Gambled and lost: Tahs and Reds count the cost of tinkering

Not many coaches resist the urge to tinker at some stage – an oversupply of players here, a worrying deficit there – but, as the opening round of Super Rugby Pacific showed, there is usually a price.

NSW back-rower Charlie Gamble has been linked so regularly with the Wallabies I began to wonder if he had made his international debut while I stepped out for a coffee.

While he had indeed been selected for Australia, it was “only” in the 44-man training squad, not the Test 23. Even that honour was quickly downgraded. Choosing that squad was about the last act of former Wallabies coach Dave Rennie, before he was stripped of command.

A Test debut still lies some way into the future for the mustachioed marvel; quite possibly very far into the future if Waratahs coach Darren Coleman continues to select him as a makeshift No.8, instead of his prime position of openside breakaway.

Clearly, Coleman recognised how pivotal the breakdown battle was going to be against the Brumbies last Friday and juggled his forces accordingly. Rather than select his best back row, he chose his best back-rowers. Lachie Swinton at six, Michael Hooper at seven. The only spot remaining was loose forward. How delicious: gambling on Gamble …

The 26-year-old is too gifted a player not to give it his all in an unfamiliar position, but he is physically unsuited to the eight-man role. He wasn’t able to match the dynamic ball-carrying of the Brumbies’ opposite number Rob Valetini – not many can – and he struggled to make an impact at the breakdown. It was only when specialist No.8s Langi Gleeson and Will Harris came off the bench that NSW got any punch from their back row.

Charlie Gamble is tackled in the Waratahs’ Super Rugby opener on Friday.Credit:Getty Images

Against a free-spirited side like the Fijian Drua, the Waratahs’ next opponents, Coleman might be tempted to again use Hooper and Gamble in his back row. But even George Smith and Phil Waugh, brilliant Wallabies both, rarely worked well in tandem. Put them together in the same back row and, somehow, the sum became less than the individual parts.

Long term, Coleman is going to face the tough choice every Waratahs and Wallabies coach of the past decade has confronted: do I persist with Hooper even though he unbalances my back row?

Invariably, they go with Hooper. It’s understandable. So, unless Gamble reskills as a blindside breakaway, it could be a frustrating Super Rugby campaign as he attempts to build a case for World Cup selection.

Coleman needs to balance his back row. A specialist No.8 should not be hard to find, not with Gleeson and Harris raising their hands. He knows what he will get from the seven jersey – a magnificent competitor, though perhaps not a ball-scavenger of note. It’s the six jersey that will dog him. Jed Holloway, perhaps? Although that would create a host of new problems in the second row.

Is it any wonder Coleman took the soft option for round one?

Nor was he the only one…

Any reservations Reds coach Brad Thorn might have had about using Tom Lynagh at No.10 against the Hurricanes in Townsville were surely removed by his poise in the trial against the Tahs at Narrabri.

But instead of allowing the 19-year-old to defend in the line, as he had done effectively in the trial, Thorn tried to protect him by hiding him out back. It was more well-intentioned tinkering.

Lynagh’s goal-kicking was showstopping and he proved he is up to the task of directing the Reds’ attack – providing his tight forwards win possession, which is another problem entirely. He showed, too, his willingness in defence. The problem is he weighs 78 kilograms, which is about 20 kilograms short of what Hurricanes flyer Billy Proctor threw at him as he thundered through to the try line.

Tom Lynagh taking on the Highlanders.Credit:Getty

Moreover, Lynagh was left on his lonesome. The Reds, so protective of him in attack, let him fend for himself in defence. He is accustomed to defending in traffic, where he has back-rowers around him eager to lend a shoulder. But in Townsville, he had acres of unfamiliar space to himself. Tinkering into trouble.

Thorn’s mistake is a common one. Rennie made it when he selected Noah Lolesio for his Test debut against the All Blacks in 2020. He was shunted to the backfield for his own protection in defence – and the All Blacks went looking for him.

The Reds coach has a mountain of problems to deal with. Just about every part of the Queensland game went into meltdown in Townsville, which was more than a little ironic given the Reds had hoped the Hurricanes might boil over in the heat.

But one problem can take care of itself. Simply tell the back-rowers to keep a protective eye on him, but otherwise leave Lynagh alone.

Watch all the action from the Super Rugby Pacific with every match streaming ad-free, live and on demand on Stan Sport kicking off Friday 17 February.

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