RW caught up with Wallaby legend George Smith for his views on the Pool of Death and how the Australian backrow was shaping up
He’s the second-most capped Wallaby forward of all-time and was the youngest player to reach 100 caps ever at just 29, so when new Wasps signing George Smith says he’s confident Michael Cheika’s men will emerge from Pool A’s group of death, it probably worth listening to his thoughts on the approaching World Cup.
Speaking to Smith, 35 – who revealed he was phoned by Cheika earlier in the year to check his availability for the World Cup – at the Wasps training ground at their kit-launch, the quietly-spoken New South Wales native says the Pool will be decided in the backrow, and with Cheika this morning naming his 31-man squad, the former Brumbie runs the rule over the men at the back of the scrum and the threat they will pose to England and Wales…
The 111-cap openside was very interested in the much-discussed Michael Hooper-David Pocock combination in the backrow against New Zealand, where Australia beat the All Blacks for the first time in four years, 27-19. “You immediately saw the positives of the Hooper-Pocock combination. They dovetailed well together; they didn’t compete for the same breakdown and were aware of the roles they were playing on the field. In doing so, they nullified Richie McCaw which is no mean feat. In Test rugby you’re expected to understand all roles, not just as a fetcher but the 6 and 8 role and they have the intelligence to understand taht. I don’t see their height affecting them at the tail because lineouts are so high tempo now and they’ve jumped at the back in Super Rugby. Nothing Cheiks saw will have dissuaded him from playing a Fardy-Hooper-Pocock backrow.”
Mixing it up
Smith says from studying recent performances, the onus has been on trying out lots of different combinations during the Rugby Championship with the only constant, blindside Scott Fardy. “Fardy should be in because he’s playing extremely well as a workhorse. Saying that, I can see the qualities Wycliff Palu could bring. He’s very strong and can intimidate opposition defences and break first-up tackles. They brought in Wycliff for the final Test against New Zealand for the final Test and he did welli. Cheiks has a good idea of what he’s going to do for each Test.”
Men in reserve
With Ben McCalman and Sean McMahon adding to the Wallabies complement, Smith says there’s one man who’s been unlucky not to make the cut. “Scott Higginbotham has been superb in Super Rugby for the Rebels, he’s extremely talented and has excellent ball-skills for a tall player, plus he can play 6 and 8. Saying that McCalman has played well for the Force and excelled in the Sydney game and McMahon is an emerging talent.”
England and Wales threat
Smith says he little first-hand experience of the England backrow but one name that stands out is James Haskell, his soon-to-be new club colleague. “I’ve played against Hask and know him personally, he’s a very good player. I’m looking forward to hooking up with him. I know a little more about the Wales backrow than England, from the Lions in 2013. I’ve played against Taulupe Faletau and Dan Lydiate. Faletau is an extremely good ball-carrier, a skilled player with a good handling game, while Sam Warburton is an extremely good leader. He’s very calm and brings a confidence to the team.”
Who will emerge from Pool A?
Smith says it’s very difficult to look past the Wallabies as the winners of the Pool. “I’m very biased to the Wallabies. They have performed well in the TRC and if they’re not hit by injuries, I see them hitting their peak. All three back-rows are very competitive and I firmly believe the backrow will be the deciding factor in the matches and for me, the Hooper-Pocock combination can change the momentum of the game.”
So who will join them? “Well who can count out Fiji? They can always cause problems and beat Wales in 2007. I’ve played against them and with them in the Top 14 and they’re dangerous,” Smith says with the hint of a smile.
The new challenge with Wasps
After spending a year with Lyon in the Top 14 Smith says he didn’t know too much about Wasps but a friendship with Dai Young through the Barbarians forced him to consider moving to the UK. “Before coming here, I didn’t have too much detail on the players. I’d seen them from afar in the Premiership. I was very impressed with Nathan Hughes and Ashley Johnson and was aware of Hask. Since arriving I’ve been very impressed with the attitude of the squad, especially the backrow. That was reassuring to me. They’re all willing to learn new things.”
With young backrows Thomas Young and Sam Jones eager to learn from the Wallaby, Smith takes his mentoring role seriously. “I think people learn a lot more from what you do than what you say If you keep repeating yourself, they’ll zone out. I like having a quiet word here and there is more powerful than blasting out instructions. Earlier in my career, I’d shoot from the hip and say what was on my mind but as you start to learn more about the game you mature. I’m looking forward to a new start. I haven’t had a proper pre-season for a few years and with the Premiership pushed-back, I can hit the ground running.”
Wallaby 31-man squad: Stephen Moore (c), Tatafu Polota-Nau. Props: Greg Holmes, Sekope Kepu, Scott Sio, James Slipper, Toby Smith (uncapped). Locks: Kane Douglas Dean Mumm, Rob Simmons, Will Skelton. Backrow: Scott Fardy, Michael Hooper – (joint-VC) Ben McCalman, Sean McMahon, Wycliff Palu, David Pocock. Half-backs: Will Genia, Nick Phipps, Quade Cooper, Bernard Foley. Centres: Kurtley Beale, Matt Giteau, Matt Toomua. Back-three: Adam Ashley-Cooper – (joint-VC) Israel Folau, Rob Horne, Drew Mitchell, Henry Speight, Joe Tomane, Tevita Kuridrani
George Smith was speaking at the launch of Wasps’ new Under Armour kit for the 2015/16 season www.waspsshop.co.uk