He’s been entrusted with the most arduous job in Australian rugby, but Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has complete faith in the man the team calls “Mad Dog” to fill the giant void left by David Pocock.
Ben McCalman will slip on Pocock’s No.8 jersey for the Wallabies’ quarter-final with Scotland on Sunday (Monday 0200 AEDT), after the tournament’s in-form player succumbed to a calf complaint on Friday.
Pocock is the Wallabies’ most influential player, and has had a dramatic impact on this year’s World Cup – in particular with his domination at the breakdown, which has him leading the tournament with 10 turnovers.
He’s also taken to the No.8 role superbly, bagging a brace of tries from the rolling maul in their opening match win over Fiji as well as sitting in the Wallabies’ top three for tackles, carries over the gainline and offloads.
He’s the shining light in a superstar back-row that includes Scott Fardy and vice-captain Michael Hooper, who returns from suspension to face Scotland, and in many ways what Pocock adds to the Australian team can’t be replicated.
But Cheika insists McCalman isn’t just ready to step in – the Western Force star, and veteran of 44 Tests, is determined to show why he feels he shouldn’t have fallen down the back-row pecking order.
“I know he’ll cope, there’s no issue there – I think he’s dying to play,” Cheika said.
“He probably hasn’t been too pleased he hasn’t been getting as many starts as he’d like.”
McCalman’s brilliant cameo off the bench in the 15-6 victory over Wales, where the Wallabies stoically defended their own line for a 13 minute period which included seven minutes with two men sin-binned, sealed his place ahead of young gun Sean McMahon, who had started at No.7 in that match.
McCalman also produced a remarkable show of strength to hold Welsh powerhouse George North up over the tryline as Australia’s defensive wall refused to crack.
“(Against Wales) he didn’t go on when we were down numbers, he was out there and we went down numbers,” Cheika said.
“He knew he was fresher so he lifted himself and his work off the ball to cover one-and-a-half spots if he could in the defensive line.”