Nuanced nature of Wallabies squad results in tight calls for Cheika

From pairing Hooper with Pocock to promoting White and Lealiifano, Australia's head coach had tough decisions to make.

SAPPORO, 19 Sep - On the face of it, head coach Michael Cheika's selection for Australia's opening Pool D clash against Fiji on Saturday was a simple one.

The man who led his nation to the final of Rugby World Cup 2015 has named 14 out of the 15 players who started in the Wallabies' 47-26 win over New Zealand in the Rugby Championship in August this year.

But the stories behind the numbers reveal the magnitude of the decisions he and his fellow selectors have taken.

The one change from that big win over the All Blacks - David Pocock - is acknowledged as a world-class flanker and leader, but the former skipper only returned from six months out with injury to play 58 minutes in Australia's final warm-up game against Samoa earlier this month.

In his absence, a back row comprising captain and specialist No.7 Michael Hooper, and the powerful pair of Isi Naisarani at number eight and blind-side flanker Lukhan Salakaia-Loto impressed.

For the head coach, the decision to pair the two specialist ball scavengers at No.6 (Pocock) and No.7 (Hooper) is indicative of the nuanced nature of his squad. 

"Our goal is to have a team that can interchange really quite easily and not have to be dependent on any one player to achieve the pace of everything," Cheika said.

"There are obviously a lot of differences between Lukhan (Salakaia-Loto, who starts on the bench) and David (Pocock) but they will achieve the same outcomes for us in how we play the games - and they bring their own special skill sets to the game itself."

While the coach acknowledged that the duo's talents should help slow ball down for the expansive Fijians, he insisted they are in his starting line-up to do much more. 

"There are a lot of other facets to their game, which they can contribute to the team, both in attack and defence, and from an experience point of view," the 52-year-old said of the duo who helped power the Wallabies to the 2015 final, albeit with Pocock at No.8 and Hooper playing No.7.

Half-backs Nic White and Christian Lealiifano will be the first line of attack hoping to profit from Hooper and Pocock's efforts on Saturday. 

It was another call Cheika acknowledged to be "very tight" with the coach citing the pair's "composure and ability to adapt on the run" as well as "their ability to create play in both attack and defence" as key factors in his decision to play them together for just the third time in six years.  

Any other day, outside centre James O'Connor's inclusion may have dominated the headlines, but the 29-year-old's return to World Cup duty, following a six-year absence from the side, is just one of many sub-plots. 

Not that too much should be read into any of the choices made, according to Cheika.

"We said it from day one, in these tournaments one match at a time."

RNS ln/sg/ajr