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The Wallabies team Joe Schmidt must pick to win back Bledisloe Cup

By Finn Morton
(Photos by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images/ Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images/Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Apple released the second generation of the iPod in 2002. That was an important technological milestone but it feels like a long time ago, and that’s because it was, as Wallabies fans will tell you.

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Australia haven’t beaten arch-rivals New Zealand in a Bledisloe Cup Series in 22 years. The All Blacks have dominated this once-hotly contested competition, with the likes of Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and Sam Cane lifting the massive Cup more than once.

But there’s a reason to be hopeful that, whether it’s this year or sometime in the near future, the Wallabies can win the Cup back. New coach Joe Schmidt is at the helm, and there are some very useful assistants joining the Kiwi in the Wallabies’ set-up.

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Wallabies potentially upsetting the All Blacks in Sydney later this year, meaning it’s all to play for in the reverse fixture in Wellington a week later.

But for the Wallabies to be a chance, they have to get their selections absolutely spot on. Here’s a look at the Wallabies team that Joe Schmidt must pick by the time the two September Bledisloe Cup tests roll around.

Starters: Angus Bell & Allan Alaalatoa

In the mix: James Slipper, Blake Schoupp, Taniela Tupou, Sam Talakai, Zane Nonggorr

The Wallabies were dealt an almighty blow earlier this month with world-class loosehead prop Angus Bell reaggravating a toe ligament issue against the ACT Brumbies in the nation’s capital.

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Test match footy is still months away, but as Bell was helped from the field, all Australian rugby fans put their Super Rugby allegiances to one side in a moment of despair, frustration and worry.

Bell is expected to miss the rest of the season but the point of this piece of to focus on the Bledisloe Cup Series in September. There are 150 days between now and the opening test at Sydney’s Accor Stadium, and another seven on top of that until the two great rivals meet again in Wellington.

If there’s any chance that Bell can return in time for either of those matches, then the 23-year-old walks straight into the Wallabies’ starting side – no questions asked. Bell is just that good.

But presuming that Angus Bell is out of the picture, then veteran James Slipper is a solid candidate to step into that No. 1 jersey. Slipper can play on either side of the scrum but has played most of his test rugby at loosehead prop.

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As for tighthead prop, both the Wallabies and Brumbies received a major boost on Wednesday afternoon with Allan Alaalatoa set to return from a long injury layoff against the table-topping Hurricanes.

Alaalatoa captained Australia in last year’s first Bledisloe Cup test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground but unfortunately left the field in a world of hurt. Speaking with Angus Bell after that match, the front-rower was almost lost for words when asked about Alaalatoa’s injury.

The experienced tighthead prop was always tipped to return this season, but now that it’s official, Wallabies fans can confidently look forward to seeing Alaalatoa start against Wales in July and beyond. There’s simply no better candidate.

Before this goes much further, Taniela Tupou will be in the Wallabies squad – it would be an almighty shock for that not to be the case. But Tupou’s form in Super Rugby Pacific has been far from test match quality.

The man known as ‘The Tongan Thor’ has been world-class in the past, and that can’t be overlooked. If Joe Schmidt can get the best out of Tupou again then great, but there’s a lot of daylight between Alaalatoa and Tupou at the moment – and Alalatoa hasn’t even played this season.

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Hooker

Starter: Matt Faessler

In the mix: David Porecki, Billy Pollard, Jordan Uelese, Lachlan Lonergan, Mahe Vailanu

David Porecki was the last man to captain the Wallabies during the Eddie Jones era. James Slipper, Michael Hooper, Tate McDermott and Will Skelton also shared that honour earlier in 2023.

Porecki would have to be considered a likely suitor to at least make Joe Schmidt’s squad if the hooker was fit and available, but at least so far this season, he hasn’t played a match. The Waratah has missed every round of Super Rugby Pacific with a niggly Achilles injury.

But even if the Wallabies skipper was in the mix, he shouldn’t start. It’s impossible to look past Matt Faessler’s sublime form with the Queensland Reds.

Faessler, who debuted for the Wallabies last year and was included in the Rugby World Cup squad, was leading Super Rugby for a few weeks with the number of five-pointers he’d scored. The hooker is still up there with the best – having scored six tries to date.

But tries aren’t everything. Joe Schmidt will want his front-rowers to do their job at the set piece and around the contact in general play, and Faessler certainly ticks those boxes as well.

Other contenders to at least make the squad – likely the bench at best – are the Melbourne Rebels’ Jordan Uelese and the Brumbies duo of Billy Pollard and Lachlan Lonergan. As a bolter, Mahe Vailanu from the Waratahs has been impressive in the absence of Porecki.

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Locks

Starters: Will Skelton & Nick Frost

In the mix: Darcy Swain, Ryan Smith, Richie Arnold, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Miles Amatosero

This is another position that seems relatively straightforward. Will Skelton was the Wallabies’ first-choice captain going into the Rugby World Cup last year, and the hulking lock has continued to impress with La Rochelle in France.

Skelton and Brumbies second-rower Nick Frost were quite clearly the best options at lock for the Wallabies by the end of their abysmal Rugby World Cup campaign. That hasn’t changed this time around with both men impressing on club duty.

Reds lock Ryan Smith is a bolter. Smith played his 50th match for Queensland in the 31-nil annihilation of the Highlanders but has generally been quite solid both at the set piece and around the park this season.

Through eight matches, Smith has made the most tackles out of any lock in Super Rugby with 104. That’s also the second-most out of any Australian behind Force flanker Carlo Tizzano (134).

Smith has skyrocketed into Wallabies contention in 2024 and with good reason.

The Waratahs’ Miles Amatosero is another bolter basically because of his size and age, but this seems quite unlikely. If anything, Jed Holloway is a much better candidate.

Richie Arnold debuted for the Wallabies under Eddie Jones and also went to the sport’s showpiece event in France. The Australian has continued to impress with Toulouse and is semi-final bound in the Champions Cup after starting in the win over Exeter.

Then there’s Darcy Swain. The almost-forgotten Wallaby has been reliable at the lineout with the Brumbies this season and recently captained the franchise for the first time in a Super Rugby Pacific match.

Swain should come off the bench with Ryan Smith also in the squad.

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Backrow

Starters: Lachlan Swinton, Fraser McReight & Rob Valetini

In the mix: Tom Hooper, Liam Wright, Carlo Tizzano, Harry Wilson, Charlie Cale

Lachlan Swinton is back to his best. The flanker, who was infamously sent off on debut for the Wallabies about four years ago, has been menacing, physical and relentless each and every time he’s had the chance to wear the sky blue of the Waratahs.

Pundits on Stan Sport highlighted Swinton as a candidate to make the Wallabies’ squad earlier this season and with good reason. But if the win over the Crusaders told national selectors anything it’s that the Aussie should start at blindside flanker.

Tom Hooper and Liam Wright might have a thing or two to say about that though, with both men impressing with the Brumbies and Reds respectively this season. If either man got the nod ahead of Swinton then nobody would be too upset.

There’s quality there, and that’s exciting.

Fraser McReight will start at openside. Not much explanation is needed, McReight is just on another level compared to some quality No. 7s around the country.

Carlo Tizzano deserves a mention with the Force flanker running the show with the amount of tackles made. Tizzano is second in the competition behind Crusaders captain Tom Christie.

The Wallabies’ best player in 2023, Rob Valetini, will obviously start in the backrow but where is the question? Valetini has played plenty of rugby out the back for the Wallabies but has been used as a blindside with the Brumbies this season.

If the Wallabies were to start Valetini at blindside, that would open the door for either Harry Wilson or bolter Charlie Cale to suit up. Cale has been a standout with the Brumby securing 14 turnovers in just six appearances – the most in the competition.

Cale has also stolen the most lineouts with 12.

But let’s all just take a step back.

Cale still needs time to develop and ease into test rugby, so rushing him into the starting side isn’t the right call.

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Halves

Starters: Tate McDermott & Carter Gordon

In the mix: Ryan Lonergan, Nic White, Jake Gordon, Noah Lolesio, Ben Donaldson

Following last year’s World Cup disaster, some big questions had to be asked of Carter Gordon in the first half of Super Rugby Pacific. But to Gordon’s credit, the fly-half has passed practically every test with flying colours.

Sure, there are still major concerns about the quality and consistency of his goal-kicking, but around the field, Gordon is just a class above. There’s shades of Stephen Larkham in the way Gordon leads the Rebels in attack and puts his body on the line in defence.

Tane Edmed, Ben Donaldson, Noah Lolesio and Tom Lynagh have all been impressive this season but Carter Gordon is a point of difference. Joe Schmidt will like that.

Much like the passage about the Wallabies’ options at second-row, there shouldn’t be a huge debate surrounding the starting halfback. Tate McDermott is it, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Instead, who comes off the bench and rounds out the scrum-halves in the squad is a talking point.

Brumbies captain Ryan Lonergan has stepped up with veteran Nic White moving onto the Western Force, and Jake Gordon has been a shining light at times for the Waratahs.

McDermott starts with Lonergan and White in the squad, while the Force’s ‘utility’ Ben Donaldson should join Carter Gordon in the Wallabies once again.

Noah Lolesio isn’t too far behind, though.

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Midfield

Starters: Hunter Paisami & Len Ikitau

In the mix: Lalakai Foketi, Izaia Perese, Josh Flook

The Reds are a completely different team with an in-form Hunter Paisami back in their ranks. Paisami returned from injury earlier this season and has since proven himself as the leading candidate to wear Wallaby gold in the No.12 jersey.

Paisami scored a couple of tries against the Highlanders last time out, had an assist by sending Lawson Creighton over, and was generally unstoppable around the field of play. That’s the type of x-factor the Wallabies need.

As for the outside centre, Len Ikitau was sensationally left out of the World Cup squad last year, and look at how that turned out. Ikitau is on the cusp of being a world-class defensive centre – much like Anton Lienert-Brown – which is why he needs to start.

Ikitau was the general for the Wallabies’ defence under Dave Rennie and will be once again under Joe Schmidt. The Queenslander has missed some game time this season but that shouldn’t cost him too much.

Others who could rightfully do a job include the Waratahs duo of Lalakai Foketi and Izaia Perese, who started in the midfield for the Wallabies’ final World Cup match against Portugal.

Finally, Josh Flook has come a long way at Super Rugby level. Flook is ready for the next level, it’s only a matter of when.

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Outside backs

Starters: Marika Koroibete, Corey Toole & Andrew Kellaway

In the mix: Darby Lancaster, Suliasi Vunivalu, Tom Wright

As reported by The Sydney Morning Herald in December, Marika Koroibete has backflipped on plans to retire from the international game. Now Koroibete wasn’t great last year, but this should still be music to the ears of Australian rugby fans.

When Koroibete is on song, the Wallabies fire. It’s impossible not to enjoy the entertaining spectacle of a confident Marika Koroibete in full flight; making professionals at the highest level look like schoolboys with such an imposing skillset.

If Koroibete is available then Koroibete starts.

Brumbies flyer Corey Toole needs to start on the other edge. The former SVNS Series phenomenon was sensational during the first handful of rounds this season, and while Toole’s form may have plateaued a little bit, there’s no denying that he’s something special.

Rising star Darby Lancaster and Wallaby Suliasi Vunivalu will also be in the conversation to start.

There’s no real question about who the best fullback in Australia is anymore. Andrew Kellaway has bounced back from a disappointing end to 2023 to make that No.15 jersey his own before a single test this year.

Kellaway is reliable under the high ball, has a knack for scoring tries and can set them up as well. The Melbourne Rebels fullback starts while Tom Wright will need to finish the year quite strong in a bid to make the squad at all.

Possible Wallabies 23

  1. Angus Bell
  2. Matt Faessler
  3. Allan Alaalatoa
  4. Will Skelton
  5. Nick Frost
  6. Lachlan Swinton
  7. Fraser McReight
  8. Rob Valetini
  9. Tate McDermott
  10. Carter Gordon
  11. Marika Koroibete
  12. Hunter Paisami
  13. Len Ikitau
  14. Corey Toole
  15. Andrew Kellaway

Replacements

  1. Billy Pollard
  2. James Slipper
  3. Sam Talakai
  4. Darcy Swain
  5. Charlie Cale
  6. Ryan Lonergan
  7. Ben Donaldson
  8. Izaia Perese
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D
Diarmid 11 hours ago
Players and referees must cut out worrying trend in rugby – Andy Goode

The guy had just beasted himself in a scrum and the blood hadn't yet returned to his head when he was pushed into a team mate. He took his weight off his left foot precisely at the moment he was shoved and dropped to the floor when seemingly trying to avoid stepping on Hyron Andrews’ foot. I don't think he was trying to milk a penalty, I think he was knackered but still switched on enough to avoid planting 120kgs on the dorsum of his second row’s foot. To effectively “police” such incidents with a (noble) view to eradicating play acting in rugby, yet more video would need to be reviewed in real time, which is not in the interest of the game as a sporting spectacle. I would far rather see Farrell penalised for interfering with the refereeing of the game. Perhaps he was right to be frustrated, he was much closer to the action than the only camera angle I've seen, however his vocal objection to Rodd’s falling over doesn't legitimately fall into the captain's role as the mouthpiece of his team - he should have kept his frustration to himself, that's one of the pillars of rugby union. I appreciate that he was within his rights to communicate with the referee as captain but he didn't do this, he moaned and attempted to sway the decision by directing his complaint to the player rather than the ref. Rugby needs to look closely at the message it wants to send to young players and amateur grassroots rugby. The best way to do this would be to apply the laws as they are written and edit them where the written laws no longer apply. If this means deleting laws such as ‘the put in to the scrum must be straight”, so be it. Likewise, if it is no longer necessary to respect the referee’s decision without questioning it or pre-emptively attempting to sway it (including by diving or by shouting and gesticulating) then this behaviour should be embraced (and commercialised). Otherwise any reference to respecting the referee should be deleted from the laws. You have to start somewhere to maintain the values of rugby and the best place to start would be giving a penalty and a warning against the offending player, followed by a yellow card the next time. People like Farrell would rapidly learn to keep quiet and let their skills do the talking.

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