Former Australian and England attack coach Glen Ella has been left gobsmacked by Michael Cheika’s selection calls ahead of their clash at Twickenham on Sunday (2am AEDT).
After the Wallabies crept past Italy 26-7 last weekend, it was widely thought that Cheika would end his brief experiment with regular playmaker Bernard Foley at inside centre.
Foley, who has been the side’s predominant playmaker since 2014 in his 67 Tests, struggled to link up with his outside men during the win and regularly crabbed sideways when popping up in the second playmaking position during the win over the 14th ranked nation in the world.
Bob Dwyer, the 1991 World Cup-winning Wallabies coach, was one of a number of astute judges that called for tackle-shredding outside centre Samu Kerevi to be shifted to inside centre, with either Foley or Matt Toomua to wear the No 10 jersey.
Ella, who was an assistant coach under Eddie Jones in 2016 during their whitewash over the Wallabies in Australia and a former Test back, was left surprised by Cheika’s selection calls.
“I just can’t understand it,” Ella told foxsports.com.au.
“It (the Foley 12 experiment) wasn’t a great success — even though it was the one Test match — but against England, you’d opt for the tried and tested, wouldn’t you?
“To be honest, Kurtley hasn’t been playing well.
“But if he was coming off the bench with 20 minutes to go, he’d be jumping out of his skin and he’d want to create something and he could potentially turn the sway of the game if it’s close.
“But that’s an opportunity missed by Cheik.
“Again, if the Aussies win, Cheik’s a genius.”
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His axing all the more surprising given the Wallabies — for the first time in 2018 and only second time ever after donning the jersey for the inaugural time during their 23-18 win over the All Blacks last year — will wear the Indigenous jersey.
Beale — one of only 14 Aboriginal men to play for Australia — had a prominent input over its design and campaigned for years for Rugby Australia to adopt the jersey.
Ella, a fellow Indigenous Wallaby, lamented the timing of Beale’s axing and the decline in indigenous talent coming through the rugby system.
“If you say past, present and future (a fundamental belief in Aboriginal culture), well what is the future?” Ella said.
“There’s only Kurtley, there’s no one else.
“So we’re behind the eight-ball there as well.
“We’re the nation’s first people and although guys like (Papua New Guinea born) Will Genia will still wear the jumper with pride, it’s always good to have an Aboriginal person on the field at some stage.”
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Since returning to Australian rugby after a one-year stint at Wasps in the English Premiership, Beale — save for playing fullback on last year’s end of season Spring Tour while Israel Folau was on a sabbatical — has predominantly played at inside centre for the Wallabies.
Cheika selected Beale at fly-half in three Test matches throughout the Rugby Championship as he searched for his preferred No 10 candidate ahead of next year’s World Cup.
But after the experiment failed to ignite the stumbling backline, with Beale often caught running sideways, Cheika moved him back the No 12 jersey and recalled Foley at fly-half, with Rebels bound playmaker Toomua off the bench.
Since then, however, the Wallabies’ backline troubles have continued and after they failed to score a try against Wales earlier this month in their 9-6 loss, Cheika dropped Beale to the bench and gave Toomua a rare start in the No 10 jersey against the lowly Italians, with Foley shifting to the midfield.
Ella believed that a lack of clarity in selection and style had contributed to Beale’s struggles, but believed he could still be a world class operator at fullback.
“The style that they’re trying to play, they’re trying to play in the wider channels and as soon as they do that Kurtley’s started drifting across the field, trying to get the ball wide,” Ella explained.
“When you look at that second half in Argentina, where we actually went straight and distributed the ball, like guys hitting the line, that’s what it’s all about.
“But when they want to play those wider channels, that’s when they start drifting and they haven’t had that success in the last five or six Test matches.
“We know that when he’s gone back to 15 he’s got a lot more energy, he’s popping up at all different times during the game and he’s a constant threat to the opposition.
“I know that Israel (Folau) has got that ability, but he hasn’t got the work rate that Kurtley has or in the innate instincts that he has as well.”
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Ella said hard hitting midfielder Ben Te’o, as well as returning damaging centre Manu Tuilagi off the bench, would target the Wallabies’ small midfield.
“Who’s Eddie picked? You look at Te’o, he must be licking his lips having the option to run up against a smallish 10 and 12,” Ella said.
“I know that Toomua’s a good defender, but there’s always a bit of doubt over the smaller guys in that backline so I reckon that will be the channel that they’ll be running at.
“In these type of games, where there’s not going to be much in it, you need a bigger ball runner at 12 who can probably offload as well.
“Kerevi played really well. He’s a big unit and when he’s fit and he’s going really well, he’s one of the best inside and outside centres in the world.
“There’s no issue with that.
“You’re looking at two kickers of the ball at 10 (Toomua) and 12 (Foley), but we’re not renowned for our open kicking so that could back fire as well
“I’m not saying that Kurtley’s a big ball runner, but you need to get over the advantage line and normally that takes your 12 to carve the ball up sometimes, so he’s (Foley) not going to be able to do that.
“It’s typical of what Cheik’s done.
“He’s been unpredictable (with his selection) and most of the time it hasn’t come off, sometimes it has, but most of the time it hasn’t. It’s a big gamble, but he’s the coach.”
Elsewhere, the merry-go-round at hooker has continued with Tolu Latu coming in for Folau Fainga’a, while Sekope Kepu has been named at tight-head prop with Taniela Tupou dropped.
Rebels pairing Dane Haylett-Petty and Jack Maddocks form a brand new wing combination, with Adam Ashley-Cooper and Marika Koroibete both being dropped despite standout performances against Italy.
The Wallabies have won just four of their 12 Tests in 2018 and should they lost to England for a record sixth straight time, it will be the country’s worst return since 1958.
Ella predicted Eddie Jones’ England would beat the Wallabies and said for Cheika’s side to win they would have to play at their best for at least 70 minutes.
ENGLAND (15-1): Elliot Daly, Joe Cokanasiga, Henry Slade, Ben Te’o, Jonny May, Owen Farrell (co-c), Ben Youngs, Mark Wilson, Sam Underhill, Brad Shields, Courtney Lawes, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George, Ben Moon
Reserves: Dylan Hartley (co-c), Alec Hepburn, Harry Williams, Charlie Ewels, Nathan Hughes, Richard Wigglesworth, George Ford, Manu Tuilagi
WALLABIES (15-1): Israel Folau, Dane Haylett-Petty, Samu Kerevi, Bernard Foley, Jack Maddocks, Matt Toomua, Will Genia, David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Jack Dempsey, Adam Coleman, Izack Rodda, Sekope Kepu, Tolu Latu, Scott Sio
Reserves: Tatafu Polota-Nau, Jermaine Ainsley, Allan Alaalatoa, Rob Simmons, Ned Hanigan, Pete Samu, Nick Phipps, Sefa Naivalu