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Ewen McKenzie must be wary if tinkering with Wallabies' midfield

Happy customer: Adam Ashley-Cooper.

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. 

Twitter: @whiskeycully

19 comments so far

  • So Paul, what are you actually saying? Play AAC or Kuridrani at 13?Or are you simply outlining Link's choice? He cast his die with Kuridrani last year and he will stick with him. Personally I disagreed then and still disagree, but it's his job to do, not mine. Likewise Toomua vs Beale, but on that score I agree with him that Toomua is better for the team balance.
    In reality, I think he's done a good job of picking a team that can get it done. Some of the position alternatives such as White/Phipps are a real 50:50 call, but won't win or lose us the game. The lock situation is much trickier as we have difficulty in getting everything we need from 3 players, though each is outstanding at something.
    We'll know soon enough whether these guys are physically and mentally strong enough to bring home the bacon. Let's get behind them.

    Date and time
    August 08, 2014, 1:49AM
    • Phipps has to be the run-on 9 after his display last week. He reminds me of Billy Slater, an annoying little yappy dog that's always in your face, which is exactly what you want in a half back.

      Date and time
      August 08, 2014, 2:28PM
  • Ashley C is probably the best 13 in World Rugby and could have been for years . A mixture of lack of commitment by him , and lack of faith by coaches has let him idle away on the wing . Cheika and Grey ? have him right on song . It's not hard Messiah ! Phipps , Foley , Beale , ACDC , Horne , McCabe and Folua ? Then White , Toomua and Kuridrani . Get your finger out ! Or hand over to Cheika .

    Up in Palmerland ?
    Date and time
    August 08, 2014, 8:28AM
    • A lack of commitment from two-dads? What on earth are you talking about???

      Date and time
      August 08, 2014, 7:40PM
  • Beal and AAC should be 12 & 13 if he picks on form.

    Horne and McCabe at 11&14..

    Izzy and Foley well no need to say they have the spots on lockdown.

    Phipps at 9

    this is the back line in form stats show it, every one knows it,,

    Hell if this line up is picked i would even want to buy a ticket to the game. Will be a good game.
    Nic white with his small man syndrome needs to be benched. kicking the ball to the AB's will not win you the game.

    Date and time
    August 08, 2014, 8:58AM
    • I think there is far too much over analysis which creates all the doubt and option. It should be really simple. Define the game plan you think will get you across the line and then pick the best players you have to make that work. The best player in a position will always be able to work with the best player in the position inside and outside him. All this talk of a partnership in a club team being more important than having the best player available on the field is crap.

      Regardless I think the game in a 10 days will be fantastic. can't wait for it.

      Date and time
      August 08, 2014, 9:00AM
      • Cully.... firstly, these South Island types sure like using the bullet. It appears Josh, as former Highlander, is no exception.

        On a rather more serious note, I note your astute observations, and concur. Although, gotta say, your previous published article did somewhat contradict your views now. I had made comment on that article agreeing with the fact that as AAC was the form #13 in Aussie, then surely, he must warrant selection in that position. And KB was also in the mix.
        Further, similar to Kronfeld's comments, that the rest of the world think the Wallaby is nuts for continuing to select AAC out of position. Sadly, frustratingly, there were no comments published about this article.
        So with a little more time to cool the heels, I now think it is better to play the selection as it has been up until now. The present Wallaby combo of 12 and 13 does provide, in defense, an opportunity to turn the ball over, and as we all should know, every tackle is a contest to secure the ball for posession.
        Hence, Link would be unwise to start tinkering with has been a solid combo.... but if it fails he then has other realistic options. It's all good at the mo.

        Cully.... I was wondering whether it would be possible for you to write an article as to....
        'Five reasons the Wallaby won't win against the mighty ABs.' ?

        Sure worked a treat for da Tahs against the mighty 'Saders :)

        inner west sydney
        Date and time
        August 08, 2014, 10:03AM
        • @ Chook... "5 reasons"?.... Well a couple mate would definitely be: 1. A different group of players, & secondly, that "big step up" from, virtually provincial rugby, into representing your country, in the international arena. Kamate Kamate. Go the Blacks. May the best team win. Cheers.

          Date and time
          August 10, 2014, 8:22AM
      • Great article and analysis. Need more reporters like you that put the job before their ego.


        Date and time
        August 08, 2014, 10:12AM
        • Paul, I enjoyed your article but you're sitting on the fence here - I'd like to hear your opinion - should the Wallabies start AAC or Kuridrani at 13 next week? And then what about at 12?

          Personally, I think that AAC has been so fantastic this year that we HAVE to play him at 13. His ability to consistently beat the man marking him, or draw in extra defenders and then offload to his unmarked wingers and fullback plus organise the defensive line has been simply outstanding.

          And while I like what Toomua offers at 12, once Foley and AAC are playing 10 and 13 respectively, it makes sense to stick with a winning combination and start Beale at 12.

          Paul, what would you do if you were picking the team?

          Date and time
          August 08, 2014, 10:47AM

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