Revamp or perish: Cheika had no choice

9:45 PM GMT

In spite of a concerted campaign to convince all that England’s pack were a bunch of sneaks, thankfully Michael Cheika faced reality and took the right option- revamp the Test scrum or otherwise perish.

Knowing the only way the Wallabies are to stay alive in this three-Test series is by having a solid forward platform that would provide enough consistent possession for an innovative backline, Cheika had to be brutal, promoting two props- James Slipper and Sekope Kepu- and discarding one altogether- Scott Sio.

It was Cheika’s only choice, especially after the Australia scrum, especially on the loosehead side, was brutally exposed in Brisbane. That Sio ended up in the sin bin after a succession of collapsed scrums only emphasised that while the Brumbies prop is a mighty talent, he had to be replaced in the starting lineup as quickly as possible. It is time for the clearly defeated Sio to go home and think again.

Sio will bounce back. Guaranteed. He has the resources.

Of greater surprise was that Australia opted to continue with two openside flankers working in tandem, after deciding that Sean McMahon, rather than Ben McCalman, should take over injured David Pocock’s No. 8 spot.

There is considerable danger in this move as McMahon is a novice at the position and 26kgs lighter than his direct opposite- Billy Vunipola. However Cheika knows McMahon on his home turf provides more unpredictability, dash, speed, and a touch of fire, which is required against an England pack who have taken on a bovver boy attitude. England would know exactly what to expect from McCalman. Not McMahon. It’s a big gamble, but worth a try.

McMahon’s elevation is also a clear signal that the Wallabies will again attempt to play at pace. That plan worked in stages in Brisbane. It just has to be used for far more extensive periods, which is likely to happen about this scrum revamp. The hints were made straight after the first Test loss.

Amidst all the juvenile antics, massive over-reactions and an ever accelerating ‘us versus them’ campaign conducted by England coach Eddie Jones- which was par for the course when he coached the ACT Brumbies and took constant aim at the Sydney media- were some relevant comments that may have been overlooked.

One closest to the mark came from the Wallabies rookie Dane Haylett-Petty, who was mindful of the dangers of being overly provoked and then reacting to England’s aggression, which prompted a stream of penalties that their kicker Owen Farrell took full advantage of.

“They (England) wanted to make it a bit of a brawl and we wanted to play the rugby, 100 percent, that’s how they always play, isn’t it? I definitely think when we played up tempo we got on top of them, so that’s what we need to do….,” Haylett-Petty said.

James Slipper (T), Scott Fardy. Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Probably the most extraordinary aspect of the First Test was that the Wallabies seemed genuinely surprised by England’s belligerence, even though through the constant use of the ‘Bodyline’ tagline, they had been granted plenty of hints in the lead-up that the visitors would be antagonistic.

Jones was well aware that the Wallabies’ first Test pack had a soft underbelly, and so the England forwards made certain they were confrontational, constantly reminding Australia of their presence.

One of the most provocative was their new lock Maro Itoje, who enjoyed pushing his weight around and was constantly sighted psyching up his more experienced teammates. Against a country renowned for its sledging abilities, England were instead the ones with the big mouths, and it worked. They won the upfront encounter. Cheika knew that. Thus the forward changes.

England’s front foot assault last Saturday night eventually stifled an encouraging start by the Wallabies, who realised if they vary their play with straight midfield charges and then width to their attack they could easily stretch the visitors. And so Australia were leading 10-nil after just 15 minutes; with the two tries emanating from Israel Folau being so effective when provided with territory to explore.

Not surprisingly England tried to slow it all down, attempting to control the tackle area, and then gain the ascendency at scrum-time. Soon Australia were struggling to get any semblance of consistent possession.

It had the desired effect of disrupting Australia’s rhythm. They got caught up in a mangle, and began to make mistakes at the breakdown and scrum, prompting a stream of England penalties.

The Australian players learnt from that. What Haylett-Petty says is correct. While critical that the Wallabies do not allow themselves to be pushed around, even more vital is that if they again try to lift their tempo they should comfortably overhaul England.

They do possess the better attack. That was obvious in Brisbane, and surely Bernard Foley cannot kick that poorly again. Also having McMahon and Hooper providing speed at the breakdown, and wide attacking backup, will help Australia’s plan to outsprint England.

In between complaining about those ‘disgusting, demeaning, disrespectful’ Australians – in particularly a chirpy bunch of former Wallabies players- Jones did come up with one handbrake of a comment. He has been reminding the England players of a certain past tour, which emphasises how much the Wallabies ‘love being underdogs.’

Michael Cheika Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Jones began his fluctuating four-year stint as Wallabies coach straight after the British & Irish Lions tour of 2001, taking over from Rod Macqueen who went out a winner after the third Test.

But it could have been so much different, if the Lions had kept their focus after winning the first Test in Brisbane. Irritated by being comprehensively shown up first time around, Australia became more direct in the second Melbourne Test and were saved by a Joe Roff intercept try, following by a miraculous lineout win against the throw ensuring a third Test triumph.

It was a classic backs against the wall moments for Australian Rugby- a situation they so often excel in.

This time it is a different venue in Melbourne- and the biggest variable could in the end be the ground surface. There are concerns that the unstable AAMI Park surface may seriously hinder the scrummaging plans of both sides. So what happens at scrum time will be imperative.

A soft, unsteady pitch could easily stifle England’s plan to again dominate this area, which has already seen Jones make some mischievous comments about the standard of the pitch, aimed at Australian Rugby Union heavies.

“I’m very confident in Bill Pulver to fix it. If he doesn’t fix it, Cheik (Michael Cheika) will fix it. Australians can get most things done. I’m sure they can fix a pitch,” Jones said.

While the Wallabies have fixed up their pack… if the ARU don’t fix up the pitch, then look out.

In other words, anticipate even more barbs from England about how everyone in Australia is out to get them if, as expected, the series becomes one-all on Saturday night.

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