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Is this Michael Cheika's worst selection call ever?

By Ben Kimber

· Wallabies

At a time when the Wallabies are desperate to recover their winning ways, coach Michael Cheika appears to have taken the largest gamble of his patchy career as team selector.

There have been plenty of times I've had issues with the sometimes debatable, sometimes confusing lineups Michael Cheika names for the Wallabies, but this time I'm downright mystified.

I cannot fathom the thinking in his forwards selections for such a huge match against the Springboks in Port Elizabeth, and something from this week's podcast made me think even more about his player management.

Cheika's back row is Ned Hanigan at 6, Michael Hooper at 7 and David Pocock at 8.

Hooper has just returned from injury, Lukhan Tui has withdrawn and Pete Samu is injured.

Hanigan comes in with question marks over his ability at this level, particularly physically. He hasn't shown he has the presence to make an impact around the field, however welcome his presence jumping in the line out will be.

In The Rugby Ruckus podcast in recent weeks Morgan and I have talked about the lack of a genuine ball running 6 or 8 causing balance issues,and the inability to bend the line with enough ball carrying forwards.

Hanigan doesn't solve that, but backing up the risk in that selection, Cheika has no cover on the bench.

With Adam Coleman and Izack Rodda starting in the second row, he's carrying two second rowers on the bench as well in Rory Arnold and Rob Simmons.

He's hoping Hanigan has an impact, he's hoping Pocock and Hooper both play 80 (and each has had injury issues recently in neck and hamstring respectively), and he's surely desperately hoping none of his loose trio are injured early.

Simmons is absolutely no back-rower, so maybe Rodda shifts to the side?

Whichever way you cut in this lineup has gone backwards in ball carrying ability, backwards in physicality and with more question marks over capability. A possible uplift in lineout nouse is the only move in the other direction.

And even more confusingly, playing the Springboks, at home, and after one of the most outstanding backrow displays by a team in some time in toppling the All Blacks (Warren Whiteley and Pieter Steph Du Toit were monstrous), now appears to be the worst possible time to lack physicality and back row depth.

Maybe you could call out that he is restricted in options with Tui and Samu out.

He'd give a lot for Sean McMahon to be on board at the moment as well.

Then think about who isn't there, but could be, if Cheika had played things differently.

Two Scotts for starters.

Scott Fardy was the form 6 in Australia when Cheika stopped picking him and waved him goodbye, sending him off to dominate European rugby. Those who have listened to my podcasts for a while will know how long I've been talking about that decision.

And why no discussion around the absence of Scott Higginbotham?

A ball-running, skilful big man who both Morgan Turinui and Stephen Holies named in their preferred Wallabies XV in Episode 9 of The Rugby Ruckus this week.

As well as Higginbotham, the two excellent rugby analysts also named Matt Philip to start. Both see ability in the Rebels big man as both a footballer and ball carrier that deserves attention, but he's not getting a look in.

I've previously thought some of Cheika's selection struggles were due to his loyalty, a trait that contributes positively to a team that wants to play for him.

But a strength can also be a weakness. That loyalty has seen Cheika stick by players out of form, and then seemingly manage players poorly when hard decisions need to be made, bouncing them in and out of the side (I'm thinking second row last year).

Hanigan appears a loyal pick, and one that will need to find another level against a fired up Bok pack looking to honour the memory of Nelson Mandela.

I hope they prove me wrong. I hope Cheika has this team primed to take it right down to the wire against South Africa.

But if his current run of two wins from the last nine becomes two from ten, that loyalty to players is going to be as severely tested as Raelene's resolve.

WALLABIES: Dane Haylett-Petty, Israel Folau, Reece Hodge, Matt Toomua, Marika Koroibete, Kurtley Beale, Will Genia, David Pocock, Michael Hooper (c), Ned Hanigan, Izack Rodda, Adam Coleman, Taniela Tupou, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Scott Sio.

Reserves: Folau Faingaa, Sekope Kepu, Allan Alaalatoa, Rory Arnold, Rob Simmons, Nick Phipps, Bernard Foley, Jack Maddocks.

SPRINGBOKS: Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe, Jesse Kriel, Andre Esterhuizen, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (c); Franco Mostert, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Malcolm Marx, Tendai Mtawarira

Reserves: Bongi Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff, Wilco Louw, RG Snyman, Marco van Staden, Embrose Papier, Elton Jantjies, Damian Willemse

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