SHIZUOKA, Japan (AP) — For most coaches at the Rugby World Cup, selection stability is a key issue as the knockout rounds loom. Not for Australia coach Michael Cheika.
Cheika has changed his halves pairing for Friday’s match against Georgia for the third time in four matches, naming Matt To’omua at flyhalf and Nic White at scrumhalf as he searches for his strongest combination a week out from the quarterfinals.
Australia leads Pool C but isn’t yet guaranteed a quarterfinal place and captain David Pocock said the Wallabies can’t afford to look any further ahead than Georgia.
Bernard Foley and Christian Leali’ifano have previously started in the No. 10 jersey in Australia’s wins over Fiji and Uruguay and its loss to Wales. Cheika will now try To’omua, who has started only four of 50 test matches at flyhalf.
Leali’ifano combined with White against Fiji and Uruguay while Foley paired with Will Genia against Wales.
Cheika says his selection changes serve the dual purpose of managing player workload — Leali’ifano played all 80 minutes against Uruguay — and promoting competition for positions.
To’omua is “a different player to Leali’ifano and Foley,” Cheika said. “He’s got a different style and (he’s) a different type of defender and he’s done well in the opportunities he’s been given.”
Foley and Leali’ifano haven’t yet been able to preside over the 80 minute performance Chieka has been looking for and he now hopes the 29-year-old To’omua, in his first start at flyhalf since November, might be able to guide a more complete performance.
“This is how we think this squad is best is to keep giving opportunities to guys to keep the contest alive with others,” Chieka said. “So if we do the right thing and get through knockout stages, we know everyone’s been a part of doing their bit.
“Some want to go with the same players all the time and maybe rest out. We feel like keeping players competing for spots is working for us. I think we’re playing some good footy.”
Cheika doubts that selection instability has contributed to the Wallabies’ slow starts.
“It’s not like we’re not playing well there,” he said. “We’re creating opportunities at starts of games but we’re not capitalizing on them.
“That just takes that little bit of extra concentration on staying in the moment. I think sometimes in the game we’re thinking about the bigger picture of the game.
“Obviously, other teams are coming hard at us because they know it’s an opportunity to try and get us there, so we’ve just got to lift our standard there, it’s pretty simple.”
Georgia and Australia’s meeting on Friday will be their first in tests.
“They’re very physical, that’s quite obvious,” Cheika said. “It’ll be a really good challenge for us.
“A lot of players play in professional leagues in France, England as well. They”re well attuned to competition at a high level.
“It”s really exciting to be part of the first time two countries have ever faced off. We want to show them how we play our rugby and I’m sure they’ll be showing us how they play theirs.”
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