George Smith backs Wallabies back-row trio

Date published: September 12 2019

Legendary flanker George Smith believes the Wallabies should not rush David Pocock back into the starting back-row alongside Michael Hooper at the World Cup, but instead stick with the trio who have been playing the majority of recent games.

After enduring a chronic calf injury, Pocock returned from six months on the sidelines in the Wallabies’ win over Samoa at the weekend, and thus ignited debate about whether he would be take a spot in the starting line-up in the World Cup opener against Fiji on September 21.

Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika first played the Hooper-Pocock combination together at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

But in Pocock’s absence this year, a new-look trio of Hooper, Isi Naisarani and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto has been performing well – both in ball-carrying, defence and in the all-important set-pieces.

Smith started alongside Phil Waugh in the 2003 Rugby World Cup but the 111-Test great said while there were ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ to the dual openside tactic, he would stick with status quo and have Pocock coming off the bench against Fiji.

“They work well together and I think they have worked well in the past,” Smith told Rugby Australia’s official website.

“(But) I like the combination they have at the moment with Lukhan and Isi there, and obviously with Hooper being the incumbent and the captain of Australia. I think that combination is working well and persisting with that would be great.

“It’s hard. They’re both starting number sevens and they’re fantastic to the team and add to it, not only on the field but off the field as well.

“Obviously Pocock has done a lot to get back to where he is now, to get selected and to be in the touring squad.

“They’re two quality players but I would like to see them persist with the combination they have now.

“Consistency is quite a big thing. Leading into this match Lukhan has played the majority of matches and he has performed well in those games, and allowing that momentum to carry on is a good thing.”

Owen Finegan, who scored a famous try in the 1999 Rugby World Cup win, doesn’t agree with Smith’s view, however.

The big ex-Wallaby said he would put both on the field from the kick off.

“They’re two international world-class back-rowers who I think need to be picked together and it is just a matter of getting that right combination,” he said.

“They have had a bit of a change up with David Pocock being injured, and tried a few new ones, but I think with Isi and David Pocock and Hooper, you would have a really dominant back-row.

“Australia got through to the 2003 World Cup (final) with Phil Waugh and George Smith, and it’s been proven you can get there. We will have to be clever with our line outs but … if the final is tomorrow, that’d be the back row I am picking. With both Hooper and Pocock on the field.”

Smith and Finegan were both impressed with the form of Naisarani, however, whatever the strategy with Pocock and Hooper, would keep the hard-working, hard-running number eight in the side.

“We have been crying out for a big ball-running forward for a while and he has been very capable in the way he has played the game in recent matches,” said Smith.

“And having that repeatability is something you need to continue to persist (with) in games.”