashley-Cooper. Hard. Ashley-Cooper absorbed it, held his feet, and still went forward and set up the next phase. (As an aside, in the same game, Michael Hooper showed Fekitoa the outside and he took it – went straight past him – so this is a player of real menace for the Wallabies).
That little show of class from Ashley-Cooper against the Highlanders was an instant reminder of his contribution to the try Israel Folau scored against Wales in Cardiff last December. From a set move, Ashley-Cooper took the full force of George North coming off his wing on Ashley-Cooper's blindside. The big Welshman buried him. But he still recycled the ball. Ashley-Cooper's slicing runs make the highlights packages but it is these details that probably set him apart from Kuridrani at present – just a bit more maturity in his game.
McKenzie's decision in the No.13 jersey may come down to whether he wants what he sees as the best players on the field, even if if means a shift from their franchise positions.
But this is where it got complicated for England coach Stuart Lancaster. After Tuilagi caused the All Blacks' midfield all sorts of grief in the first Test in Auckland, Lancaster went back to the centre partnership that had served him well during the Six Nations – Billy Twelvetrees at No.12 and Luther Burrell at No.13, shifting Tuilagi to No.14. But after the second Test loss he blinked again, throwing out Twelvetrees and Burrell and restoring Tuilagi and Kyle Eastmond, who were promptly torn apart in Hamilton. Until then, Lancaster had given an impression of a coach who was methodically assured in everything he did, but suddenly it looked liked he didn't know what he wanted his team to do.
That is the danger of having options, and of course Test coaches are not afforded the luxury of hindsight. There was a trickle but not a torrent of criticism when Lancaster announced the Tuilagi switch, but the daggers quickly came out when it did not work.
The Wallabies are well set. You don't need to overcomplicate what Super Rugby might or might not mean for the Bledisloe. The past few weeks has provided ample evidence of a pool of players whose attitude and skills can put them in a position to challenge the All Blacks. And there is more synchronicity between the best-performing Super Rugby team and the way the national coach sees the game than in the Deans era. But it gets harder now, quickly, and the midfield is one of those areas that has to be spot on.