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Five Wallabies with plenty to prove in The Rugby Championship

By Finn Morton
(L-R) Michael Hooper and Quade Cooper pose during a Rugby Australia media opportunity launching the Wallabies 2023 Rugby World Cup jersey, at Coogee Oval on June 22, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Late last month, the Wallabies confirmed their 34-man squad for The Rugby Championship. The men in gold will play their first Test match under coach Eddie Jones in South Africa this weekend.

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For rugby fans who call Australia home, this feels like a decisive weekend. It’s an important tournament ahead of the Rugby World Cup in September.

Combinations will be trialled, and inexperienced players will be thrown into the deep end of international rugby.

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It’s time to sink or swim.

With a star-studded Australia A squad also set to take on Tonga, there’s a wide range of players who are looking to impress ahead of the sport’s most prestigious event.

But of course, those already in the Wallabies have a golden opportunity to prove themselves to national selectors.

For some players, the next few weeks are an opportunity to book their ticket to France. But for others, it’s a chance to show the rugby world that they belong in Australia’s matchday side.

There’s plenty on the line.

Jordan Uelese

Melbourne Rebels hooker Jordan Uelese was one of the more surprising selections in Eddie Jones’ 34-man Wallabies squad for this year’s Rugby Championship.

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Uelese, 26, hasn’t donned Wallaby gold since coming off the bench against arch-rivals New Zealand in a Bledisloe Cup clash in August 2021.

Having 15 Test matches for Australia, Uelese has proven himself to be a reliable option for the Wallabies in the past. But over the last few years, other players have stepped up as preferred options.

The likes of Folau Fainga’a, Lachlan Lonergan and David Porecki have made their mark in the Test arena, and the trio were seemingly among the frontrunners for the Rugby Championship squad.

But Eddie Jones has a plan that, at least for now, includes Jordan Uelese.

After overcoming injuries and a cancer scare, Uelese was included in Jones’ first Wallabies squad for a training camp on the Gold Coast earlier this year.

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Uelese only started three matches in Super Rugby Pacific this season, but clearly did enough to catch the eyes of the Australian selectors.

But as the old sports adage goes, you’re only as good as your last game. Uelese is in the mix for Wallabies selection at the moment, but the 26-year-old will need to back that up with a series of strong performances throughout the TRC.

It’s time to repay the faith shown in him.

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Michael Hooper

When Michael Hooper decides to hang up his boots and retire from all forms of rugby, the legendary flanker will be regarded as one of the greatest Wallabies ever.

Hooper has had to battle constant criticism and a lack of size throughout his decorated Test career, but has overcome each and every obstacle with grace, skill and poise.

It may not be fair or deserved, but that’s surely set to continue.

Throughout this year’s Rugby Championship, much like the rest of his career, Hooper will be both critiqued and scrutinised by the Australian rugby public.

Wallabies fans are desperate for wins, and Hooper is unfortunately one player who usually receives some heat from the passionate supporter base when results don’t go their way.

Especially in an increasingly physical international game – the style of play that France, Argentina and South Africa pride themselves on – Hooper’s selection will receive some backlash if the Wallabies are outmuscled in 2023.

But let’s take it one step further.

Michael Hooper is a great player – again, one of the best to have ever played the sport in Australia. But the next generation is hot on his heels, including Reds star Fraser McReight.

McReight was brilliant for the Queenslanders this season, and it’s not the first time the former Junior Wallabies captain has stood out either.

Some rugby fans believe McReight is the future of the Wallabies, and others want the 24-year-old to start at openside flanker now.

But that won’t happen. Not yet, at least.

As revealed last week, Michael Hooper is the co-captain of the Wallabies alongside James Slipper. Coach Eddie Jones has thrown his support behind the legendary No. 7.

But rugby is a results-driven business. Hooper needs to prove himself once again, otherwise, the Australian rugby public may start calling for change.

Quade Cooper

Playmaker Quade Cooper is back in the mix for the Wallabies after a lengthy stint on the sidelines. Love him or hate him, Cooper is one of the most talented players in Test rugby on his day.

Whenever Cooper is called upon by Jones in the Rugby Championship, the flyhalf will certainly make an impact – he showed that in a number of appearances under former coach Dave Rennie.

But there’s another player lurking in the shadows.

The question of ‘youth versus experience’ will be asked time and time again by Australian rugby fans as Carter Gordon also looks to enter the fray of Test rugby over the coming weeks.

Gordon has been sensational for the Melbourne Rebels in Super Rugby Pacific, and has emerged as a genuine candidate for the No. 10 jersey under coach Jones.

But Cooper, it would seem, will have the first crack at that famous jumper.

Cooper has the talent to cement his place in the starting side, there’s no question about that. But it’s up to him to prove it once again.

Otherwise, rising star Carter Gordon could very well be the Wallabies’ first choice flyhalf by the time the Rugby World Cup rolls around in two months’ time.

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Suliasi Vunivalu

When the Wallabies assembled for the first time under Eddie Jones on the Gold Coast earlier this year, the super coach brought a cattle prod to camp for a particular reason.

The prod was a joke, but one that looked to send a message to under-fire winger Suliasi Vunivalu.

Vunivalu was a revelation in the NRL some years ago, having starred on the wing for the Melbourne Storm. But after switching codes, the speedster has failed to replicate his heroics.

The one-Test Wallaby struggled at Super Rugby level under former Reds coach Brad Thorn, and was only called upon by former Wallabies boss Dave Rennie for a two-minute cameo off the bench against England.

Vunivalu has the talent, but couldn’t quite get things to work.

But Eddie Jones, who has a history of turning code-hoppers into Wallabies stars, is clearly a fan of the former Storm flyer.

Jones brought a cattle prod into camp to make Vunivalu “run faster.” Now, the 27-year-old is set to start on the right wing against the defending World Cup winners South Africa this weekend.

Vunivalu has to make the most of it.

With talented outside backs Marika Koroibete, Mark Nawaqanitawase and Tom Wright in the squad – also Corey O’Toole has been picked for Australia A – Vunivalu has to get things right in order to make the Rugby World Cup squad.

Tate McDermott

Tate McDermott is an incredible talent. The Reds halfback has shown that time and time again at Super Rugby level, and has also starred in Wallaby gold.

But after missing out on Eddie Jones’ first Wallabies squad a few months away, McDermott has a chance to prove any doubters wrong ahead of this year’s Rugby World Cup.

McDermott is good enough to play regular minutes for the Wallabies – probably off the bench. But the Queenslander will have to overcome some tough competition in order to make that happen.

Brumbies halfback Ryan Lonergan is probably the best replacement halfback in the country. Lonergan has regularly played that role in Super Rugby, while Nic White comes off the bench.

Sometimes, the pair swap roles though – Lonergan has made his name in Super Rugby as a replacement nine.

White will probably start for the Wallabies under Eddie Jones, which leaves McDermott and Lonergan battling it out for the No. 21 jersey.

McDermott is a better player than Lonergan, but the Brumby is a better backup nine.

If either player is given an opportunity, they’ll need to take it before the other makes some noise of their own.

And it’s advantage McDermott at the moment, with the Reds co-captain named on the bench for the Wallabies’ TRC opener against the Springboks.

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