SYDNEY, Sept 4 (Reuters) - Too heavy to lift at the lineout and too bulky to get his frame low enough to be overly effective at the scrum, Will Skelton is an unlikely test lock.
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has long concluded, however, that what the 23-year-old does bring to the party is worth far more than his deficiencies at the set piece.
First and foremost there is the sheer weight which Skelton throws at the defensive line with ball in hand and brings to bear in a shuddering tackle that can stop the biggest man in his tracks.
A height of 2.03 metres allied to the upper body strength of a wrestler also make him an expert spoiler at the rolling maul, which many countries are looking to exploit as a major attacking weapon from the lineout at the World Cup.
To characterise Skelton as all bulk and muscle, however, would be to do a major disservice to a player with the mobility of a number eight and the soft hands of a back.
Skelton is very much the creation of Cheika, who, looking for big ball runners for his New South Wales Waratahs side, brought the then 21-year-old into Super Rugby in 2013.
With South African Jacques Potgeiter and fellow Australian Kane Douglas, Skelton formed a triumvirate of hard-running forwards whose physicality set the tone for Cheika’s team.
The second row unit was a bedrock of the 2014 championship side, creating the momentum, or “go forward” in Cheika-speak, which allowed the likes of Israel Folau and Kurtley Beale to flourish in the backline.
Following the 2014 Super Rugby title, Ewen McKenzie threw Skelton into the international arena in the third, dead rubber test of the series against France.
It proved no gamble as Skelton scored one try with a rampaging run and set up another for Folau on a sensational debut at Lang Park.
Cheika took over as Wallabies coach for the November tour and Skelton finished the year with eight caps for the country he moved to as a 10-year-old from his birthplace in Auckland, New Zealand.
With Cheika combining one last season at the Waratahs with Wallabies duties, he was able to supervise the improvements he thought were required in Skelton’s game.
Focus was placed on conditioning to ensure Skelton was able to complete 80 minutes and was not always required to start on the bench or return to it after 50 minutes, as he did when alternating with Douglas and Potgeiter at the Waratahs.
Argentine scrummaging specialist Mario Ledesma has worked with Skelton on his set piece work at the Waratahs and again after joining the Wallabies coaching setup.
There have been improvements -- Skelton has taken a couple of test catches, albeit from the front of the lineout -- but he was never going to be a lock in the mould of John Eales or Nathan Sharpe.
What he can bring is the familiar lopsided grin to the face of his coach when 140 kgs of Australian prime beef takes the ball at pace, smashes through a few tacklers before getting the ball away with the delicacy of a halfback. (Editing by John Mehaffey)