Picking a Wallabies squad based on the regular season of Super Rugby Pacific
With the conclusion of the 2022 regular season, Super Rugby Pacific is reaching the pointy end of the competition.
With the July test series looming large on the rugby calendar in the Southern Hemisphere, speculation around international selection is ramping up. The Wallabies look to take on England, with an eye on building depth for the 2023 World Cup.
The Wallabies had mixed results under Dave Rennie in 2021. The highs of a five-test winning streak which included significant back-to-back wins over the world champions South Africa were coupled with the lows of a disappointing Bledisloe Cup series against New Zealand and a poor Spring Tour.
Rennie is now in his third year as Wallabies coach but is no closer to determining his first-choice picks in numerous positions across the first XV for the national side.
Hooker, flyhalf and fullback, in particular, are spots that are proving a headache for Rennie to nail his frontline starters.
In Rennie’s favour are the changes to Australia’s selection policy which allowed him to bring three foreign-based players into the squad last year. Rennie now has the luxury of selecting three overseas players to bolster his stocks.
The move had mixed results last year. Quade Cooper defied expectations by delivering a star performance in the two matches against South Africa.
However, it got complicated when he and fellow Japan-based players Samu Kerevi and Sean McMahon were recalled to their clubs at the last minute and were unable to go on tour to the Northern Hemisphere.
There are many positives for the Wallabies heading into the international season. The Wallabies’ prop depth has never been stronger, the country’s locking stocks have improved year-on-year and they have a plethora of outside backs to choose from.
That is not even mentioning the ever-reliable Michael Hooper, who was a hair away from winning World Rugby Player of the Year in 2021.
The selection puzzle has become even more intriguing with the re-introduction of the Australia A program, which aims to give emerging players of interest valuable game time in the revived Pacific Nations Cup to stake their claim for Wallabies duty.
Tupou is just now reaching the peak of his powers, while Bell is coming on leaps and bounds.
The Wallabies will need to draw on all of their experience if they are to match it in the scrum against England.
Scott Sio is another player you could sneak into the squad, depending on how Rennie chooses to use selection spots. Sio has had a breakout year with the Brumbies, but it has been confirmed that he will be leaving the nation’s capital at season’s end.
Hooker continues to be a challenging position for Wallabies selection. After the 2019 World Cup, no one player has been putting their hand up for the starting role.
In 2021, Rennie handed debuts to Feleti Kaitu’u, Lachlan Lonergan and Connal McInnery, while also using Folau Fainga’a, Jordan Uelese, Tolu Latu and Brandon Paenga-Amosa, and yet the hooker role is still up for grabs.
The irresistible form of Dave Porecki at the Waratahs should be enough to land him a spot in the squad. Fainga’a could be considered the incumbent after serving as starting hooker for most of the Spring Tour, while Kaitu’u has proven to be reliable in that position.
At the start of Rennie’s tenure, the lock depth in Australia was looking pretty bare-boned following some huge offshore departures.
Since then though, a number of players throughout Super Rugby Pacific have been showing consistently excellent performances.
It has come to the point where Rennie may consider relying on locally-based players to fill his squad rather than waste a spot on an overseas player like Rory Arnold or Will Skelton, especially for a home test series.
Matt Phillip is having his best year in Super Rugby yet and is putting up impressive numbers in carries (136), lineout wins (61) and offloads (18), and Izack Rodda will give the Wallabies a height advantage in the lineout and a strong ball-carrying presence.
The bolter in the second row is Jed Holloway. Since returning from Japan, Holloway has been asked to play at lock for the Waratahs and is now in career-best form, leading the competition in lineout wins.
After casting his ego aside, he looks to have found his role at lock, but could also cover the back row for the Wallabies if needed.
The Wallabies are blessed with a stacked line up of back-row talent. The trick for Rennie and his selectors is how to whittle it down into a few spots based on the game-plan the Wallabies want to play.
Bolted on for selection is the inspirational Michael Hooper who is coming off an incredible 2021 campaign, as is Brumbies back rower Rob Valetini.
He continues to impress with his athleticism around the park and his willingness to carry the ball into contact and chew off big metres.
It is expected the starting back row will be rounded out with the addition of Harry Wilson. After adding a few strings to his bow this year, he leads the competition in carries (187), and has 17 offloads and 144 tackles so far.
Pete Samu has proven his versatility in being able to cover the whole back row, while Rob Leota finished the international season as a Wallaby after putting in some eye-catching performances on the Spring Tour.
It leaves the conundrum of including Reds tyro Fraser McReight. The 23-year-old has already had a few chances at Wallabies level and is considered the heir apparent to Hooper.
However, McReight is an out-and-out No 7, and Hooper is going nowhere. His inclusion comes down to whether Rennie opts for another openside jackler, but he deserves to be there based on his outstanding form at the Reds.
Scrumhalf is another very settled position for the Wallabies. Veteran Nic White has re-signed with Australian rugby until the World Cup and is expected to be the incumbent to start the series, with Reds live-wire Tate McDermott nipping at his heels.
How the Wallabies use these two will depend on what gameplay they employ, as well as who they choose to start at flyhalf, with White combining with Lolesio and McDermott combining with James O’Connor.
Jake Gordon has been a big reason why the Waratahs are going so well, and will be a worthy inclusion in the squad.
The Wallabies’ 2021 campaign showed why it is so important for Australian rugby to continue to build depth in the playmaking position.
After an assured performance against the French, Noah Lolesio’s confidence was torn to shreds by the All Blacks in a farcical Bledisloe Cup series and he was demoted to make way for Cooper.
However, it would be best if they were deployed for Australia A. Lolesio has been racking up test starts, which will put him in good stead heading into the World Cup.
It seems that Cooper has put his hand up to return for the England games. It might be just as well, with Reds veteran O’Connor continuing to struggle with injury. Expect them all to be included if available.
The midfield for the Wallabies is intriguing as much as it is exciting, with the Wallabies spoilt for choice both at home and abroad.
Dave Rennie will be desperate to get the hard-running centre back in the squad and will most certainly use one of his overseas spots to bring him into the fold.
Another player who has contributed to the rise of the Waratahs is Izaia Perese, who is working his way back from injury to help with their run to the finals.
His destructive ball-carrying and offloading game makes him a valuable asset to the Wallabies set-up. Expect his partner in crime Lalakai Foketi included as an inside centre.
Now to the curious case of Jordan Petaia. At the start of the Super Rugby Pacific season, calls came that the Reds should start him at fullback. The Wallabies finally got their wish, and Petaia lit up the competition.
With enough space to work with, he was able to fully showcase his freakish abilities. Unfortunately for Rennie, and rugby fans across the country, selections at the Reds and the good form of Jock Campbell forced him back into the centres.
Wherever he gets chosen for the Wallabies, he must be included for the series against England.
Another area the Wallabies are over-flowing with talent is at the end of the backline. The wing spot will be hotly-contested, especially since Marika Koroibete has signalled his intent to make himself available for selection.
While Andrew Kellaway’s form has been indifferent for the embattled Rebels, his form at test level last year was so undeniable that the Wallabies rookie was nominated for World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year.
On the other hand, Tom Wright’s form this year has been exceptional. At one point throughout the season, he was the leading try-scorer and finished the regular season with eight.
The most exciting prospect will be Suliasi Vunivalu from the Reds. The try-scoring machine has been forced to sit out a lot of games with injury since coming to Queensland, but should he finish the season healthy, he is almost guaranteed a spot.
A big body with electric pace and a freakish ability to find the try-line, his presence is something that has been missing from the Wallabies since the departure of the aerobatic Israel Folau.
Perhaps the biggest selection headache Rennie has to contend with is who to pick at the back. Fullback continues to a position that is wide open.
Tom Banks would be considered the projected starter, but he hasn’t been able to convert his Super Rugby form to the test arena for some time now, and he will leave the Brumbies at year’s end to take up a massive Japanese contract.
Reece Hodge has proven to be a reliable steward at fullback. He is strong in the air and has a massive clearing boot on him, but his versatility has counted against him, and selectors have opted to have him on the bench due to his ability to cover pretty much every position in the backline.
An intriguing option is one that has already been touched on. Petaia looms as a possible option, but for Rennie to pick him there against England would be a huge call.
The upcoming series against will be an important, not just for Dave Rennie, but also for Australian rugby who are looking to set themselves up for a golden decade by hosting two World Cups and a Lions Series in 2025. It all starts in July against England.
Possible 36-man Wallabies squad based on the regular season of Super Rugby Pacific
Hookers: Folau Fainga’a, Dave Porecki, Feleti Kaitu’u
Scrumhalves: Tate McDermott, Nick White, Jake Gordon
Flyhalves: Quade Cooper, James O’Connor, Noah Lolesio
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