WELLINGTON, Sept 20 (Reuters) - While the other Rugby Championship coaches are already looking ahead to the 2019 World Cup in Japan, Australia’s Michael Cheika is keeping his focus firmly fixed on the next two matches.
The Wallabies head to South Africa for a Sept. 29 Port Elizabeth showdown in disarray, having lost at home to Argentina for the first time since 1983 and battling to avoid a wooden spoon finish.
The 51-year-old’s side, who have lost five of seven tests this year, face a daunting task against a buoyant Springboks side before making a testing trip to Salta to take on the Pumas, who are showing a remarkable turnaround under Mario Ledesma.
The Pumas have already beaten the Springboks in Mendoza and then pushed the All Blacks before they upset the Wallabies at Robina last Saturday, and are playing an up-tempo and controlled game that causes opposition defences serious issues.
The Wallabies’ inconsistency, however, is not the only dilemma confronting Cheika as he looks further ahead to an opening World Cup clash against Fiji in Sapporo next September.
He appears to have lost faith in flyhalf Bernard Foley and has no viable alternative to the 62-test cap veteran, with Kurtley Beale, who took the pivotal role against the Springboks and Pumas, better suited to inside centre.
The Wallabies are also struggling to find a line-punching centre with Tevita Kuridrani and Samu Kerevi both injured, while rampaging fullback Israel Folau appears to be the only constant threat on attack.
Cheika’s persistence in picking two openside flankers — captain Michael Hooper and the world class David Pocock — in his loose forward trio may give him speed and ball-poaching ability but a lack of bulk at the breakdown.
It also reduces the effectiveness of their lineout, which was ruthlessly exposed by the All Blacks earlier in the season.
Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus, however, got exactly what he wanted from his team last Saturday when they upset the All Blacks 36-34 in Wellington.
They harried and harassed the world champions to force errors and slowed the game by kicking the ball deep into touch, preventing the All Blacks from launching quick counter attacks.
Number eight Warren Whiteley’s relentless pursuit of TJ Perenara as the scrumhalf looked set to score a match-winning try exemplified their defensive effort, particularly in the final 10 minutes as the All Blacks hammered away at their line with a man advantage.
That performance showed Erasmus that his strongest side can step up on any given day — exactly what is needed in World Cup knockout matches — and he is now likely to experiment a little more for the rest of the southern hemisphere tournament.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is also in experimentation mode, looking to plug holes left empty by injuries to three first-choice forwards: Joe Moody, Liam Squire and Brodie Retallick.
The production New Zealand Rugby line, however, has provided him with more depth than any other coach in the global game and he is likely to enter next year’s tournament confident that all 31 of his squad can slot seamlessly into the team.
The loss to the Springboks, however, was a timely reminder that if they do not get it absolutely right on every match day, then their bid to win a third successive World Cup could end in early disappointment.
Hansen will be reminding his side of that when they face the Pumas in Buenos Aires, with Ledesma’s team responding to their former hooker even if he said they sometimes lacked belief in their abilities.
Ledesma’s main concern looking ahead to their opening World Cup clash with France in Tokyo will be to fix their scrum, long considered a weapon of the side but which has been fragile since they made the semi-finals in England three years ago.
The Pumas coach, who is widely acknowledged as having turned around the Wallabies scrum when he worked with Cheika from 2015-17, however, has a year to rectify that and given how quickly he has resurrected their game, anything is possible. (Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by John O’Brien)