When Michael Cheika’s first Wallabies squad of the year was announced, there was plenty of talk about the players that had missed out.
Halves Quade Cooper and Nick Phipps, who many had expected to be selected for vastly different reasons, were the two big omissions. Also absent were the likes of experienced hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau and returning utility back James O’Connor – but as it turned out, there were other factors keeping Polota-Nau and O’Connor out of the squad.
All absences aside, there’s still plenty of firepower in this Wallabies side that has had plenty of preparation time together.
Australia have all their bases covered with their current squad (Sam Stevens).In the front row, there’s a fine balance of form players, experienced heads and up-and-comers.
Scott Sio will maintain his role as the starting loosehead prop, likely partnering Sekope Kepu or Brumbies teammate Allan Alaalatoa. Kepu has split his time between both sides of the scrum over the last few years and with Taniela Tupou’s rise, Kepu may find he’s best utilised from the loosehead side.
The three hookers, Folau Fainga, Tolu Latu and Jordan Uelese are all great prospects for the Wallabies, but they’re also vastly inexperienced. Uelese spent most of the year recovering from an injury he suffered in 2019 whilst Latu sat out a number of matches due to misbehaviour both on and off the field. Whether Polota-Nau comes into the squad for one of these two hookers will be an interesting watch – he’s hardly been on-form himself, but he is vastly more experienced than the current options.
Izack Rodda has been great as both a player and a leader for the Reds this season and Rob Simmons has been consistent for the Waratahs. Luke Jones has found a new lease of life this year and could spend time in either the second or third rows of the scrum.
Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, who spent the latter half of last year away from rugby, could slot straight back into the 6 jersey – though he’ll have tough competition from the likes of Jones, Rob Valetini and the comparatively experienced Jack Dempsey.
On the openside, Liam Wright has been brought into the squad to cover for David Pocock’s absence. Whether Wright gets any game time is still in question, given the presence of Michael Hooper.
Form has been the order of the day at halfback, with Will Genia and the returning Nic White likely to share starting duties. They’ve been preferred ahead of stalwart Nick Phipps, who has not exactly set the world alight in the last few seasons. Still, Phipps provided great cover as a defensive sweeper – a role necessary when your defence tends to leak line-breaks.
Cooper’s drop off in form in the latter half of Super Rugby has seen Bernard Foley, Christian Lealiifano and Matt Toomua selected as flyhalf coverage. Toomua is probably the luckiest of those three, given he only returned to Australia with a few games left in Super Rugby. Foley has been used as the main 10 in recent seasons but Lealiifano has had the sturdiest season – their battle for the playmaker role will be eagerly watched.
All three first fives can also cover the midfield, but it would a travesty in the departing Samu Kerevi is not used at inside centre, given his superlative performances throughout the year. A partnership with Tevita Kuridrani seems probable, though utility Reece Hodge can also cover – and he offers an excellent goal-kicking option. Kurtley Beale could be deployed at 12 with Kerevi shifted out a spot, but he also shapes up as a possible Israel Folau replacement in the backfield.
Dane Haylett-Petty will be gunning for Folau’s vacated jersey and will put up an excellent challenge to Beale. Hodge also comes into the picture at fullback, as does young Brumbies speedster Tom Banks. Marika Koroibete, Jack Maddocks and Adam Ashley-Cooper are all vastly different options on the wing and their selection could hing on the opposition they’re facing on the day.
There are plenty of options for the Wallabies across the park, but also very few certainties in any jersey. The Rugby Championship will be used as a way for Cheika to figure out his top competitions before Australia arrives at the Rugby World Cup later in the year. The last thing the Wallabies need is to be still trying to figure out who should be starting at 10 come the knockout stages of the competition.
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