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Ewen McKenzie should focus more on the bench

Impact man: Will Skelton.

Impact man: Will Skelton. Photo: Getty Images

The Wallaby side that runs on to the field on Saturday night at Suncorp Stadium against France is Ewen McKenzie’s main throw of the dice to a successful series and a triumphant Rugby World Cup tournament next year.

The first aspect that strikes you about the Wallabies squad is the ruthlessness of McKenzie’s selection method. Two of the players who made his reputation as the Reds coach in 2011, James Horwill and Will Genia, have been dropped from the starting line-up. Genia has been dropped even from the reserves. There are only two Reds players, Rob Simmons and James Slipper in the starting side, with Horwill on the bench.

This ruthlessness has been sharpened with a pragmatic edge. The McKenzie Wallabies are selected on form and necessity. The starting side includes six Waratahs, six Brumbies, two Reds and one Western Force player. The Waratahs and the Brumbies are the form Australian sides in the 2014 Super Rugby tournament, both of them strong finalist chances. Bernard Foley gives the side an accurate goal-kicker, a necessity for a successful team. Nic White is a feisty halfback with a strong kicking game (which he over-cooked last season for the Wallabies) and a long-range goal kicker. There is size in the backs with Israel Folau and Tevita Kuridrani. And strong runners in the forwards, with Slipper, Sekope Kepu, Michael Hooper and Wycliff Palu.

My main criticism of the squad lies with the bench. Here I note an interesting article, “The Team With The Best Bench Will Win,” which was published in the newsletter of the Association of Rugby Historians and Statisticians. In 14 All Blacks Tests last year they made 102 substitutions. Eighty of those substitutions were made after the 50-minute mark. In those 30 minutes the All Blacks out-scored their opponents by 183 to 53. New Zealand rugby is continuously innovating. This is why their rugby is so successful. The latest innovation is the discovery that impact off the bench is a crucial factor in winning Test matches.

Following this theory, it is obvious that Will Skelton should be on the bench, in place of James Horwill. At 125kg Skelton has the bulk, power and skills to break the line and make the off-loads that lead to tries. His impact against the Chiefs after half-time was crucial to a Waratahs victory last weekend. Scott Higginbotham should replace Ben McCalman. Will Genia, with a licence to run, run and run, should be on the bench. I understand the value of Kurtley Beale but Rob Horne has more value on the bench for the Wallabies as an impact player. Look at the All Blacks bench for the Test against England. There is the massive second-rower Patrick Tuipulotu (the equivalent of Skelton), Malakai Fekitoa and TJ Perenara (the equivalents of Horne and Genia).

The All Blacks coach Steve Hansen says that Aaron Cruden is the run-on No.10 for the All Blacks because his impact off the bench is nowhere near as explosive as that of Beauden Barrett. This observation gives a clue to how sophisticated the impact method is becoming. At the heart of the theory is an acceptance that modern rugby in the professional era is an 80-minute game played by squads of 23, with dynamic players being more valuable than steady players.

My colleague Paul Cully has insisted that “nothing less than a clean sweep of Les Bleus will do” for the Wallabies. The argument here is that since 2012 when the three-series format was re-introduced for inbound tours no northern hemisphere nation has won even one Test in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Well, yes. Except for the fact that the glory and shame (on occasions) of France is that no one can predict from Test to Test whether they will play with a sort of Napoleonic grandeur and ruthlessness or play in an abject manner.

Coach Philippe Saint-Andre and his assistant coach Patrice Lagisquet were brilliant players in the last French side to beat the Wallabies in Australia, 28-19. They know how to beat the Wallabies. That was in 1990, admittedly. But then as now, no one expected France to win.     

5 comments so far

  • Spiro, I think this Wallaby team, on paper at least (based on form), is an exciting one.
    For far too long the announcement of a Wallaby team has been met with a bit of a 'ho-hum' attitude from supporters and critics alike. As in it's the usual suspects... again !
    Contrary to this is this team has a freshness about it, and apart from the exclusion of Genia, it appears to have been well received from most quarters for the most part.
    I will say, though, that the bench is pretty solid in my opinion and covers more positions than it doesn't.
    As to so-called 'impact players off the bench' there are a couple who fit this description.
    Regardless, as I stated to Cully, come Saturday night, what will be will be, and we'll ALL be smarter for after the fact.

    Commenter
    Machooka
    Location
    inner west sydney
    Date and time
    June 07, 2014, 9:15AM
    • Agree with the sentiment Spiro, but not sure your rersulting assessment is correct.

      I think McKenzie is giving big Kev a chance, and i'd back him to make the most of his chance to save his Wallaby career.

      The reasons for the Reds decline are not simple and Horwill has not been 'all that bad'! But it's taken hios mental edge and I think he's worth salvaging.

      I don't think Higgers is a good test level eight and would like to see him at 6 some tiome trhis series.

      Finally, I think Beale is a perfect impact player. His relationship with Foley ensures if he comes on he'll slot in neatly to give Izzy some more chances and give les bleues a taste of their own zip.

      Commenter
      bennalong
      Date and time
      June 07, 2014, 12:50PM
      • Excellent article Spiro, and spot on. Big "Willy" has not only bent but broken the line on countless times and more importantly kept ball alive with deft passes rather than just falling in a heap to form a ruck like Horwill (which allows opposition to re-set their defence). Likewise Hiigers v. McCalman.
        Hopefully McKenzie will trial n tweak these changes even if we do win tonite!

        Commenter
        Hoffers
        Location
        Currumbin
        Date and time
        June 07, 2014, 1:20PM
        • Spiro , I agree with Skelton , Higginbotham and Genia , but not Horn for Beale . I think that McCabe is in the spot Horn is looking at .
          Cummins missed three tackles in his last game , if he keeps that up Horn might get a go .
          Perhaps Le Messie is giving some of these blokes a chance at test Rugby , they have to start sometime and this is as good as any time .
          You speak of The Brumbies and The Tut Tahs , what about the Force ?

          Commenter
          Mankad
          Location
          Up in Palmerland ?
          Date and time
          June 07, 2014, 4:59PM
          • Spiros
            Give us your report card on the bench. trie n a penalty trie to the French in the second half.
            Mine would be a C-.

            Commenter
            Greg Ryan
            Location
            Yass
            Date and time
            June 07, 2014, 9:52PM

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