TO AUCKLAND HUNGRY BENCH PRESS FOR STARTING SPOTS
WITH a simple change of a single word, the Wallabies bench has become a match-winning weapon.
Forget reserves, replacements or second-stringers – coach Michael Cheika now calls his bench players “finishers” and empowered with a sense of purpose, that’s exactly what they’ve done for Australia in all three matches this year.
The bench proved the difference for the Wallabies again on Saturday, with Matt Toomua and Nic White bringing sharp footy and 15 points to the party in the final 20 minutes.
With Kiwi-esque composure, Australia came from behind to win.
“Test match footy is won in the 65-75 minute mark and that back end 15 minutes, and it is very important that your bench comes on and finishes the game off,” veteran back Adam Ashley-Cooper said.
“They bring a big impact on, a lot of energy and control and experience. Our benches have been doing that over the last three games ... guys coming on like Nic White who had a huge influence on the result of the game. That focus that Cheik has put on the finishers has certainly proven to be a beneficial one for the team.”
The identity of the “finishers” has changed each week, along with changes to the starting side. It is designed by Cheika to build depth and strength across all 23 players.
Being put on the bench was once equated to being dropped or demoted but Wallabies say it is now a defined role all of its own, like a sixth-man in basketball or relief pitcher in baseball.
Flanker Scott Fardy says starters and finishers will continue to swap.
“I don’t think this team will be settled for a long time. Cheik won’t have to make a final decision until the World Cup final, in terms of what he wants,” he said.
“I don’t think playing everyone for 80 minutes every week and trying to get the best out of them is the best strategy. The ability to give guys a go creates depth and confidence in the group. It’s been really good. Going forward that’s the way its got to be.”
Former Western Force coach John Mitchell believes a problem of Australian rugby is that too many Wallaby players felt “tenured”, and thus didn’t improve.
Cheika has brought uncertainty to selection and players have reacted by seizing their opportunities.
Form has been seen across the entire squad, from stars like Pocock, Hooper and Folau to players formerly on the World Cup fringe like James Horwill, White and Dean Mumm.
Cheika’s hand may be forced again to pick a new team to meet the All Blacks in Auckland on Saturday.
White and Toomua may stick their hand up for a start ahead of Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley, and men like Wycliff Palu and Henry Speight will also be considered.
Sam Carter and Kane Douglas may also come into the frame after being in camp last week.
With the Hooper and Pocock partnership working well and having no major set-piece fallout, the duo will likely continue to start.