Brisbane, Australia (AP) — Michael Cheika has taken one of the biggest selection gambles of his coaching career ahead of Saturday’s Rugby Championship test against South Africa in the hope of lifting Australia out of an extended slump and avoiding a drop to its lowest-ever world ranking.
The Wallabies have lost six of their last seven tests, including 38-13 and 40-12 defeats by New Zealand in the first two matches of the Championship. A loss to the Springboks would see Australia drop below South Africa and Scotland to seventh place – its lowest spot since world rankings began in 2003.
Cheika has said he is not preoccupied with the vigorous public debate over his future, though he can hardly be oblivious to it. In that light, he has insisted the selection gamble he has taken is not reactionary – a response to the Wallabies heavy losses to the All Blacks and their backlash – but a proactive way to “shake things up.”
Still, Cheika’s decision to drop flyhalf Bernard Foley to the bench for the first time in his 51-test career and to start Kurtley Beale at flyhalf for the first time since 2014 is more than just a whim of selection. It may be a career-defining gamble.
“I’m not looking to mix and match for the sake of it,” Cheika said. “It’s a big test for us. I think this is the best combination for us to go into this game.
“I thought Kurtley deserves an opportunity back in the 10 jersey. He’s had it before and I think he’s matured a lot as a player and person and I certainly trust him to be in charge of the team there.”
Cheika’s purpose in dropping Foley and entrusting the flyhalf role to the veteran utility player isn’t entirely clear. In naming Matt Toomua in Beale’s place at inside center, he gives himself the option of continuing the two playmaker setup which has been a feature of his coaching style.
Whether he is right to have confidence in Toomua, who has just returned to Australian rugby after a long stint in England, will be decided on Saturday.
“Toomua has come back with a lot of confidence and he likes the shape of the game and he fits into it quite nicely,” Cheika said. “I’d like to get on the front a bit more in attack and throw out a bit of a challenge there and give the opportunity to Toomua and Beal and then see how the other lads respond.”
Beale has a powerful kicking game and poses a significantly bigger running threat than Foley at first receiver, especially from phase play. That might bring a challenge of unpredictability to the Springboks defense which was far from perfect in its most recent 32-19 loss to Argentina.
Springboks captain Siya Kolisi, who swaps from the openside to the blindside flank on Saturday, said Beale would be a major threat.
“Putting Kurtley Beale there, obviously they want to attack,” Kolisi said. “He’s a very good attacking flyhalf.”
Australia had a major setback Friday when veteran backrower David Pocock was forced to withdraw with a neck injury. He was replaced by Pete Samu, who initially missed selection in the 23-man squad.
Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus also sprang selection surprises aftetr his team’s loss to Argentina, dropping influential hooker Malcolm Marx to the bench. But Kolisi said those changes were planned at the start of the championship to give as many players as possible test experience.
“There would be nothing better than executing the coach’s plan while winning,” he said. “Obviously people will look at it differently because of the loss (to Argentina) but we knew three weeks ago of these changes.”
Rugby Australia’s board has expressed full confidence in Cheika for now and said he will remain in charge until his contract ends after the 2019 World Cup in Japan. But a further loss, particularly if selection errors contribute, and a declining world ranking would likely increase pressure from fans on the governing body to step in.