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Could a Pocock-less Wallabies cope?

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How would the Wallabies loose forwards stack up without David Pocock?

It’s now been over two and a half months since David Pocock has taken the field for the Brumbies. He’s managed to play just 138 minutes of rugby in 2019.

It was initially a head knock which ejected the flanker from the Brumbies’ match with the Rebels way back in March.

Since then, there’s been a number of set-backs – some related to the initial knock, some related to a thigh issue, and some related to Pocock’s ongoing neck problems. In short, it’s a miracle that Pocock’s body is even holding itself together.

Pocock travelled to South Africa and Argentina in April with the Brumbies in a tour that was initially slated to mark the Zimbabwe-born flanker’s return. Pocock was ruled out of both matches, however.

Coach Dan McKellar has now confirmed that Pocock is unlikely to play any further part in the Brumbies’ Super Rugby season – which could amount to another six weeks of matches.

It will be an amazing achievement if Pocock even makes the Wallabies World Cup squad at this rate, given the number of injuries the man seems to be dealing with.

If Pocock is unable to play, it will be an absolute travesty for the player that some consider to be the best openside flanker in the world.

Pocock’s importance to the Australian national side can’t be overstated. He’s been nominated for World Rugby Player of the Year three times, with two of those nominations coming during the previous two World Cup years. Pocock has also won the John Eales Medal twice – an award that recognises Australia’s player of the season. He most recently won the award in 2018, highlighting that Pocock’s skills and ability have not declined with age nor injury.

The Wallabies already have one of the top flankers in the world on their team sheet in the form of Michael Hooper. Whilst Hooper and Pocock both play with the 7 jersey on their backs for their Super Rugby teams, they perform considerably different roles on the field. Michael Cheika has resorted to using both men on the pitch at the same time – simply because they are two of Australia’s most influential players.

That’s not to suggest that Australia can’t win without David Pocock; they’ve managed plenty of victories over the years in Pocock’s absence. The Wallabies, however, are a different beast when Pocock lines up.

The loose forwards are possibly where Australia are actually strongest, heading into the upcoming World Cup.

Hooper is one of the most multi-faceted players in the world; equally as superb in the breakdowns as he is in the open field. Cheika will select loose forwards in his squad that complement the strengths and weaknesses of Hooper and, if he’s fit, Pocock.

Lack of height a major weakness

On last year’s northern tour, the Wallabies used three others loose forwards alongside the two opensiders: Jack Dempsey and Pete Samu travelled as utility loosies who could both cover blindside flanker and number 8 while Ned Hanigan could be used in either the second or third rows.

Waratah Dempsey started the final three matches of the tour in the 6 jersey, but his selection in the starting line-up shouldn’t be taken as a guarantee.

Lukhan Salakaia-Loto (formally known as Lukhan Tui) was Cheika’s preferred blindside flanker during 2018’s Rugby Championship. The 6’6” Queenslander normally plays at lock for the Reds but Cheika has wisely opted to add extra height to his backrow in recent times due to Hooper and Pocock’s lack of aerial game.

Salakaia-Loto’s stepfather passed away towards the end of the competition and the New Zealand-born second-rower decided that he needed to spend some extra time with his family. He withdrew from the Wallabies squad and made himself unavailable for the tour to Europe. Although there’s been no confirmation one way or the other, it’s expected that Salakaia-Loto will be recalled to the squad for 2019. The 22-year-old has been slowly returning to form for the Reds and has started to peak at the perfect time.

One other player that could join the squad in a fulltime role is Rebels number 8 Isi Naisarani. Naisarani travelled to Europe at the end of 2018 but was not eligible for selection at the time. He has been one of the form loose-forwards in Super Rugby for a number of seasons and although he’s yet to play international football, he’s now experienced enough at Super Rugby level to make the step up in a World Cup year.

The Wallabies selectors will likely opt for five or six loose-forwards in the squad that they take to the World Cup. Hooper is probably the first name on the team sheet and will start all the important matches in the 7 jersey. If Pocock is fit, he will also be a guaranteed selection – but it’s looking increasingly likely that won’t be the case.

There are a number of loose forwards doing the rounds in Super Rugby for the Australian sides who are performing well, including the likes of Lachlan McCaffrey at the Brumbies and Luke Jones at the Rebels, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Cheika will likely opt for the players that have served him well in recent times. There are certainly a few chinks in the Wallabies armour that their opposition will look to exploit, but the loose forwards is not one of them – Cheika doesn’t need to be attempting anything revolutionary in 2019.

Given the above, it would be hard to go past a trio of Dempsey, Hooper and Naisarani with Salakai-Loto on the bench covering both lock and blindside flanker. Pocock’s potential absence would require an extra fetcher – at that’s where things get tricky.

Lack of openside fall-backs

Outside of Hooper and Pocock, there are no internationally capped openside flankers doing the rounds in Super Rugby for Australia. Jahrome Brown has done the job for the Brumbies in Pocock’s absence but he’s far too wet behind the ears to play for the Wallabies just yet. The Reds have young Liam Wright on their books but he too is still very young. Wright travelled to Europe with the Wallabies in 2017 but a World Cup is a big step up from being a touring squad member.

The most likely player to be brought into the team in Pocock’s absence would likely be Rebels flanker Angus Cottrell. Cottrell spent his formative years on the blindside but he’s been performing well for the Melbourne team in 2019 on the openside – and he’s got plenty of experience at Super Rugby level.

Wallabies legend George Smith only recently announced his retirement – what wouldn’t Michael Cheika give to have the Australian centurion available for the World Cup? While there’s slim chance of it happening, Smith would be an excellent replacement for Pocock.

Australia has always been blessed with loose forwards. The Wallabies certainly have a number of weaknesses that they will struggle to overcome in 2019, but as per usual, they’re well stocked in the 6, 7 and 8 jerseys. Should Pocock be unavailable for selection then the Wallabies will lose one of their most experienced and most talented players, but they will still be more than capable of fielding a formidable trio in his absence.

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How would the Wallabies loose forwards stack up without David Pocock?