The Wallabies kick off their 2021 campaign against France in Brisbane tonight, desperate to improve on last year’s results when they won just one game under new coach Dave Rennie.
To preview the three Test series, Wide World of Sports spoke with former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, who is now an expert pundit for Nine and Stan Sport.
Cheika has deep knowledge of the French game, having played for Castres and CASG Paris as well as coaching Stade Francais.
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France star Demba Bamba in the wars against Ireland in Dublin. (Getty)
Q: France have brought an experimental squad Down Under. What do you know about them and how do you think they will fare?
Cheika: It’s a mixed group, a young team. They’ll have some issues with inexperience but they’ll have a lot of energy and a lot of players from their champion 2018 and 2019 under-20s World Cup sides. The biggest thing they’ve had to deal with is quarantine.
That’s not an ideal environment leading into a Test match. And they’ve had no run-in or warm-up games. When I was with Argentina last year, they had quarantine but then a bit of a run-in where they were out and about a bit more around Australia.
France only came out of quarantine yesterday and have a Test match tonight. That’s a big ask. The mental strain and you lose your routine. That can be important going into big matches. For a young group, it’ll be interesting to see how they perform.
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The Wallabies team to play France. (Nine)
Q: Were there any surprises in the Wallabies team picked by Dave Rennie? Was it similar to what you would have selected?
Cheika: There’s a few injuries so that forced a few selections. Australia’s forward pack, and the front-row firepower they have on the bench, will be more than ready for the tussle.
But the big battle will be in the halves. France have got probably their third-choice pairing, Louis Carbonel and Baptiste Couilloud, aged 22 and 23 and they’ve both only played one Test.
Australia’s combination is interesting as well, Jake Gordon and Noah Lolesio, and how they position their team is going to be crucial from a tactical point of view.
A lot of Australia’s success could be in Jake’s hands. The way he played for the Waratahs this year, he can get the forwards on the front foot and a lot will revolve around him.
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Q) You picked Jake Gordon in a lot of your wider squads but he didn’t get a lot of gametime. Why was that and what have you seen in his development since?
Cheika: A lot of it was just learning the ropes. He’s still young as far as Test footy is concerned. He’s in a battle with Nic White and Tate McDermott but he really performed for NSW in a difficult year. Whenever he was on the field they showed some zip.
It’s a question of whether he can play that same role in a different team. In the Waratahs he was a very dominant ball player and a running threat as well. I imagine that’s why Dave Rennie has picked him there.
He’s looking more confident within himself and sure of his own abilities. When you know your abilities match the opportunities then good things happen. He’s getting into that zone.
Tom Banks of the Wallabies takes on the All Blacks defence. (Getty)
Q) It is also shaping as a massive series for Tom Banks, another player with huge potential who hasn’t quite nailed his Test chances. Do you see him having a breakout series and making that fullback jersey his own?
Cheika: He’s certainly getting the opportunities so it’s up to him to take that spot. It depends on what the coaches are asking from him. Are you going to play a counter-attacking game, are you going to play a kick and return, positional game?
Banks likes the open spaces and he’s a great finisher. He can play in some of those inside channels. It will all depend on how his team operates. The coach will be looking for him to be really confident in his kicking and catching.
France will send a fair bit his way, box kicking from 9 and from 10 and 15 – there’s a fair bit of kicking power, even though fullback Melvyn Jaminet is a debutant.
They’ll look to get the ball back from an error so Tom’s first job is nailing his positional play. He’s pretty good under the high ball so if he just nails his basics he can take his opportunities as the game opens up.
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Q) If the Wallabies are serious about moving up from seventh in the world rankings, surely this is a series they should win, given France’s preparations?
Cheika: Test footy is a really competitive sport, no-one should do anything. People go out there and earn what they get. They’ve had a few weeks together now so if they’ve prepared well they’ll be ready for the challenge. It’s an interesting challenge having three matches in 11 days too.
Nothing is given, I’ve been involved in home series where you can’t take anything for granted. They have had the better preparation given France’s quarantine and their better players not being here.
But they showed in December, when they played a completely new team against England, they were very competitive and only just went down (22-19).
France’ coach Fabien Galthie at Stade de France in Paris. (Getty)
Q) So you think Australians might be underestimating the depth in French rugby?
Cheika: The real avid supporters know and France-Australia is usually a cracking game. I’ve been involved in a couple of beauties, in France, and their last tour of Australia in 2014 – they were a totally different animal to what they are now.
They’ve got a lot more energy and France could have easily pulled the pin on this tour. They had a million excuses to say ‘we won’t come’ but their coaches Fabien Galthie and Laurent Labit, who I played with in France, they’re very energetic and determined to perform at the top level.
Given that direction they’ll perform no matter what, when they put on their colours. It should be a great game regardless. Fans won’t know all their players but hopefully a big home crowd will lift the Wallabies. We have a strong record at Suncorp Stadium and this is a great north versus south showdown.
Michael Cheika on Stan Sport. (Stan)
Q) You touched on the condensed schedule earlier. If you were still coaching would you and the selectors have already mapped out a plan to manage and rotate players over the three games?
Cheika: Not really. You want your No.1 team out there as much as possible. It’s footy and I’m not sure how coach Rennie will do it but I’d say he’ll feel the same. The opposition is in the same situation and you have to look at individuals and play it by ear.
They will have a few contingencies for different positions but the way tight fives operate now, they almost share games anyway, the front-rowers especially.
I’d say they’ll look to have light training sessions between games and try to run their best team out there as much as possible.
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